The time has come to learn how to play bocce ball. If you don’t believe me, take a look at just how popular this sport is across the globe and decide for yourself.
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After my recent trip to the Amalfi Coast, I can guarantee that this is the game you should add to your summer barbecue. From one town to the next, I watched groups of Italian grandfathers, uncles, and old friends. They were lazing the days away under the shade of olive trees engaged in games of bocce ball.
You may not have played bocce, but I assure you that your ancestors probably did!
Historians have found evidence that Egyptians were teaching their neighbors how to play bocce ball as early as 5200 B.C. Since then, the game has swept across the globe, mostly thanks to Italian immigrants.
Bocce ball is arguably the world’s oldest sport. It has the third-largest number of participants in the world (after golf and soccer). It’s played across the continents, by people of all ages and in all social classes. Bocce has seen relatively little change over the millennia. Though we no longer toss polished stones or coconuts like our ancestors, the rules and gameplay are essentially the same. With your own set of bocce balls, you can play just about anywhere you find an empty space. So, dust off your bowler hat, make yourself a refreshing Aperol spritz, and settle in to learn how to play bocce ball once and for all!
A Brief History of
Bocce Ball and Its Rise to Global Popularity
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Many bocce enthusiasts agree that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans invented the earliest forms of the game.
The word “bocce” is a plural form of the Italian word “boccia” (meaning “ball”). “Boccia” stems from the vulgar Latin word “bottica.”
The Italians also refer to the game as Volo, from the verb “volare,” which means to fly. This second name alludes to the manner of throwing one’s ball through the air in an attempt of striking away your opponent’s ball.
Bocce has been called many other names — lawn bowling, nine pins, skittles, and petanque, to name a few. The French, meanwhile, use the name “Boule Lyonnaise.”
Though it may have many different names, the game is played across the globe in almost the same way as it was millennia ago. It’s not very common to find something in contemporary culture that reflects its origins from thousands of years ago, but this game holds true.
Before you learn how to play bocce ball, let’s take a look at the history of the sport and pay respect to our ancestors who invented the game so long ago.
From Egyptian Tombs to the Roman Empire
English scientist, Sir Francis Petrial, discovered a painting in an Egyptian tomb from around 5200 B.C. In this painting, two boys are playing an early form of bocce ball, proof that bocce is arguably the oldest sport in the world.
Others believe that the sport goes back as far as 9000 B.C., largely due to some stone balls uncovered in Turkey. However, no one has proven that these balls were used to play bocce.
What we do know is that through the centuries, bocce spread out of Egypt and across Asia Minor. Around 600 B.C., Greeks were learning how to play bocce ball. And they eventually passed the game to the Romans.
Initially, bocce ball was prohibited to people of lesser nobility. The upper class believed that playing the game diverted the working class’ attention from more important tasks, such as training for battle and manufacturing supplies.
However, despite many attempts to ban the sport, bocce eventually became a popular public game. Everyone was learning how to play bocce ball, and it was accessible to those from all walks of life.
We have the Greek colonists to thank for bringing bocce with them into the new world. As they spread their empire, they taught the inhabitants of modern-day Italy how to play bocce ball.
To the Olympics and Beyond
Some say that the Roman soldiers were the first to play bocce with contemporary rules during the Punic Wars in 246 B.C. They played the game as a pleasant distraction from the stresses of war and to help keep themselves entertained.
As Italians learned how to play bocce ball, and its popularity spread, bocce was threatened once again with prohibition. Legend has it that people were playing bocce in the streets so much that they were hitting the knees of passing noblemen!
While this problem shed an unfortunate light upon the lower classes, it also brought widespread attention to the sport among Italian noblemen who decided it was their turn to learn how to play bocce ball. Soon enough, bocce became a favorite pastime across the entire socio-economic spectrum.
Giuseppe Garibaldi was a famous Italian general, politician, and nationalist who played a significant role in Italian history. But while he unified and nationalized Italy, he also popularized bocce ball as it’s known today.
Despite the early fervor, bocce has frequently lost and gained popularity throughout the ages. But it experienced an intense resurgence at the end of the 19th century.
The first bocce club emerged in 1850 in Lyon, France. In 1896, bocce appeared as an Olympic event in Athens, Greece. Then, in the Paris Olympics of 1900, bocce was featured as an exhibition sport.
Bocce has been a part of international competitions ever since.
