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Skittles is a game that goes back a long way and has largely avoided modernisation. It is perhaps unlikely that the participants in medieval inter-village free-for-alls with an inflated pigs bladder would now recognise what goes on in Old Trafford1 of a Saturday as the same sport. On the other hand, the 3rd Century German monks, who used to play a game involving throwing stones at an upright club, would probably not have too much difficulty understanding the nature of modern-day skittles.
No modernisation has also meant no harmonisation of the rules between regions or countries. There is a bewildering variety of formats, rules and equipment used in the game of skittles. Even crossing the border from Somerset to Devon, the shape of the skittle changes! For this reason, skittles may eventually be the only 'sport' not featuring in the Olympic Games.
Just to get things straight, the game has no link to the sugary confectionery, other than perhaps that if you are really lucky you might be able to pay your sticker-upper (see below) in these sweets.
The Rules of West Country Skittles
The basic idea couldn't be simpler. You throw a wooden or rubber ball underarm towards a group of nine wooden skittles about eight metres down the alley. These are positioned in a square with the point facing towards you.
You get to throw the ball three times per go. If after the first or second go you have knocked down all nine skittles2, then all nine will be stood up again for you to have another go at. This gives a theoretical maximum score per go of 27, but because of the spacing of the skittles this is virtually impossible to achieve. Knocking down all nine skittles with two throws is called a spare. Getting spares is what really separates the good skittler from the average skittler.
Your score is the total number of skittles you knock over. You repeat this a set number of times (eight goes or 'legs' is common) and add it all up for your total score.
A game is most usually played between two teams, but can also be played individually or in pairs.
One popular variant to these rules is called 'front pin'. Here you only score if you knock the front pin over. If you get the eight behind it (difficult, but not impossible) you score zero. If you get the front pin plus three others, you score four. This is a fiendish game which can lead to some low scores when combined with scrumpy.
Sounds Like Ten-pin Bowling to Me...
Yes and no. As with rugby and American football, the aim of the game is similar but the atmosphere and nature of the game is a bit different. If ten-pin bowling is a hamburger, then skittles is a ploughman's salad. Clearer now?
Skittles is quite a bit more random than ten-pin bowling. Firstly, it is possible to send your ball right through the middle of the pins in skittles, without touching any of them. This is very frustrating and allows the player concerned to gesticulate or mouth oaths. Secondly, it is acceptable to slightly bounce the ball on delivery. Try that in your local ten pin bowling centre... Perhaps partly as a result of this skittles alleys are all slightly different - some have slopes or uneven bits, some are narrower or longer.
Finally, nobody brings their own ball in skittles, no-one wears a wrist-supporting-device or a team uniform and certainly no skittler worth their salt does a little dance when they get a spare.
Also, unlike ten-pin bowling, in a skittles alley there is no machine to stand the skittles up again after they have been knocked over, or to return the balls to the skittler. As walking down the alley to set them up again is a pain and cuts into valuable drinking time, a teenage child is usually employed for this purpose. It is traditional for the adolescent in question to be paid about a fiver for their nights work, plus a couple of complementary pints of orange squash and a whip-round at Christmas. In all but the roughest teams, it is considered very bad form to deliberately aim at one's sticker-upper.
Other Types of Skittles
Skittles is played in several other regions of the UK. These include South Wales, the Midlands and Oxfordshire3 in particular. Historically an interesting variant was played in London but this is now largely dying out. For more details on the different regional games, look at this website.
The variety of rules is staggering. Some variants involve throwing a stick at skittles, some a kind of wedge-shaped 'wooden cheese' and one particularly remarkable game involves bending a biased ball round one skittle before hitting the main group.
However, there is a common denominator to nearly all variants of the sport. As the game is generally played in a pub or social club, it is usually accompanied with a glass of the local beer or cider. To badly paraphrase Ogden Nash, 'life may be more than beer and skittles, but they certainly go well together!'