All about petanque


This is a brief introduction to pétanque — history, features, facts and legends.
For pétanque terminology, see:

Boets, Philippe ▲


Philippe Boets is the the Belgian founder of Petanque America, the online store and the blog. Philippe is undoubtedly the single most important figure in the short history of pétanque in the USA. Through his company Pétanque America, and his company’s sponsorship of the annual Pétanque America Open, which has grown to be the biggest petanque tournament in the USA, Philippe has done more than any other person to promote pétanque in America. Read this interview with Philippe Boets.

bocce ▲

Bocce (properly BOH-chay, but in America BOTCH-ee), in the form of Jeu Provencal, is the ancestor game of pétanque.

In contrast to pétanque, the rules of bocce are quite loose and flexible — or perhaps we should say that bocce can be played in may different ways, and by many different sets of rules. Bocce is typically played on a dedicated court with back and side boards, and the game is typically a bowling or rolling game. Diagram of a bocce courtBut some variations of bocce can be played on natural terrains using a volo throw, and are similar in that way to pétanque. In fact, it is possible to think of pétanque as a form or variant of bocce.

In bocce, players may have a short run-up to the launch of the ball (as in bowling) and balls are usually rolled rather than thrown. A bocce ball is larger than a pétanque ball, and made of solid wood (or a wood-like epoxy composite) rather than hollow steel. In bocce, balls may be played (bounced, caromed) off of side boards and even off of obstacles — in pétanque, barriers and obstacles are almost always out of bounds; outside of the “dead boule” line.

In the USA, many more people play bocce than play pétanque, so the average American is more likely to have heard of bocce than of pétanque. One of the best-selling books about bocce in the USA is Mario Pagnoni’s The Joy of Bocce.

boule ▲

a metal pétanque ball. Boules may vary in size, weight, and hardness.

Metal boules

Metal boules

The FIPJP (the international petanque federation) is very strict about the boules used in FIPJP-approved tournaments — boules must be of a size, weight, and hardness that conforms to FIPJP specifications, and must have been made by an FIPJP-approved manufacturer. Such “competition” boules are expensive, so open tournaments (for example, the Pétanque America Open in Florida) often allow players to use less-expensive “leisure” boules. This encourages people to participate in competitions.

boules ▲

is the collective name for a family of ball games in which the objective is to throw or roll large heavy balls (also called “boules”) as close as possible to a small target ball. Boules-type games are traditional and popular in France, Italy, Germany and other European countries, where boules are often played in open spaces (town squares and parks) in villages and towns.

La Valette-du-Var (Var) — The game of pétanque, place Jean-Jaurès

La Valette-du-Var (Var) — The game of pétanque, place Jean-Jaurès


When boules is played on a dedicated playing area, the terrain is typically a large, level, rectangular court made of flattened earth, gravel, or crushed stone enclosed in wooden rails or backboards.

There is a wide variety of boules games, which differ among themselves in a variety of ways, including whether the boules are rolled or thrown; how the ball is launched (palm up or palm down); in whether or not there is a run-up to the throw; and in the size, weight, and composition (wood, metal, epoxy resin composite) of the balls. See the article on boules in wikipedia.

boule cloutée ▲

In French, a clou is a nail, so a boule cloutée is a nailed ball. Before the 1850′s boules were wooden balls, sometimes partially reinforced with hand-forged nails. When cheap, plentiful machine-made nails became available, manufacturers began to produce the boule cloutée — a wooden core studded with nails to create an all-metal surface. Nails of different metals and colors (steel, brass and copper) were used to create a wide variety of designs and patterns. Some of the old boules cloutées are genuine works of art and valued collectors items. For more information, see our article on the boule cloutée.
boules cloutées
Starting in the 1925, hollow all-metal boules gradually replaced the older nailed-wood boules.

La Boule Intégrale and the all-metal ball ▲

In the early 20th century, boules sports were increasingly being played with boules cloutées — nailed-wood balls made of hard boxwood root. The number of boules players, and the demand for boules, increased to the point that in the early 1920s there was a catastrophic shortage of boxwood roots. Something had to be done.

