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.


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3 thoughts on “The boule advantage

  1. In the post related to boule advantage you state that, according to the rules, a “forgotten” boule “should be declared dead.” According to WHAT rule? I think an umpire might very well allow the playing of the “forgotten” boule. Not only that, but the umpire might also declare dead the last boule played by the team that had the point as it was played contrary to the rules at which time Article 23 applies. A team has the obligation to KNOW whose turn it is to play BEFORE it plays.

  2. Hi Gary, I’m glad that you called me on this point, because it gives me a reason to issue a disclaimer that I perhaps should have included in the post.

    For others reading this post, I first want to note that the question “How should a situation involving a forgotten boule be handled?” is one that comes up regularly on online petanque forums. Now the disclaimer— Gary is absolutely correct. The usual/standard opinion/answer is the one that Gary has described.

    My personal opinion is that the standard answer is wrong. Here’s why.

    I think it is important to distinguish between two situations that are superficially similar, but fundamentally quite different.

    There is one kind of situation that I will call an “overlooked boule” situation. It can happen like this. Albert, a player from team A, throws boule A5 and gains the point. He looks around and doesn’t see that team B has any unplayed boules. Without asking team B if they are out of boules, he judges that team B is out of boules and throws his last boule, A6. Then team B protests. They still had one boule left, a boule that Albert had somehow overlooked.

    An “overlooked boule” situation should be handled just the way that Gary described (above). Boule A6 is a “boule played out of turn” and the provisions of Article 23 apply. Unless team B wishes to invoke the advantage rule, A6 is declared dead and (if possible) everything moved by A6 is put back in its original place. In addition, an umpire would almost certainly issue Albert a warning, because, as Gary says, “a team has the obligation to know whose turn it is to play” before it plays.

    There is a different kind of situation. It is what I called a “forgotten boule” situation in my post, and it should be handled as described in my post. It can happen like this. Arthur, a player from team A, throws boule A5 and gains the point. He looks around and doesn’t see any unplayed boules. He asks team B if they are out of boules. Team B says “Yes, we’re out .” So Arthur throws his last boule, A6. Then someone on team B realizes/remembers that he still has one unplayed boule.

    In such a situation, team B’s last boule (which they had in hand, but forgot that they had) should be declared dead. Here’s why.

    In this situation, team B is clearly the party at fault. By asking team B if they were out of boules, Arthur fulfilled his team’s obligation to know (or at least, to make a reasonable attempt to find out) whose turn it is to play. Team B has the same obligation— to know whose turn it is to play— before refusing to play, and in this case Team B FAILED to fulfill that obligation.

    There is no rule that explicitly declares that a forgotten boule is dead. But here (as in so many other cases) we must use reasoning by analogy to extend the rules that we DO have. Article 23 says that a boule played out of turn is dead. By analogy, we can also say that a boule NOT played WHEN IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN PLAYED is dead. If a team is given an opportunity to play when it is their turn, and (for whatever reason) they refuse to do so, then any/all of their unplayed boules are dead.

  3. This is an interesting point here, and I understand your distinction between the two circumstances. I have been on the receiving end of circumstance two. A player placed one of her boules outside the wood surround. We played through the end, and my partner asked if they were out of boules. They said yes, so my partner pointed in with her last boule to win the end by two points. The player then discovered her last boule and carreau’d the closest boule to win the end. As a compromise we agreed to call the end null and start again. Ironically it was the first end and we won the game 13-0.

    The other experience was in a rare bad tempered game. The opposition declined to answer if they were out of boules, claiming that they were not under any compulsion to do so! I simply counted the boules on ground, remembering the dead boule, and I discovered they had one boule left which they were keeping in their pocket. Since then I concentrate and always know exactly how many boules the opposition have left at any point in the end.

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