Terminology – Boule devant, boule d’argent

The classic petanque maxim is

Boule devant, boule d’argent.

The French word “argent” can mean either “silver” or “money”. I agree with Rayond Ager that in this context, it should be translated as “money”. So the maxim roughly translates as

A boule in front is a money ball.


The expression “money ball” isn’t, I think, just a metaphor for “good ball”. I suspect that it means literally that a boule in front is worth money.

In France, where petanque is of course much more popular than in the U.S., it is common to bet on petanque games and to play for money. (America a few years ago produced a movie called “The Hustler” about a pool hustler. In 2013 France produced “Les Invincibles” about a petanque hustler.) So I think that in the expression “Boule devant, boule d’argent”, “money ball” isn’t at all a metaphor. It is referring to real folding money in one’s pocket.

Finally, the old maxim has an unwritten flip-side.

If if you don’t have any boules in front — if you leave the front open and the opposing team still has boules to play — you are leaving your money on the table and asking your opponents to walk off with it.

If the front is open (le jeu est ouvert), you are inviting the opposing team simply to point right down the center and score as many points as they have boules.

So when you’re asking yourself the old question — To point? Or to shoot? — you should always ask yourself whether, if you shoot, sucessfully or not, you will be leaving the front open.


✋ Pointing strategy

Here is a great post from the Harrogate Montpellier Petanque Club. I’ve lightly edited it for American readers.


First boule of the end

petanque_strategy_boule_devant

Always try to put your first boule in front of the jack. About 30-50 cm is a good distance, but even a meter in front is better than 10cm behind (see Backstops below).  The French have a saying, “Une boule devant, c’est une boule d’argent” – A boule in front, that’s a money boule.

The ‘boule devant’ has two advantages:

  1. your opponent cannot roll their boule directly to the jack but must aim to the side of your boule.
  2. If their aim is a little off (or they get a deflection from an uneven terrain) and they hit your boule, the chances are that they’ll push your boule closer to the jack.

Backstops

petanque_strategy_use_opponents_boule_as_backstopA boule just behind the jack is a gift to the pointer.

It’s much easier to stop a boule against a backstop than it is to stop it without.  Just throw slightly harder than you think you need to and let the backstop do its job.  A boule resting against a backstop is also harder to knock away. If it is shot, it will be knocked backward; it will hit the backstop boule; all of the momentum will be transferred to the backstop boule (which will go flying!) and the boule that was struck will stay nearly in its original place.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop the opposition from now using your boule as a backstop — but that’s all part of the game.

Promoting your boules

petanque_strategy_push_your_own_bouleAs mentioned above, boules in front of the jack can be promoted by running your boule into them and knocking them forward.  [Americans usually call this “pushing” your own boule.] There’s often an additional benefit in that the second ball remains close to the point of impact, forming a blocker.

Be careful if there’s an opposition boule close to the one you wish to promote. You can push an opponent’s boule as easily as one of your own, so take into account how accurately you can throw.

Limiting the damage

A common scenario for beginners starts when the opposition get a boule very close to the jack early in the end.  You can’t really point closer so you try to shoot it away.  Your team’s throws keep getting closer and you’re sure the next one will do it but you suddenly realize that your team have used up all of your boules!  Your missed shots have probably all gone sailing off well past the jack, allowing the opposition to rack up a big score with their remaining boules.

To reduce the odds of getting thrashed like this, you need to point one or two boules that, although not closest to the jack, are close enough to make it difficult for the opposition to score lots of points.  Better for them to score a couple of points than five or six. 

Ideally, try to make your boule snuggle up to the opposition’s closest boule so that they’ll think twice about trying to shoot yours away.

When limiting the damage won’t work

Of course in a situation where the opposition team needs only a single point to win the game, limiting the damage to only one point won’t help.  Strategies to consider in this situation are:

  1. Shoot the jack out of bounds, but only if they have thrown all of their boules.  This is a skillful shot but it stops the opposition scoring.
  2. Point slightly hard towards the jack and try to knock it towards some of your boules.
  3. Point and hope to beat the opposition boule.
  4. Shoot the opposition boule and hope that that will leave you closest.

None of these strategies are an easy option but you don’t have a lot of choice.


✋ Aim small; miss small.

When you’re throwing, it is important to focus on a small, specific target.
aim_small_miss_small
Byron Putman describes it this way in his book Petanque (p. 64).

Great au fer shooters have “the eyes”… for several seconds they lock their gaze laser-like on the target boule as if it were the only object in the universe…. For some shooters locking their vision on the target boule is not enough. They create a more precise bull’s-eye by staring at a single point on the target.

This is called target focus. It is as important for accurate pointing as it is for accurate shooting. Focussing on a small and very specific spot for your donnée is important. That’s why, in the “mental” part of our page on How to throw a boule, we emphasize picking the donnée and paying attention to where the thrown boule lands.