In Lyon, around 1920, Paul Courtieu had the idea of manufacturing a boule made entirely of metal. After two years of experimenting with various metal alloys, he succeeded in developing a workable “bronze” alloy of copper, aluminum, and other metals. In 1924 he patented a ball that was cast in one piece — the famous “Boule Intégrale”. In January 1925 La Boule Intégrale was approved for use in official competition.

In 1927, Jean Blanc and the JB Petanque company began manufacturing the first steel petanque balls. The manufacturing process was different — steel disks were pressed into hemispheres which were welded together to make boules. This process, and steel boules, quickly became the de facto standard for petanque boules.

Acceptance of the metal balls was immediate, new companies manufacturing all-metal balls quickly appeared, and petanque experienced an explosive growth in popularity. So it is fair to say that 1925 is a most significant year in the history of petanque — it marks the beginning of the end for boules cloutées and the birth of the modern game of pétanque. For more information, see La Boule Intégrale and the rise of petanque.

boule lifter ▲

a magnet attached to a string or a telescoping rod.

A boule lifter is a valuable accessory that allows a pétanque play to pick up boules without bending over — very valuable for players with back or knee issues.

Note that since the jack is wooden, a magnetic boule lifter cannot pick up the jack.

boule lyonnaise ▲

See Jeu Provençal

boules, flying with  ▲

When you are flying, it is important to remember that you cannot take boules on board with you in your carry-on luggage. When you fly put your boules in your checked luggage.

The French have long classified boules as dangerous objects, and forbidden them in carry-on luggage.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Transportation Safety Administration took the same position.

bouliste ▲

The answer to the question: “What do you call a boules player?”

boulodrome ▲

A modern indoor boulodrome
Boulodrome Gilbert Chaufour in Dijon.

An open area or a building specifically designed as a place for playing pétanque and boules. It is roughly equivalent to an American “bowling alley” or a British “bowling pitch”. See our discussion of Court, terrain, boulodrome.

carreau ▲

a shot that knocks away an opponent’s boule and leaves the shooter’s boule in the spot formerly occupied by the opponent’s boule.

The best shot is called a “carreau”: the shooter throws the ball through the air, with lots of backspin; when it hits, the shooter’s ball stays right where the target boule was, spinning into place. A “carreau” effectively gives the shooting team an extra boule, since the ball that was shot now has the point. The next best shot is called a “palais,” where the shooter’s boule knocks the opponent’s boule away, while remaining relatively close to the bouchon, at least enough to count as the point. At the elite level, many games are decided by carreaux and palais, the team making the most win. — Introduction to Pétanque History, Game & Spectacle



championships — international and world championships ▲

championships — USA ▲

  • Pétanque America sponsors the annual Pétanque America Open every year in November in Florida. It is a very newbie-friendly event. It is open to all pétanque players from anywhere in the world, and you can play with any metal pétanque boules as long as they’re within the normal size range.[YouTube videos]
     
  • The FPUSA sponsors tournaments and championships in the USA. [YouTube videos] To find a calendar of upcoming FPUSA-sponsored events, go to the FPUSA web page, and click on “calendar”.

Don’t forget — if you are flying to a tournament, you cannot put your boules in your carry-on luggage.


circle ▲

The throwing circle (cercle de lancer) or ring (rond) in which a player stands while throwing.

Traditionally the circle was simply scratched in the dirt, and it was the responsibility of the team that threw out the jack to draw the new circle and to erase all older nearby circles. When this was not done, confusion and arguments could arise over the location of the circle. Starting about 2007, it became common to use a plastic circle of 50 cm (20″) inside diameter. In the USA, circles can be purchased on the Petanque America web site or easily home-built from inexpensive tubing.

Throwing pétanque from a throwing circle

Launching a boule from a throwing circle.

couloir ▲

A rolling or flying boule can be dangerous; it is basically a small cannon ball. Dedicated terrains often have backboards to define the playing area and prevent boules from crashing into spectators. In public spaces without backboards, it’s the responsibility of players to form a corridor on both sides of the jack. The French call it “le couloir”.

court ▲

Pétanque players dislike the expression “pétanque court”. In English the word “court” usually refers to a (sometimes expensive and elaborate) playing facility constructed specifically for the playing of a particular game — in short, a boulodrome. But pétanque can be (and traditionally, is) a low footprint game — you don’t need a boulodrome — all you need is a patch of fairly level open ground. As the Pétanque America web site says

Actually the word “court” is a misnomer. We use it here because many people search for that term. Pétanque is by nature a game one can play without a setup, sort of like frisbee.

