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| petanque | rules | terrain | throw | women | ▼ |
This page provides a brief overview and introduction to the game of pétanque — history, features, facts and legends.
For more information, visit our blog page.
Boets, Philippe ▲
Philippe Boets is the the Belgian founder of the online store Petanque America (blog), the only source in the USA for competition petanque boules. 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.
The rules of petanque are similar to the rules of bocce, but the balls and playing techniques are different. Bocce balls are big (about the size of a grapefruit), heavy, solid and made of wood or plastic. Petanque balls are smaller (about the size of an orange), lighter, hollow and steel. Bocce players roll the ball off of an open hand, palm up. Petanque players throw palm down, with a back-handed flick of the wrist. Bocce can be played on a grassy lawn, but it is usually played on a smooth, prepared court with high sideboards. Petanque can be played on any level patch of flat, hard-packed earth. An open space in a public park, or a gravel pathway, often makes a fine petanque terrain.
Bocce is an Italian game; petanque is French. In the USA, many more people play bocce than pétanque, so — although petanque players hate to do it — often the easiest way to tell someone about petanque is to describe it as “French bocce”.
a metal pétanque ball. Boules may vary in size, weight, and hardness.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.
is the collective name for a family of games in which the object is to throw or roll large heavy balls (also called “boules”) as close as possible to a small target ball. The French word boule is related to such English words as “ball”, “bowl”, and “bowling”. In France, petanque is often called simply boules.
Games involving rolling or throwing balls date back to the dawn of human history. The ancient Egyptians played some kind of boules game. The Greeks learned it from the Egyptians, the Romans learned it from the Greeks, and the Gauls learned it from the Romans. Today, boules-type games are traditional and popular in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and other European countries, where games are often played in open spaces (town squares and parks) in villages and towns.
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.
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 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. In the USA, after the 9/11 attacks the federal Transportation Safety Administration took the same position. When you travel by air, you may not bring your boules on board in your carry-on luggage — boules are objets interdites, forbidden objects.
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.
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 ▲
- Le Championnat du Monde de Pétanque is the World Championships of the FIPJP (the International Pétanque Federation). [YouTube videos]
- The EuroCup (EC) is a major European championship organized by the Confédération Européenne de Pétanque (CEP). [YouTube videos]
- Le Mondial la Marseillaise à Pétanque is sponsored by Ricard Pastis and La Marseillaise, the daily newspaper after which the tournament is named. It is perhaps the largest and best-know championship in the world. [YouTube videos]
- Le Mondial de Millau is arguably the most competitive championship in the world. Unlike the Marseillaise, which is exclusively triples, Millau hosts open singles, doubles, and triples championships.[YouTube videos]
- In the Masters de Petanque seven teams of four world-class players (playing triplets) compete during the summer in a series of seven matches (steps, étapes) played in different cities in France. It is sponsored by the FFPJP (French Petanque Federation) and its matches are widely televised. [YouTube videos]
- Passion Pétanque Française (PPF) is similar to the Masters de Petanque. 16 teams (48 players) of the top players in the world participate in the Grand Final of the PPF circuit, a televised event that includes prizes totaling €25,000. [YouTube videos] [Facebook]
- Trophée des villes matches up the best players in France from different towns (villes). Videos tend to be of very high quality. [Web site videos] [YouTube videos]
championships — USA ▲
- Pétanque America sponsors the annual Pétanque America Open every year in November in Florida. The word “Open” in the title is important. It is a very friendly and welcoming event, open to all pétanque players from anywhere in the world. Players can use any kind of petanque boules they like, competition or not.[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.
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 2005, 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.
couloir ▲Petanque is traditionally played in open public spaces like parks. Passers-by and spectators often gather around a game to watch, encourage a favorite team, or wager on the game. When they do, they typically form a human corridor around the playing area. The French word for that corridor is “le couloir”.
Some English-speaking pétanque players take special pride in petanque’s small environmental footprint and its populist roots. For them, the expression “pétanque court” is objectionalble because it suggests that petanque requires an expensive dedicated facility like a tennis court, a basketball court, or (God forbid) a golf course. And that, of course, is not true. To play pétanque, all you need is a patch of 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.
For those who wish to avoid the word “court”, the word “terrain” (in both English and French) is the correct term for the area where a game of petanque is played. A tennis player goes to the “tennis courts” or the “tennis club”. A petanque player goes to the “boulodrome”. See our discussion of Court, terrain, boulodrome.
