Learn To Love Pétanque

photo: boules at trouville
These boules players at the seaside, are
not 'regulation' players.

The Int'l Rules, Abbreviated

Paris:- Friday, 3. July 1998:- By this date it is reasonably safe to say summertime is here, if not for the weather, but for the numbers of people who are leaving town.

The early-leavers are out in the parking lot attaching bikes to carriers on their cars' roofs or back ends, and filling up their trunks with tennis rackets, swim fins, and all the other brick-a-brack of sport's gear.

I wouldn't give this 'mini-départ' more than about eight seconds' thought, but a reader wrote to ask if I could help him out with some information about 'how to play boules, or pétanque' and when I give this equal time in the old head, I realize what I know about boules will fit into one of these thimbles of café that I claim are so tiny.

This reader has a good social reason for asking about this because he figured out that boules or pétanque is a game that requires an absolute minimum of gear and playing field, and this is in his budget area.

This is why I drive out the good old Route Nationale 13 to Chambourcy, to the great big Décathlon sports shop there. 'Sports' are big business and this is one of the companies that caters to 'sports-dummies.' By this I mean, they not only sell the goods, the clothes, but also books and videos on 'how to do it right.'

Another thing this chain has, is sales personnel who know about sports and are willing to share what they know. if you already know what you're doing, you can come to one of these places and pick whatphoto: selection boules decathlon you want yourself. If you don't know, you can get help. I know knowledgeable service is an unusual sales gimmick, but I am not going to knock it as long as they keep it up.

At the store, the guy who helps me with this, says serious players play every day, so they live down south. People who do not live down there, are by definition, not 'serious' players.

Part of the selection of boules on offer; from inexpensive to mean and heavy.

The shop does not have any free or fifteen-franc booklet about pétanque; they do have a video though. My 'guy' suggests I contact the French Federation for the sport and says I can get the number from Minitel. He takes me to where the equipment is.

Basically, the equipment necessary for playing boules or pétanque, is balls. There are no special clothes, shoes, gloves, hats, sweatbands, harnesses, nothing. The only necessary accessory is an auto-rewind tape measure, and possibly a compass.

While my guy goes off to answer his beeper, I look the balls over. A quick scan reveals that balls cost different prices. There is a three-ball set for 74 francs and an eight-ball set for 200 francs. There is also a three-ball set for 564 francs!

I pick up a box of these. The balls are matt-black. The description says these balls are laser-fusioned from two halves; this means there is nothing other than the steel of the balls. No welding material. There are no areas of the ball harder or softer than another.

What, I wonder, is the difference between a shiny, chrome-like steel ball and a really dangerous-looking matt-black one? The guy in the shop also points out that some balls are 'hard' steel and others are 'soft' steel; these latter are meant for hard dirt - or have I gotten it backwards?

This brings up the question of rules. When you see the game played, one player tosses a little wooden ball a few metres, and then the other players try to get their steel balls as close it this little target ball as possible. The player with the closest ball wins. It a bit like bowling without pins or an alley.

Before the Rules:

It is fundamental to know that games are played for 13 points. There are also sweepstake games, for which the total score is 11 points. The rules do not spell out exactly how or why 'points' are awarded - and I don't know - and this business of 'points' is buried as an unrelated subject within one of the 'Articles' below. If this is all you want to know, read no further.

The International Rules of Pétanque

The International Rules for playing boules or pétanque are contained in 39 articles, divided by five sections. I found a version in French online, done by Pèd Tanco on his Mygale site, and a brief description follows.


Pétanque can be played with three players against three, two players against two or one player against another. The first is called 'triplettes,' and each player has two boules; for 'doublettes' and one-to-one, each player has three boules.

The boules must be made of metal. Their minimum diametre is 7.05 cm and the maximum is eight cm. Each boule must weigh no less than 650 grams and no more than 800. The manufacturer's name or logo must be engraved on the boule along with the boule's weight.

Boules are not permitted to be 'tricked up' or modified in any way; the player is allowed to have his name or initials engraved on the boule. For any infraction, the player and his team will be immediately ejected from the game.

Because sanctions are heavy - expulsion from international boules competitions from two to eight years! - it is in the players' interests to check all boules before every match.

The target ball, called a 'but,' must be made of wood. The minimum diametre is 25 mm and the maximum is 35 mm. The 'buts' are allowed to be colored for better visibility.


This is for official national or international competition only - each player must have proof of membership in a club recognized by the national of international Federation.

Substitution of Boules

Except in the following cases, substitution of boules or the 'but' is not permitted during a game. Both can be substituted if:

- A boule is lost.
- The 'but' is lost.
- If a boule breaks into two or more pieces. The largest piece counts as the location of the boule - if the are other boules still to be played. An identical boule can be placed on the location of the largest fragment of the broken boule as a substitute.
- The 'broken' boule rule applies equally to the 'but.'

The Playing Field

Pétanque or boules can be played anywhere. For serious competition, the organization or the game's referee may choose a 'field' of the following minimum dimensions: four metres wide by 15 metres long.