The English-language word “court” is sometimes used to refer simply to the area where a game is being played. But in such situations, for petanque, a better term is terrain. See our discussion of Court, terrain, boulodrome.

cochonnet ▲

(co-sho-nay, piglet) — see: the jack.

dead-boule line ▲

or dead-ball line — the lines (lignes de perte) outside of which a boule or a jack is considered to be out-of-play (perte, “lost”, “dead”). In short, it is the line that marks the boundary between in-bounds and out-of-bounds areas of the terrain.

When a playing area is marked off into a grid of rectangular lanes (pistes), the dead-boule line follows the outside boundary line around the whole grid. The internal lines separating the pistes are not dead-boule lines. If a boule or jack crosses one of these internal boundary lines into a neighboring piste, it is still alive and in play.

The existence of the dead-boule line creates the possibility for all sorts of interesting questions, such as “If the jack is struck and knocked out of bounds, how do we continue the game?” and “Suppose that a boule goes out of bounds, hits a backboard, bounces back inside the dead-boule line, and finally hits and moves another boule (or, perhaps, the jack). What do we do in such a situation?”

divot ▲

A divot is a hole or dent in the terrain left by the impact of an earlier throw of a boule.

One of the hot questions in pétanque has always been — How much may a player change the surface of the terrain during the course of a game? The general philosophy has always been that a player is allowed to make essentially NO CHANGE to the terrain.

But… One traditional exception to this rule has been that a player is allowed to smooth out only one divot, the last divot. In 2009, the FIPJP changed the rules so that a player may now fill a divot anywhere on the piste… but only one!

donnée ▲

“landing spot”. The spot where a pointer wants the thrown boule to hit the ground.

This is not the spot where the player wants his boule to end up — after the boule hits the ground near the intended donnée it will probably continue to roll for a short distance. The pointer may control the “roll out” (the direction and distance that the boule rolls) by the height of his throw, and by putting backspin or sidespin on the ball. Before the throw, a team-mate may indicate the desired donnée by pointing a toe, but must not make any mark on the terrain.

end ▲

A round or inning in a pétanque game. See mène.

Fanny  ▲

Fanny is, as it were, the patron saint of boules.. Kissing Fanny

To fanny (mettre fanny)

— To beat one’s opponents 13 to 0. The figure of a bare-bottomed lass named Fanny is ubiquitous in Provence wherever pétanque is played. It is traditional that when a player loses 13 to 0 it is said that “il est fanny” (he’s fanny) or “il a fait fanny” (he made fanny), and that he has to kiss the bottom of a girl called Fanny. Since there is rarely an obliging Fanny’s behind handy, there is usually a substitute picture, woodcarving or pottery so that Fanny’s bottom is available. Equally important, after the game “Fanny paie à boire!” — “The fanny buys the drinks!”

To technical fanny

— To win by scoring 13 consecutive points. For example if a team had scored 12 consecutive points, the opposition could then score all 13 points and win the game with a technical fanny.

FIPJP ▲

Fédération Internationale de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal (International Federation for Pétanque and Jeu Provençal) is the international governing body for pétanque. Its web site is www.fipjp.com. See the discussion of pétanque organizations on this site.

foot fault ▲

petanque_foot_faultWhen throwing, a player is required to have both feet on the ground and completely inside the inner edge of the throwing circle. A foot fault is committed in pétanque, when a player, while throwing, fails to keep both feet on the ground and inside the circle from the moment the boule leaves his hand until the moment it touches the ground. So one way that a player can commit a foot fault is to lift one foot from the ground before the thrown boule lands.

For a player in a wheelchair, the same rules apply to the wheel of the chair on the same side of the player’s body as his throwing arm. Pétanque is, therefore, one of the few games in which it is possible to commit a “wheel fault”.