(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 (cadres), the dead-boule line follows the outside boundary line around the whole grid.
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?”
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 may a player change the surface of the terrain before throwing a boule? The general rule is that a player may make NO change to the terrain… except to smooth out one divot.
“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.
Fanny is, as it were, the patron saint of boules..
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.
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 ▲
When 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”.
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.
“Jack” is the more-or-less standard English-language term for the little colored wooden ball that is thrown out as a target. In the French FIPJP rules it is called le but (the target, goal). Players from the Paris area, and many American players, refer to it as the cochonnet (co-sho-nay, piglet). In the South of France and on French TV it is usually referred to as bouchon (cork). In the USA, it is sometimes called “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.
Traditionally jacks are made of hardwood, typically boxwood or beechwood. They may or may not be painted — for the sake of visibility they are often painted bright red. There have been sporadic attempts to introduce jacks made of a hard synthetic material, but to date those efforts have not been very successful.
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 sometimes referred to as a piste.
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.
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.
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. The French government has declared pétanque a “high-level discipline”, which means that the government will provide funds to the FFPJP to build facilities and support promising young players.
The number of players in France is 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.
A French company, La Boule OBUT (pronounced oh-BOOT) is the world’s leading manufacturer of competition boules. The company is located in St. Bonnet-le-Chateau, a small village near Lyon, where Jean Blanc and Louis Tarchier first developed the modern process for manufacturing hollow steel boules.
The “OBUT” trademark was created in 1955 by Frédéric Bayet, a lock manufacturer in St-Bonnet le Château. The modern and fully-automatic production machines, the secrets of Obut’s success, were designed by Antoine Depuy, a talented mechanic. In 1958 Bayet and Depuis called upon the Sauvignet family to help expand the production. Today a member of the Sauvignet family still runs the business, and OBUT is the largest manufacturer of competition petanque boules, with approximately 80% of the world market. Each year a staff of around 130 workers manufactures more than 4 million boules a year.
In 1991, Obut created the International Museum of Pétanque and Bowls in St. Bonnet-le-Chateau.
Petanque is not an Olympic sport. It probably never will be, despite the fact that the CMSB has been trying for years.
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.
(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 rounds (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. Living in La Ciotat was a shopkeeper (commerçant) and amateur boules player named Jules le Noir. Le Noir was stricken so badly with “rheumatism” (arthritis?) that he could no longer do the running throw needed to play jeu provençal. In fact, he could barely stand.
One of his friends was a café owner named Ernest Pitiot. Together, the two men developed a modified a version of boules that le Noir could still play. In the new game, players no longer threw their boules with a running launch. Instead, they threw while standing in a small circle. The new game eventually became known as pétanque — a name probably derived from the Provençal words pés tanca meaning “feet planted” (on the ground). The new game quickly became extremly popular, and eventually surpassed jeu provençal to become the most popular form of boules in France.
Petanque America Open ▲
The Petanque America Open is held annually in November in Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island, Florida, just north of Jacksonville. It is THE petanque event of the year in the USA. It is sponsored by Philippe Boets and his online store Petanque America.
The answer to the question: “What do you call a pétanque player?”
When strings are used to divide a large playing area into rectangular playing areas for individual games, the official FIPJP rules call the rectangular areas cadres, or lanes. Earlier versions of the rules called a lane a “piste”, and you still often hear lanes referred to as pistes. For more information, see the entry for terrain.
“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 — a high lob; to throw one’s boule in a high arc so that when it lands it rolls only very minimally. A very high throw that drops like a piece of lead, straight down onto the terrain, is a plombée.
- 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.
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).
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.
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 ▲
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.
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.
If there are no lines to mark its boundaries and separate it from the other terrains, a terrain is called un terrain libre, an open terrain. In village squares and town parks in France, games are played on open terrains.
A terrain is called a marked terrain if its boundaries are marked by lines (of chalk, paint, or, most typically, string).
When a playing area is marked off into a grid of rectangular marked terrains, each terrain is called a cadre, or lane. For FIPJP international championships, games must be played on a lane that is at least 4 meters wide and 15 meters long.
Sometimes the word “terrain” is used to refer to the entire playing area, which contains several lanes.
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.
… 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.
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!
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. See also the petanquewomen Facebook group.
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.
See also the comprehensive English-language source for The Rules of Petanque.