Who Was the Best Bocce Player Ever?
Umberto Granaglia (who passed rather recently in 2008) is indisputably considered the best bocce player ever. Born in Italy, he was named “Player of the 20th Century” by the Confederation Mondiale des Sport de Boules in 2005.
Players recognize Granaglia’s visage throughout the bocce world. To many fans, he embodies the perfect bocce player.
After Granaglia learned how to play bocce ball, he had a 23-year-long career in which he won more championships than any other player. During his life, he won 13 World, 12 European, and 46 Italian Championships. He holds the record number of wins for all three tournaments.There are many great bocce champions, past and present. However, none of these players are quite as accomplished or famous as Granaglia.
How the Game Has Changed (and remained the same)
After thousands of years as a sport, it’s no surprise that bocce ball has changed quite a bit. But, on the other hand, there are a surprising number of ways in which it is exactly the same.
From ball construction to competitive spirit, modern bocce is both similar to and very, very different from its earlier versions:
Evolution of the Bocce Ball
Early bocce ball technology was crude.
In the time of Roman soldiers, players would use anything that resembled a ball, including rocks, bound rags, and fruit. Early participants were also known to use coconuts brought back from Africa. Later on, they switched to hard olive wood to carve out balls.
In the middle of the 19th century, players used custom wooden balls fortified with a few blacksmith nails. Unfortunately, these balls were defective and quick to become deformed, especially when used on rocky terrain.
Eventually, factory-made nails became available. The balls were covered in iron nails with round and flat heads and became much more durable. You could tell the different makers apart from one another because they started to use different metals (such as steel, brass, and copper) to create different designs and patterns.
In 1923, metal technology took off. Players were able to have balls made out of bronze. Makers were also able to create slight variations in weight, diameter, and pattern to fit the hand size of the player and their throwing style.
Modern bocce balls are about the size of a grapefruit. They are heavy, solid, and made of wood or epoxy. For most players, having the right set of balls is just as important as knowing how to play bocce ball.
Growth of Bocce Tournaments
In the past century or so, bocce has also become a popular tournament sport. Competitions regularly take place around the world, some offering significant cash awards to winners.
Today, the Federation International de Boules (FIB) regulates bocce play at the international level, dictating all official rules and instructing people on how to play bocce ball.
The FIB was established on April 14, 1946. Immediately after, the FIB held the first World Bocce Championship in 1947.
Today, this sport is most popular in the Mediterranean. The most skilled and highest concentration of players come from France, Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia. More than 30 nations participate in the World Bocce Championship, which occurs every other year.
Tournaments include traditional events like Singles and Doubles. They have also added newer events to the competitions, such as the Progressive Throw and Relay. These specialized events focus on the more athletic aspects of bocce rather than the original game itself.
The two biggest tournaments in the world are the Pentecote Tournament Bellecour in Lyon, France, and the Gara Alassio in Italy. Both tournaments take place over two days and welcome over 4,000 participants each year.
The Strange Legend of Kissing Fanny
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If you’re going to learn how to play bocce ball, then you also need to learn how to lose gracefully. This means you need to learn the story of Fanny.
When you’ve lost your match, and someone tells you to kiss Fanny, you shouldn’t turn red in the face or make a terrible faux pas. Though this ritual is a bit cheeky (pardon the pun), it’s not as crass as it may sound.
You see, Fanny is the patron saint of bocce ball. If you lose a game of bocce without scoring a single point, you are “être fanny” (being fanny).
Kissing Fanny, or experiencing such a dramatic loss, is the ultimate humiliation for players everywhere. And this is true in more ways than one since such a bad loss makes it seem like you don’t know how to play bocce ball at all!
So What’s Her Story?
As the story goes, just after World War I, there was a waitress named Fanny working at the Café de Grand-Temps. When someone had lost a game without scoring a point, she would take pity on them and allow them to kiss her on the cheek.
One day, the local mayor lost a game and went to the café for his prize. No one is sure what prompted Fanny to do what she did next, though maybe she was upset with the mayor for some other reason.
She lifted her skirt and offered him the other cheek!
Legend has it, the mayor didn’t even hesitate. Thus began the tradition that requires a player (or entire team) that loses a game without scoring a single point to “kiss Fanny.”
These days it’s common for bocce clubs to have a picture or sculpture of Fanny bearing her derriere, providing something to kiss who suffers this humiliation.