FPUSA ▲

Federation of Pétanque U.S.A. — is the official governing body of the sport of Pétanque in the United States. It has both a web site and a blog.

game ▲

A game (une partie) of pétanque consists of a series of mènes during which points are accumulated. Mènes are played until one side accumulates 13 points.

game on the ground ▲

“Game on the ground” is an expression for a situation in which one team has finished throwing all of its boules and “has the point”. The team will win the game unless their opponents, who still have boules to throw, are able to change the situation.

“Gareth’s shot remains the winning point until the opposition play their last boule, which just beats it on the other side of the bouchon, about 8-9 inches away. This is game on the ground for the opposition. It cannot stand.

Fortunately, Gareth has one boule in hand and Pat two. They need to shoot the boule or outpoint it. They confer.

Gareth shoots. He misses. Pat shoots. Not only does the shot hit the (right) boule, but it also moves the bouchon towards Gareth’s boule.
That’s it. Yes, yes, yes. They win the point! They win the game! We win the match!.” — Brighton Pétanque

have the point ▲

A team “has the point” when the boule that is closest to the jack is one of its boules. The team that “has the point” after all boules have been thrown in a mène, wins the mène. When a team has the point, the opposing team throws.

holding ▲

The phrase “We’re holding” (or “They’re holding”) is another way of saying that we (or they) have the point. When a team is holding, the opposing team throws.

jack ▲

“Jack” is the British English-language term for the little colored wooden ball that is thrown out as a target. The FIPJP rules refer to it as le but (the target, goal), but in daily play it is usually referred to as the cochonnet (co-sho-nay, piglet). On French TV it is usually referred to as bouchon (cork). In the USA, it is often referred to as “the pig”. In bocce it is called the pallino.

When the jack is first thrown out, it must land 6 to 10 meters from the throwing circle, and at least one meter from any obstacle or from the out-of-bounds line.

Jacks are made of wood, typically boxwood or beechwood. One reason for having a wooden jack in a game otherwise played with iron balls is that FIPJP rules require— for obvious reasons— that the jack be non-magnetic.

Jeu Provençal ▲

Jeu Provençal, also known as boule lyonnaise, is a form of bocce and the immediate ancestor of pétanque. Like pétanque, it is a throwing game using metal balls. But the typical playing area is larger and the game involves an elaborate run-up to the launch of the ball. For more information, see the wikipedia article.

Shooters try to knock the opponent’s balls away from the bouchon; to do so, they run three steps from the circle and, upon the third step — while in the air — throw their boule at the target boule, before the next foot (the fourth step) touches the ground. I am not making this up. The Jeu Provençale is actually a lovely and venerable sport, still played by tens of thousands, primarily in the South of France. The average game takes three to four hours to complete. The most important competitions are the French national championships, usually in June, and the Provençale, which takes place in the Parc Borély in Marseille, in August. — Introduction to Pétanque History, Game & Spectacle

You can see a typical Jeu Provençal running throw about 25 seconds into this clip of the boules scene of the movie “Fanny”, and, more recently, in this YouTube news clip from French TV.

marked terrain ▲

A terrain whose boundary lines are marked (typically) by strings or chalk lines. Marked terrains are often part of a grid of terrains marked off for the purposes of a tournament, or to fit inside the physical confines of a boulodrome. The opposite of a marked terrain is an open terrain. A marked terrain is often referred to as a piste.

Marseille ▲

is the undisputed capital of pétanque. Each year in early July the city hosts the biggest and most prestigious petanque tournament in the world, the four-day Le Mondial la Marseillaise à Pétanque, created in 1962 by the pastis king, Paul Ricard.

mène ▲

A game of pétanque consists of a series of what the French call mènes (pronounced like the English word “men”).

Games are divided into what the French call mènes, which is usually translated as “end” or “round”. Points are tallied at the end of each mène, that is, after all of the boules have been played by both teams. The team that has the boule closest to the bouchon gets one point, plus a point for every other boule that lies closer to the bouchon than the other team’s nearest boule. — Introduction to Pétanque History, Game & Spectacle

Mènes are played until one of the teams accumulates enough points — 13 points — to win the game.

numbers ▲

How many petanque players are there?

