North American Bowling News

Skittles: The Ultimate Challenge

A Back Room Skittles Setup

Although this publication is entitled, "The North American Bowling News", it would be remiss of this editor not to mention the existence of a bowling variation brought to my attention some 20 years ago. While participating in the British Embassy Bowling League at what was originally Bowl America Westwood, now known as Strike Bethesda, I was enlightened by one of the league members from England who remarked about the similarity between the game of duckpins and a European bowling game with which he was familiar--the game of Skittles.

The subject of Skittles was recently brought up to me by one of our overseas bowling neighbors, and a little more background information has been provided, as explained below.

Originally, Skittles was a European lawn bowling game, and is a variety of bowling from which tenpins, duckpins, candlepins, and fivepins are all descended. Skittles is currently played across the South of England and most leagues are concentrated in the counties of Gloucestershire, Somerset and Avon. Our current overseas contact informs us that he's been playing the game for the past 16 years, and he is captain of his bowling team, called the "Transformers". Skittles is a pub-based game and most teams are formed using members of localized work forces. Teams and friends, more explicitly, soccer teams, pub patrons, etc., all sharing a common base, enjoy the competitive nature of the game of Skittles.

From the description of the game below, duckpins is probably the closest relative in the bowling world to Skittles, but there are still major differences in the two games.

Skittles is a team game. In what was related to this editor, there can be as many as 8-10 players on a team. Frames are called 'hands', and each player rolls 3 balls per 'hand'. As in duckpins, the balls are about the size of a large grapefruit. The pins, short and squatty in appearance, are called "skittles", and there are 9 of them at the end of a lane, set up in a diamond shape, which is approximately 1.5 meters across and 1.5 meters deep. With this being the case, the ball can easily pass between the pin configuration without knocking any skittles over. Scoring zero in a hand is called a 'beaver'. Most teams will have a domestic fine system in order to raise money for an end-of-season bash. A frame where you score a 'beaver', miss on the third ball, or score 4 or less for the 'hand' are all a common basis on which to fine the player.

The alley can be any length between the set allowances. Usually lanes are approximately 40 feet long. The alley surface can be made of practically any material - wood, concrete, vinyl. The balls are made of wood, and the pins can be plastic or wood. Suffice it to say that each Skittles contest has varying characteristics, depending on where you play, just like in tenpins, where oil characteristics may differ across different 'houses'.

Knocking down all nine pins on the first ball (what would be known as a 'strike' in our culture) is called a "flatner" or a "floorer", and is very, very rare. Hitting all nine pins after two balls is called a "spare" and is more common. The pins are reset following a spare and the player then has his last ball to play.

The skittles are reset by humans, usually by teenage sons or daughters of the players for pocket money (just like it used to be in this country with pin boys).

The maximum score in a 10-frame game is 270, although there are different variations in which 8 frames and even 6 frames constitute a game. While our American culture is accustomed to a score of 300, based on 10 pins per frame, as you can figure mathematically, with only 9 pins used, the scoring of the game would have to be different than our conventional scoring method. In this way, Skittles is somewhat like the Canadian game of "Fivepins", where the maximum score is 450 for a perfect game (15 points per frame). According to our overseas correspondent, 270 has never been rolled and never will be. In fact, in the 16 years that our resource has played Skittles, there has never been three flatners in a row in his league. Moreover, upon further research, after World War II, only 2 "triple-headers" have ever been recorded in the game of London Skittles--once in 1946 and the other in 1960.

The sport has no professional league. Top players will have an average of 70+ for the season. Even though the game is extremely tough, the game is loved dearly by its players.

After recently learning about how difficult the game of Skittles is, now that I look back on the British Embassy league from 1989, a few memories are now explained. The fact that Skittles is described as a 'team game' coincides with a remark or two made by one of the members of the British league. The bowler who referenced Skittles in this league was named Hugh. It was always interesting to me that after each night of bowling, Hugh was in the habit of always going over to one of the members of the opposing team, and would say "Thanks for the game", which reinforces the statement that Skittles is a true team game, in which the players seem to appreciate the "group event" participation.

Hugh was also a very serious bowler on the lanes. He concentrated sternly on each shot, and would occasionally get frustrated on a miss. One of the British women, feeling that she needed to explain Hugh's frustration, once sort of laughingly remarked, "Hugh plays Skittles." This was all the explanation that she felt she needed to give, which is a testament to the accepted appreciation of the sport. Now that we understand how tough the game is, it's not too hard to comprehend the overall competitive nature of this Skittles bowler, who obviously was accustomed to habitually dedicating himself to a difficult endeavor.

You'll probably notice that the game of Skittles gives the appearance of a parlor game, in which the lane or lanes appear to be in the back room or basement of a pub. As shown in the photo on the previous page, an old mattress is used as a backstop, and in the photo on this page, the scoring is simply handwriting on a blackboard, instead of the electronic systems with which we're accustomed. However, we do need to remember that our overseas contact that shared this information with us says that his league has been going on for at least 16 years, so there must be some formality to the group get-together. And also notice that the blackboard does have the pub name or league name, formally inscribed on the board.

Skittles is similar to Europe's popular game of Ninepins, and is big in many other countries. There is a Nine Pin Bowling Federation that used to be an important part of the FIQ (the Federation International des Quilleurs). The FIQ was founded in 1952 to foster worldwide interest in amateur tenpin and ninepin bowling, as well as international friendship by encouraging world and zone tournaments and other competition between bowlers of different countries. It has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee since 1979 as the world governing body for the sport of Bowling.

Nine Pin bowling has three types, referenced in German as Bohle, Classic or Aphalt, and Schere. In contrast to the British form described, most modern Ninepin lanes have the pins attached to the machine by a long string, quiite similar to Canada's Fivepin bowling.

Skittles, in our country, actually has a more popular foundation than the actual game played in England. The Aurora game company, back in the early 1960s, introduced Skittle Bowl, a hugely popular board version of the game of bowling, which is mentioned in an article later in this magazine. For anyone who ever played the game of "Skittle Bowl" as a child, you will recognize the unusual shape of the pins in the photo on the previous page. As a kid, it's a pretty good bet that you'd have undoubtedly wondered why the pins in Skittle Bowl were molded in the manner that were present in the game, instead of the conventional bowling pin shape. From what I remember, my conclusion was that the pins were less likely to get broken, being somewhat short and stubby. But now I know different.

* The photos in this article were taken from the website, "".

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