How the Game Begins

The players draw straws or toss a coin to decide which team of player tosses the 'but.'

Whoever is chosen, draws a circle on the ground in which the player can stand - a circle of up to 50 cm in diametre. This circle must be at least a metre from any obstacle, or the limit of a designated playing 'field.'

The players feet must remain within this circle and on the ground. Handicapped players are allowed to toss the 'but' with only one foot on the ground in the circle.

The player who tosses the 'but' does not necessarily shoot first.

Distances Required for Placing the 'But'

For adults, the 'but' must land within six to ten metres from the circle. For kids, it is four to eight metres. The 'but' must also be at least a metre from any obstacle, or limit of the 'field.' The 'but' must be visible to the player standing in the circle.

If, after three tries, the 'but' cannot be placed within the regulation distance, then the opposing team gets to place it.

The team that originally won the right to place the 'but' gets to shoot the first boule.

Irregular Placement of the 'But'

If the 'but' hits an obstacle, such as the referee, it has to be re-thrown. This miss-toss counts as one of the three allowed.

Once the first boule has been shot, the placement of the 'but' can still be contested. If the protest is accepted, the 'but' has to be re-thrown and the boule re-played. If an opposing team's boule has also been thrown, the original position of the 'but' is not contestable.

Cancellation of the 'But'

The 'but' has to be re-thrown if:

- It lands too close to an obstacle or the field's limit.
- It lands over the edge of 'out-of-bounds.' If it comes to a stop on the line, it is considered good. A 'but' floating in a puddle is considered 'out-of-bounds.'
- It is invisible from the circle from which it was tossed. If the 'but' is hidden behind a boule, the referee can lift the boule to prove the 'but' is indeed there.
- If the 'but' lands outside the minimum-maximum distance.
- If the 'but' cannot be found.

Removing Obstacles

After having thrown a boule, it is not permitted to rid the field of any obstacle such a rocks, sand or leaves. Divots made by boules can be smoothed over. There are five levels of sanction for breaking this rule, including the disqualification of both teams - for conspiracy.

'Acts of God' Concerning the 'But'

If a leaf or other object falls on the 'but' it can be removed. If wind blows the 'but' off its original location, it has to be returned to its original position.

If the 'but' is accidently moved by a player, referee, spectator, animal, or boule from another game, it can be replaced.

If the 'but' is in a puddle, but not actually floating, it is considered to be correctly placed.

Article 12

If the 'but' lands in kingdom come, but is within the rules of Article 9, and they are in turn within the rules of Article 7, the 'but' can be played where it lies - so long as the players are courteous to whoever's space they have accidently invaded.

In Case of a 'But' Becoming Null and Void

If there are still boules left by both teams to play, the game is annulled. If only one team has boules left to play, they get awarded points for each remaining boule. If neither team has boules left to play, the game is annulled. A 'but' is considered null and void if it cannot be found within five minutes of its disappearance.

Placing the 'But' After Interference

If the 'but' is hit and it in turn hits a spectator or the referee, it is returned to its last 'legal' position.

The other condition is when the hit 'but' is stopped by a player of either team. Three choices arise:

- The 'but' can be left where it is.
- It can be returned to its original position.
- On an 'official' field of play, the 'but' can be placed on a straight line between its original location and where it ended up. The second two choices are only available if these positions were 'marked.' If this is not the case, the 'but' remains where it is.

Article 15

This is one article about 'buts' too many. See 'Distances Required for Placing the 'But'' above.

Tossing the First Boule - Article 16

The first boule is tossed by the player who won the preceding game or who wins the coin-flip or short-straw competition. Players are not allowed to mark the field in any way. When the player tosses his last boule, he is not allowed to have a spare boule in the other hand.

Players are not allowed to dampen boules or the 'but.'

If the first player's boule ends up 'out-of-bounds' then the opposing player shoots. If everybody's boules end up 'out-of-bounds' then the last team to toss, restarts the game.

Conduct of Players and Spectators

When a player is about to toss, everybody is supposed to keep quiet. Opposing team members are not supposed to distract the shooter in any way. Only the player's own partners are allowed in the area between the 'but' andphoto: two men, boules where the player is. Opposing players are supposed to stay at least two metres away from the sides of the 'but.'

Incidents to Boules

No thrown boule can be replayed, unless the course of the boule is interrupted by accidental interference by boules from neighboring games, animals, balloons, lightning, falling objects and in the case of the possibility mentioned in the second paragraph of Article 8.

No practice shots are allowed.

Boules wandering over to neighboring designated marked fields are subject to Article 19 (below) and/or Article 9 (above).

If the playing field is enclosed by a barrier, the 'out-of-bounds' line must be 30 cms from the barrier. The actual playing field must be four metres from the 'out-of-bounds' line; that is, within it.