In the USA, for 2012, the FPUSA reported around 1800 members and estimated the total number of petanque players in the United States at around 50,000 (which seems implausibly high).

According to the FIPJP’s 2009 records, the French Petanque Federation (FFPJP) is the largest in the world, with over 310,000 members. Those numbers are an order of magnitude greater than almost any other country on earth. Thailand reports around 40,000 members. Spain has the most members of any European country outside of France — 30,000. The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany each report around 16,000 players. Algeria and Morocco combined reported around 25,000 players. All together, at the end of 2009 the FIPJP reported about 530,000 licenses in 88 countries.

Obut ▲

A French company, La Boule OBUT is one of the major manufacturers of boules. It shares St. Bonnet-le-Chateau, a small village near Lyon, with JB Pétanque, another major boule manufacturer. In 1991, Obut created the one and only International Museum of Pétanque and Bowls.

Olympics ▲

Petanque is not an Olympic sport. It probably never will be, despite the fact that the CMSB has been trying for years.

pastis ▲

An anise (licorice) flavored French liqueur traditionally associated with pétanque

Great games never end, but are rather reconstructed and debated over pastis, a complex liqueur made of anise and a dozen other spices. The pastis bar is literally built into a good boulodrome setting in the South [of France].

Pastis is normally diluted with water before drinking, generally five volumes of water for one volume of pastis, but often neat pastis is served together with a jug of water for the drinker to blend together according to preference. See our post on How to drink pastis.

One of the best-known manufacturers of pastis, and a name traditionally associated with pétanque, is Ricard.

petanque  ▲

(pay-TONK) is a form of boules in which metal (rather than wooden) balls are thrown (rather than rolled) while the player stands with both feet (pieds) firmly planted (tanqués, “nailed down”). A game consists of a series of mènes, and is played to the winning score of 13.

Pétanque was invented in 1910, in the village of La Ciotat, then an important port and industrial town, on the Mediterranean coast of Provence not far from Marseille. A local shopkeeper (commerçant) and amateur boules player named Jules le Noir was stricken so badly with “rheumatism” (arthritis?) that he could no longer play. In fact, he could barely stand. One of his friends was a café owner named Ernest Pitiot. Together, the two developed a modified a version of boules that le Noir could play while seated in a chair. In the new game, players no longer threw their boules with a running launch, but from a fixed position, standing in a small circle. The new game eventually became known as pétanque — the name probably comes from the Provençal words pés tanca meaning “feet planted” (on the ground).

For more information, see the wikipedia article on pétanque and this very readable Introduction to Pétanque.

Here is a video of a 2011 tournament game. Watch just the first 90 seconds. You will see many typical features of pétanque — the metal boules and the throws, the packed-earth terrain, the strings separating the pistes, the red throwing circle, throwers carrying boule towels. The video opens with a Laos shooter (in black trousers) knocking the jack out of the court. A new mène starts. The captain of the Thai team puts down the circle for the new mène (rather casually, in the jack’s former position, because the jack was knocked out of the piste at the end of the previous mène) and throws out the jack. He then inspects the situation and points with his toe to the donnee, and perhaps smooths out a single divot — the only change that he is allowed to make to the terrain. The Thai pointer then throws the first boule. Which the opposing team promptly shoots.

pétanqueur ▲

The answer to the question: “What do you call a pétanque player?”

piste ▲

literally, “a strip of trampled-down earth”. When strings are used to divide a large pétanque playing area into long strip-like “marked terrains”, each of the marked terrains is called a piste, or in English, a lane (as in “bowling lane”) . For more information, see the entry for terrain.

point ▲

“To point” is to throw a boule with the intent of having it stop near the jack. Its opposite is “to shoot” — to throw a boule with the intent of hitting an opponent’s ball, or the jack. Three important pointing throws are —

  • la portée or la plombée — a high lob; to throw one’s boule in a high arc so that when it lands it rolls only very minimally.
  • la demi-portée — a half-lob
  • la roulette — a rolling throw (similar to the bocce punto)

Putman, Byron ▲

Byron W. Putman is the author of the only substantive English-language book on pétanque: Pétanque: The Greatest Game You Never Heard Of. In the winter, he often plays with the Palm Springs Petanque Club.