Your mantra here is

Aim small; miss small.

Here’s a good explanation of how to do it.

✋ Two ways to hold a boule

I’ve been mulling over these ideas for a while. I’m not sure they are right. Or, if they are, I’m not sure they are anything new or significant. But I decided to write this post on the grounds that some player, somewhere, might find these ideas useful.

After watching videos of world-class players on YouTube, I think I have noticed that there are two different techniques for gripping a boule.

  • Using the vise grip you hold the boule in the palm of your hand. You close your fingers over the boule so that you are clasping the boule between your fingers and the base of your palm, like you have it clamped in the jaws of a vise. Because you have a firm grasp on the boule, if you turn your hand over, the boule will not fall out of your hand.
     
  • Using the cradle grip you slightly cup your fingers and cradle the boule, letting it rest on your fingers (not in the palm of your hand) rather in the way that a beach ball might come to rest in a hammock. Because the boule is merely resting on your hand, if you turn you hand over, the boule will fall out of your hand.

To illustrate the difference between the two grips, I’ve taken a few pictures. Notice that in the pictures on the left, the fingers are closed over the boule. In the pictures on the right, the fingers (beneath the boule) are almost fully extended. In the pictures on the left, the fingers are pressing the boule against the fleshy base of the palm. In the pictures on the right, the boule is close to the tips of the extended fingers, and you can see a noticeable space between the boule and the base of the palm.

Vise grip
(boule clasped in palm of hand)
Cradle grip
(boule rests on top of fingers)


In the picture on the right (below) you see a hand posture that I’ve noticed in several “cradle-grip” players. The boule is held so far out that it seems almost to hang from the tips of the fingers. The thumb rests lightly on the boule, stabilizing it and keeping it from falling out of the fingers.

One of the most distinctive things about petanque is the way that expert players flex their wrists back and under their forearms. The standard theory is that this unique gesture helps a player to control a boule by giving it backspin.

While it may be true that the purpose of the wrist flex is to put backspin on the boule, I suspect that it serves another more important purpose for cradle-grip players. If you use a cradle grip, you are not actually holding the boule in your hand — if you turn you hand over, the boule will fall out of your hand. Therefore, in order not to drop the boule during the backswing, you must strongly flex your wrist, hand, and fingers back under your forearm. Together, they form the enclosing cradle that allows gravity to keep the boule in the hand during the backswing. That is why a vise-grip player may or may not flex his wrist, but a cradle-grip player will ALWAYS flex his wrist in this dramatic way. For a cradle-grip player, a consistent and serious wrist flex is a necessary component of effective throwing form.

 


GRIPS OF THE STARS!

If you watch world-class players in YouTube videos, you will see that some of them use a vise grip while others use a cradle grip. It doesn’t appear that either of the techniques is inherently superior to the other. Some top players use one grip, and others use the other.

I first noticed the cradle grip in videos of Philippe Quintais pointing.

If you go looking looking for the cradle grip in YouTube videos, you quickly learn to identify a few distinctive hand gestures. As I’ve said, if you carefully watch a cradle-grip player preparing to throw, he doesn’t appear to be holding the boule at all — the boule seems almost to be hanging from his fingers. Once I identified the cradle grip, I went looking for other players who might be using it. I found several. You’ll probably recognize some of them. Marco Foyot and Christian Fazzino seem quite clearly to be cradle-grip players. (Mouse-over a picture for the name of the player. Click on a picture to go into slide-show mode and see slightly larger versions of the pictures.)

 

During my search for cradle-grip players, I found many players whose grip-type I was unable to diagnose, and I also found vise-grip players. Here are just a few players that I think are probably vise-grip players.


Grip type and boule size

I suspect that boule size is important to a different degree in the two types of grip.

For a vise-grip player, boule size is important. A vise-grip player does NOT want a boule that is too big. If the boule is so big that it is hard to wrap your fingers around it, it will be difficult to grip tightly. A big boule will tend to slip out of your grip. You will need to grip the boule harder, and this will produce tired and aching muscles in your forearm. So it is important for a vise-grip player to use a boule that is small enough to be gripped easily.

For a cradle-grip player, boule size is less important, perhaps even unimportant. The cradle-grip player is holding the boule very loosely, just barely cradling it in his fingers. For him (or her) there isn’t much difference between cradling a medium-size boule and a large one. This means that a cradle-grip player can comfortably play with a much larger boule.

This means (perhaps) that learning to throw with a cradle grip might be a useful strategy for women players. Actually, it might be useful for players (of either sex) with small hands. Or even players with large hands, if they play a lot and are tired of having aching forearm muscles.