Cancellation of Shots

Boules are disallowed if they are thrown over 'out-of-bounds' areas. Boules returning to the field from 'out-of-bounds' by any means, are to be taken out of play. Every boule considered 'zero' has to be removed from play. If this is not done before the next boule is played, then the 'zero' boule is considered to still be in play.

Interference of Boules

Boules interrupted in their normal path by spectators or the referee, are played where they fall. If stopped by a player on the same team, the boule is considered 'zero.' If stopped by an opposing player, the boule can be re-played of left where it has fallen.

If a player, on the team opposite to the one which caused the fault, stops a boule, he may choose to leave the boule where it lands, or have it placed on the line between the original circle and the boule or 'but.'

Any player who voluntarily stops or interferes with a moving boule, is immediately disqualified along with his team, and they lose the game in progress.

The Length of a Game

After the 'but' is thrown and stopped rolling, each player has one minute to toss his boule. The same limit applies to thrown boules. Players who take too long, face Article 10. The same rule applies to the beginning of each round.

Location of 'But' and Boules

Because of nature and other odd circumstances, the locations of the 'but' and the boules should be 'marked.' This action is necessary to avoid disputes.

Play Your Own Boule

If, by accident, a player throws somebody else's boule, then he will be warned. If this boule is not immediately replaced, it will be considered as a 'good play.' If there is a reoccurrence, the toss by the player at fault is annulled and the boule is returned to its proper place.

Players are supposed to wipe all dirt and mud off their boules before playing them. Players must wait until the end of a round before collecting their boules.

Illegal Placement of Boules

All boules not thrown from the circle are considered 'wild shots' and are void. Any objects moved by these boules must be returned to their original positions.

All the same, if an opposing player sees an advantage in this 'wild shot,' he can declare it to be okay. The original circle gets erased and the new one becomes official.

Moving the Boules for Measuring

After marking the location, boules can be lifted temporarily for measuring the distance between boules and the 'but.' If other obstacles cannot be moved, the measurement should be made by using a compass. Measurements can be made at any time during a round.

The measurement is made by the player who boule it is, or by one of his team members. Opposing teams have the right to verify the measurements. The referee has the final say.

Measurement must be made with pocket tools, which teams are required to have. Pacing off distances is not permitted.

Every boule lifted at the end of a round, before points are decided, is considered void if its place has not been marked. A team can lose a point if a member moves the 'but' or a boule in dispute, to effect a measurement.

If the referee moves 'buts' and/or boules during measuring and things get confused and estimates have to be made - then the referee is liable to have everybody down his neck.

Equal Measurements

If opposing teams have two boules equidistant from the 'but' - equally close - the result of the round is zero if there are no more boules to play. Tossing the 'but' goes the team who won the preceding round.

But if there are still boules of one team left to play, these are played, which may result in a change to the round's score.

If both teams still have boules to play, whichever player shot last, tosses again. The game continues in normal fashion until one team makes the extra point, and wins the round.

At the end of a round, if no boules are 'in-bounds,' then the round is declared void.

The Other Articles

Junk has to be removed from boules before measurement.

All disputes have to be declared to the referee during the round. If the points have been awarded, it is too late to dispute them.

Team members are supposed to watch the other team members for infractions.

All teams members have to be present for the draw to decide who tosses the first 'but' and for the announcement of the results of the round. If a team is not present for 15 minutes after a round, it loses a point and the opposing team is awarded an extra point. After morephoto: man kneeling, boules than 15 minutes' absence, another point is lost every additional five minutes.

The same penalties apply during the game, and after any official interruptions to it.

A team that does not show up within an hour of the initial draw, loses the game.

Teams missing a member can play; but not with the missing members' boules. A team member who misses a round and returns, has to wait out for a round before being able to play. If a player shows up more than an hour after a game has started, he cannot take part in it. If his team wins, he can play in the next game. If it is a sweepstakes competition, he can play in the second part regardless of whether his team won the first part.

A round - or game - is considered to have started after the 'but' has been placed, according to the usual rules.

A missing player can only be replaced by a substitute before competition starts.

Yet More Articles

If rain starts, a round is played to its end, except if the referee decides otherwise.

Basically the referee decides about Article 35, which also refers to Articles 32 and 33, about no-shows.

It is forbidden to share prizes and trophies.

Unsportsmanship is not only frowned upon, but can be penalized according to Article 36. Article 37 spells this out and mentions the penalties, which can run from a player being kicked out of a game - to a whole team being kicked out of pétanque competition, worldwide.

The referee has the last word. If this isn't good enough, disputes can go to a three or five-member jury, which has the final-final word. The president of the jury has an extra vote, just in case.

The Pétanque Players' Uniform

The last part of Article 39, which is the last Article, says that 'correct' clothing is required to be worn by players. In case this is not clear, the article specifically says, 'bare chests and bare feet' are not acceptable. Any player who shows up undressed, can be tossed out of a game by the referee.

Note: The above 'International Rules of Pétanque' are somewhat abbreviated, but should give a good idea of the official rules for what is a simple game. How the game is actually played involves skill, teamwork and on-the-spot strategy.

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