Ricard ▲

Ricard pastis is a traditional sponsor of Pétanque tournaments

Pastis was first commercialized by Paul Ricard (“Ricard”, not “Richard”) in 1932 and enjoys substantial popularity in France, especially in the southern regions of the country. Ricard is traditionally a sponsor of pétanque tournaments, and Ricard pastis is served in the refreshment area at most Pétanque tournaments (in France, at least).

rond ▲

See circle

round ▲

See mène.

rules ▲

The “most official” pétanque rule book is the FIPJP (International Pétanque Federation) set of rules, which are written in French. There are a number of different English-language translations and versions of the rules, including those by the FIPJP itself, by the FPUSA (USA Pétanque Federation), and by the EPA (English Pétanque Association). For more information, see our web site The Rules of Petanque.

shoot ▲

To throw one’s boule at one of the opponent’s boules (or at the jack) with the intention of moving it or knocking it out of play. This is often done when the opponent has pointed his/her boule very close to the jack.

soft pétanque ▲

Boules for soft pétanque pétanque molle (“soft pétanque”, also known as “indoor pétanque”) is pétanque played with soft boules that are similar to an American softball, but even softer. Soft pétanque provides a way for adults and children to play (or practice) pétanque indoors on rainy or snowy days that don’t permit the playing of “real” pétanque with steel balls. But there is no reason why indoor pétanque could not be considered a legitimate game in its own right and played for its own sake.

terrain ▲

A place where a pétanque game is played.

You call a patch of flat open ground a terrain when a game of pétanque is being played on it.

When a village square is hosting only one game, the game’s terrain covers the entire square. When a playing area is hosting several games at the same time, each game’s terrain is called an open terrain if there are no lines to mark its boundaries and separate it from the other terrains. A terrain is called a marked terrain if its boundaries are marked by lines (of chalk, paint, or, most typically, string).

When a marked terrain has the shape of a long thin strip, it is called a piste (lane). For FIPJP tournament play, games must be played on a marked terrain (a piste) that is at least 4 meters wide and 15 meters long.

Sometimes the word “terrain” is used to refer to the entire playing area, and each of the areas where a game is being played is referred to as a “piste”. See, for example, this diagram of a “marked terrain” from the British Pétanque web site.


throw ▲

Games like tennis have the concept of “serving” the ball, but no such technical term exists in petanque. FIPJP rules refer to boules simply as being “thrown” (lancer) or “played”. Perhaps this is because in tennis you get to serve when you’ve just won a point, whereas in petanque you get to throw when you’ve just lost the point.

Except for the first boule in a mène, the player about to throw the boule always faces the traditional Big Question of petanque — tu tires ou tu pointes — to shoot or to point?


tournaments ▲

See championships.

trendy ▲

NEW YORKER Aug 2, 2010 — Pétanque players in Bryant Park

NEW YORKER Aug 2, 2010 — Pétanque players in Bryant Park

… as in: news stories with titles like “Pétanque becomes trendy (or cool, or hip)”.

Stories appear periodically, on television or in the newspapers, announcing that pétanque is taking the country by storm. The stories are wildly hyperbolic, and fall into one of two categories.

Cagegory 1 includes human interest stories. These are typically of the Strange But Interesting People In Our Town variety. Stories in this category sometimes even make it onto NPR.

Category 2 includes breathless reports about the latest hot trend among The Beautiful People!

In July and August 2010 the international media went into a frenzy after Karl Lagerfeld threw a party in St. Tropez for The Beautiful People. He gave them free customized Chanel boules. Pretty spiffy!

women ▲

Do women play pétanque? Isn’t pétanque played mostly by men?

It is true that pétanque in France has traditionally been a man’s game. But times and cultures change. The percentage of women among American petanque players is much higher than it is in France. And even in Europe the number of women pétanque players has been slowly growing. There are even women’s tournaments and championships. For example, the 2012 USA Women’s National Championships were held at the Maine Boules Club in Blue Hill, Maine.

On what looks like a drizzly day in September 2010, 102 women on 34 teams participated in a women’s triples tournament in Münster, Germany. The only men in sight were the guys doing the registration.

Snoopy plays pétanque