Updated a few days later (2015-03-15)
Christian FazzinoBy chance I just ran across a post from 2007 on the Petanque710 forum. Someone noted that Philippe Suchaud and Christian Fazzino play with small boules— 71mm. Another commenter ventured the opinion that la facon de jouer avec des petites boules est très différente qu’avec des plus grosses car on joue plus avec le bout des doigts car elles ne tiennent pas toute la main (regarder fazzino jouer , il les tient du bout des doigts). “The way one plays with small boules is very different than with larger ones because one plays more with the fingertips because [small boules] do not take up the whole hand (watch Fazzino play, he holds them by the fingertips).”

So I have one concurring opinion that Fazzino uses a cradle grip. I doubt, though, that Fazzino uses a cradle grip because he uses a small boule. As you can see from the pictures above, a number of top players (notably Marco Foyot) use a cradle grip and a large boule.


✋ The height of the throw

I’ve been watching YouTube videos of great shooters, trying to analyze what they’re doing so I can try to do what they’re doing. One thing that (I think) I’ve noticed is that when they are shooting, they are very consistent in how high they throw the boule.

From an FFPJP training video on Youtube

From an FFPJP training video on Youtube

Almost every player that I’ve watched throws his boule so that, at the top of its trajectory, it is about head-height. If a player is shooting at a longer distance (say, 10 meters) then he throws a little higher, so the boule goes a foot or two above his head.

Marco Foyot gives a shooting demo at the Zanesfield Petanque club

Marco Foyot gives a shooting demo at the Zanesfield Petanque club

This suggests that the great shooters are pretty consistent in the force (or speed) with which they throw the boule. And that means their form is probably pretty consistent — the height of the backswing, the speed of the throwing arm, and so forth.

The difference between shooting at a short distance and shooting at a long distance is therefore the height to which they throw the boule. For a short throw, the boule is released fairly early and follows a lower trajectory — about shoulder height at the highest point. For a longer throw, the boule is released later and follows a higher trajectory — above the player’s head, perhaps, at its highest point. In both cases the path of the boule has the same shape — a gentle arcing curve.

Thinking this over, I realized that I was wildly inconsistent in the height to which I was throwing, and that I should try to be more consistent.

On my practice area I rigged up a frame half way between the circle and the target boules. From the frame I stretched two flexible tapes. The tapes are wide enough to be visible, and loose enough to slip out of the way if I hit one of them. One of the tapes is at about head height and the other is about 18″ higher. With this apparatus in place, sometimes I practiced with the goal of throwing my boule between the two tapes on its way to the head. Sometimes I practiced with the goal of simply getting the boule between the two tapes.
netted_shooting_pit_with_ribbons

I’ve been doing this for a while, and it seems to be helping.

In the process, I found something that surprises me. After I practice shooting for a while (usually with a low percentage of success), I switch from aiming for the target boules to aiming just to get between the tapes. When I do this, my percentage of success (in hitting the target boules) is often higher than it was when I was aiming at the boules! I’ve noticed this several times, so I think the phenomenon is real. But I have no idea about how to explain it.


✋ Effortless throwing

You can’t do many accurate low, hard, flat tir au fer shots if you are straining your body and muscles to the limit. Similarly with those high, high lobs that come straight down, drop and stop. One of the most important secrets of effective throwing, therefore, is how to throw powerfully with a minimum of effort.

art_of_petanque_pendulum_swingOne of my favorite posts on this topic is Artem Zuev’s post on Effortless Gameplay, in which he tells you to think of your throwing arm as a pendulum, a ball on a string.

Today, quite by accident, I stumbled across a YouTube video that makes Artem’s advice more concrete and more useful. The video is, of all things, How to Effortlessly Generate Powerful Tennis Serves. It opens, interestingly, with a demo of… ball on a string.

The bottom line is that the secret of both an effortless tennis serve and an effortless petanque throw is momentum — understanding it and learning how to use it. If you read Artem’s post, and then watch this video, you can see that everything that the instructor says about the momentum of a tennis racket translates directly into a lesson about the momentum of an arm holding a boule. What the instructor is doing is inviting you — when you practice — to think about your throw in terms of momentum, and to try to be aware of — to feel — your body as a tool for generating and using momentum.

zen_in_the_art_of_archeryThe video is a bit long and verbose, but it is worth watching all the way to the end. The instructor makes an important point, starting at 7:20 (“One more tip…”). While your brain is learning what it feels like to generate and transfer momentum, don’t try to aim. Just let the ball go… wherever. You don’t want aiming to interfere with your free swing.

This advice reminds me of Zen in the Art of Archery. Herrigel, under the guidance of his Zen master, practiced the motions of drawing the bow and loosing the arrow literally for years before his Master felt he was ready, and they moved on to the next step… aiming at a target.