The boule advantage

To understand petanque at the strategic level, you need to understand the concept of “the boule advantage”.  Intuitively, the idea is this — at any point during a mene, the team with the most unplayed boules has “the boule advantage” or simply “the advantage”. If your team has two unplayed boules, but my team has four, then my team has the boule advantage.

Here is a more precise definition —

If a team gains the point every time it throws, we will say that the team plays perfectly. (Note that it doesn’t make any difference how they gain the point. They can out-point the opposition, or shoot away an opposition boule that is holding the point, or shoot the jack. The important thing is that they never require more than one throw to gain the point.)

At any point during a mene, a team has the boule advantage if, assuming that it plays perfectly from that point forward, that team will play the last boule in the mene.

Note that before either team has thrown its first boule, the second team to play already has the boule advantage. The team that throws the first boule has the boule disadvantage.  You can often see this dynamic in world-championship games. Team A points the first boule, and Team B shoots it with their own first boule. Team A points their next boule and Team B shoots it with their next boule. Point. Shoot. Point. Shoot. The teams alternate gaining the point until Team A points their last boule. Team B shoots it with their last boule and wins the mène.

In this kind of game, the results can sometimes be extreme. Suppose that every time that Team B shoots, it knocks Team A’s boule out-of-bounds and its own boule ends up two meters from the jack. After the last boule is thrown, Team B scores six points… and not one of its boules is closer than two meters from the jack!

Among world-class players, the “point, shoot, point, shoot” pattern is so predictable that often the best way to follow the game is not to watch for the fantastic carreau or the incredible plombée. It is to watch for the failures, the situations in which one of the teams messes up and requires two or more throws to gain the point. The real drama in a world-championship game is in the shot that just barely misses, and the pointing throw that doesn’t quite gain the point. Such failures turn over the boule advantage to the opposing team.  At this level of play, it is highly probable that the team that throws the last boule will be the team that wins the mène. Or to put it the other way ’round: losing the boule advantage can mean losing the mène.

Will you point? or shoot?

Consider this situation. Your team has two pointers and one shooter. The opponents throw the jack and point a very nice first boule. It is close to the jack and is going to be very hard to out-point. What do you do?

  • Should you ask your shooter to try to shoot it?
  • But… it is very early in the mene, and the opposing team still has five boules. Should you save your shooter, keeping him in reserve for an emergency, and try to out-point the opponent’s boule with your first boule?

Here you’re confronting petanque’s classic question — to point? or to shoot?  If you decide to point, you may end up with another classic situation— your team ends up throwing all of its boules, trying to out-point the opponents’ opening boule. After you’ve done it, you realize that you’ve lost the boule advantage big time. The opposing team still has five boules that it can play without any fear of a response from your team. And you realize, in retrospect, that you should have used your shooter to try to shoot that opening boule rather than trying to out-point it.

If this happens to you, here’s how you should think about the situation.

  • Your team started with the boule advantage.  You might have kept the boule advantage if you had brought out your shooter and shot the opposing team’s opening boule. Even if it took your shooter more than one attempt, it would have been worth it to get rid of that dangerous opening boule.
  • But in deciding not to shoot, you not only lost the advantage, you gave the advantage to your opponents, to the tune of five boules. With that kind of boule advantage, they are almost certainly going to win the mene.

The moral here is that one of your highest priorities should be NOT to lose the boule advantage. And that can sometimes mean using your shooter very early in the mene.

The Forgotten Boule and the Boule Advantage

Consider this situation. There are a lot of boules on the ground. Your team has the point. You ask the opponents if they have any more boules to play. They look around and then say “No, we’re out”.  So you play your last boule.  As you’re walking to the head to count your points, one of the opposing players says “Ooops! I made a mistake. I still have one boule left!”  What should you do?

If you say “It was an honest mistake. Go ahead. Play your last boule,” you are making a big mistake. Look at it this way— Your team had the boule advantage, the right to throw the last boule. The opposing player’s mistake (even if it was an honest mistake, and not an attempt to cheat) took the boule advantage away from your team and gave it to his own team. If he is allowed to play that last “forgotten” boule, he will be playing the last boule in the mene. And with that last boule, he can do all sorts of mischief. He can win the mene for his own team.

The bottom line? In a “forgotten boule situation”— even in friendly play— it is best to go by the book. According to the rules a forgotten boule should be declared dead. It should not be played.