The phrase “life isn’t all beer and skittles” seems a bit mysterious to American ears. When I first heard it as a boy, I wondered why anyone would want to mix a fruit-flavored candy with beer.
To British ears, however, the image of “beer and skittles” is one of leisure time at the pub spent enjoying an adult beverage while playing a game with friends. Its first appearance is in The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens, when Sam Weller remarks “It’s a reg’lar holiday to them — all porter and skittles.” (Porter is a dark ale.)
The saying would have made a lot more sense if Americans realized that skittles is a pub game that we’d lump together with bowling, since it involves knocking down pins with some rolled or thrown object. In England, however, ten-pin American-style bowling, “bowls” games, and skittles are all considered distinct and unique games, each with countless regional and historical variations.
Thanks to all these variants, and the lack of an authoritative governing body, coming up with a single definition for the entire class of skittles games can be tricky. Wikipedia takes off in the wrong direction by calling it a “European lawn game,” even though almost every notable version of skittles is played not on grass but on purpose-built alleys or hard floors. You could almost argue that a defining character of skittles that sets it apart from bowls is that it’s not a lawn game.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the most basic description. Nine pins are set in a diamond pattern at one end of a long, narrow, slightly raised surface that serves as an alley. Players stand varying distances away from these pins, and then attempt to knock them all down with a variety of projectiles in a variety of ways. A common version uses heavy, solid disks made of lignum vitae, a class of extremely hard, heavy, dense wood. These disks are called “cheeses” because their shape is similar to that of a round of cheese. (“Cheese” is now a generic term for any thrown object in skittles, regardless of shape.) Points are awarded for knocking each pin down, with an extra point awarded for knocking them all down. A set of throws is called a chalk, and three chalks make a game.
Within this basic framework, skittles has spun off a baffling array of variations. The pins may be long, short, thin, stout, big, small, rounded, squared, or any one of several shapes. Nine pins, arrayed in three rows of three pins each, form the most common layout, but there may be more or less. Pin layout may be a diamond, or something else entirely. You might have to knock down all the pins in any order, or just some of the pins, or perhaps knock some down in a specific order and others not at all. Pins may be numbered, with only certain numbers qualifying for scoring. The thrown object maybe a heavy disc, or a solid ball, or a smaller solid ball, or a half a ball, or a barrel-shaped object, or a log. In some games you must roll the cheese and it can never bounce, while in others you need to bounce it once.
A set of instructions from 1786 shows a skittle-ground layout measuring about 17 yards by 4 yards. In this early depiction, the player needs to roll the ball along a narrow wooden plank, curving it to meet the pins without ever hitting the side boards. This is followed by a second throw, called “tipping,” performed directly adjacent to the pin layout. The player “tips,” or drops, the ball onto the layout, attempting to knock down a specific number of pins. He doesn’t score at all if he exceeds or does not meeting this number.
One remarkable version, called half bowl, involves rolling … yes, you guessed it: half a ball. Played where space is limited, half bowl uses twelve pins set in tight circle. Nine pins comprise the circle itself, one pin is at the center, and two more pins project outside of the circle in a straight line. The trick is to roll the half-ball around the two projecting pins and knock down the circle pins from the other side. Since the half-ball rolls on an extreme bias, the trick is to curve each throw just right so the pins are hit from the far side of the configuration.
In fact, the extreme rolling bias of almost all skittle cheeses is one of the key elements of the game. Balls are rarely perfectly formed, and they don’t have finger holes like conventional bowling balls. Some are remarkably heavy, weighing over 15 pounds. They don’t roll nice and straight. They can wobble and slide and do all kinds of things that would make a ten-pin bowler red with rage. Learning the bias of each ball is vital to mastering the game.
There have been dozens (perhaps hundreds) of versions of skittles, and some of them remain a mystery. We only know a few things about a skittles-style game called “closh.” It was probably like skittles, it was very popular, and it was widespread enough that special greens—called closh-banes—were constructed for its playing. We also know that it was banned repeatedly by the government beginning with Kind Edward IV in 1477, and seems to have been wiped out by the 17th century.
A cousin of closh was a game called kyles, which was a type of skittles played with a stick rather than a ball. It may have been played with nine pins arranged in a straight line, which would make them devilish hard to knock down. Recorded as early as 1325, it, too, fell to the ban of 1477.
There is also a large class of games called table skittles, which takes several forms. The most common version features a ball hanging from a chain or rope attached to a pole, much like a tetherball. The pins are laid out on a raised platform, and the player swings the ball in an attempt to knock down as many pins as possible, with all the expected regional scoring variants. It’s also called Devil Among the Tailors, with the devil being the ball and the tailors being the pins. (There are a few different origin stories for this name. None of them are plausible.)
Another version of table skittles is “hood skittles,” or “daddlums.” These games are distinguished by their unique tables, with hood skittles played on a low table with padded uprights on three sides, and daddlums played on a smaller table with a slightly different configuration. In either version, nine pins are set in a classic diamond pattern. Players stand a certain distance away from the table, and toss small, hand-sized cheeses in attempt to knock down the pins.
In the 1970s, Aurora/Marx marketed a large and successful line of “skittle” products in the United States. They were heavily promoted by Get Smart actor Don Adams, complete with ads and TV commercials that haunt YouTube to this very day. Skittle Bowl (classic table skittles), Skittle Pool, Skittle Poker, Skittle Tic-Tac-Toe, Skittle Bingo, Skittle Scoreball, and Skittle Horseshoes all used the standard “ball dangling from a stick” mechanic.
Is that Uncle Leo in the background?