What You Need to
Know About How to Play Bocce Ball
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It’s quite simple to learn how to play bocce ball. At its most basic, bocce ball involves two single players pitted against one another.
Bocce, however, is really a team sport and is best with two teams squaring off. Each team can have two, three, or four players, depending on the game.
Whichever way you choose to play this ancient game, here’s what you need to know:
Invest in the Right Equipment
A standard bocce set contains eight colored balls — four balls each to a color, typically green and red — and one smaller ball, called the jack or “pallino.” You can also find sets that have four different colors, allowing more players to join in a Singles game.
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Different skill levels require different sizes of bocce balls. Beginners and kids tend to use smaller balls, but professionals use the larger ones. Regulation-sized bocce balls have a standard diameter of 107 millimeters (4.2 inches) and a standard weight of 920 grams (less than 2 pounds).
You should also keep a measuring tape on hand to accurately assess who’s bocce are closer to the pallino. And if you’re playing bocce at a barbecue with friends, it may be useful to invest in a scoreboard to minimize any potential disputes.
Learn the Basics
Each game begins with a simple coin toss. The winning team picks a player to pitch the pallino from a line at one end of the court. The pallino must land past the middle line but no further than the 4-foot line.
If the pallino lands out of the designated area, the other team will then throw the pallino into the playing field.
Next, the same player throws or rolls a bocce ball, hoping to land it as close as possible to the pallino. Ideally, you want that first ball to stop right in front of the pallino.
Then, the opposing team rolls a bocce ball, also aiming as close to the pallino as possible. Skilled players will even knock the other person’s bocce out of the way or hit the pallino itself (moving it away from their opponent’s bocce).
The team whose bocce ball is farthest away from the jack now gets to bowl its remaining three bocce balls in succession, each time trying to get as close to the jack as possible. Once they have finished, the other team also gets to bowl their remaining three balls.After both teams have bowled all their balls, the round comes to an end. The team with the ball closest to the pallino earn points, the other team does not.
Toss, Lob, Throw, or Bowl
Knowing how to play bocce ball boils down to knowing how to throw or bowl your bocce. However, there is no one right way to do it.
Every bocce fanatic will tell you several different ways, but with a few simple techniques, you can maximize your chances of landing a great shot.
It’s best to throw a bocce ball underhand. Doing so allows the thrower the best blend of control and power. Most players grip the bocce ball with the palm underneath and the fingertips resting on the front of the ball.
Alternatively, you can grasp the bocce from above, with the palm gripping the top of the ball and the wrist flicking forward at the point of release.
Though you can “bowl” your ball, it’s better to throw the ball at least partially through the air before letting it roll the rest of the way. Players often find success with either high and soft lobs or low and strong throws. Try the different methods and see what works best.
Remember that balls will roll differently on different types of terrain.
When aiming, don’t aim directly for the pallino. Instead, aim in front of the point where you hope the bocce ball will come to a rest.
For low-angled throws, aim further in front of the target point to account for momentum upon landing. Higher arcs tend to stop dead upon landing, so you can aim closer to your target.
Where to Play Bocce
Once you’ve learned how to play bocce ball, you can play just about anywhere you find a stretch of level ground. Pavement, grass, gravel, hard-packed dirt, sand, and cement will all work. Wherever your chosen court, the surface should be level.
If you have a lawn, you can mow a strip short to create a bocce court.
For a friendly game or players just learning how to play bocce ball, the dimensions of the playing field do not need to be exact. For more serious games, you should try to get as close to a regulation-sized court as possible.
A bocce court, or “campo,” is 23-by-2.4 meters, or about 75 feet long and 8 feet wide. There must be a level surface of sand or clay enclosed with boarded ends that are 45 centimeters (about 18 inches) high and sides that are 30 centimeters (or 12 inches) high.
The court is divided into areas with five evenly spaced lines. You can mark these lines by drawing them in the sand or dirt, stretching strings across the court, or placing objects at the court’s edge.
Dressing the Part
The best part of bocce is how you can modify the game to your level of competition. This game is well-suited for amateurs and professionals alike.
Just like you can play the game anywhere you find a level surface area, you can wear whatever makes you feel most comfortable.
If you play at a country club or bocce club, they may require you to wear the proper attire. Most places also require their patrons to cover their shoulders, meaning no tank tops.
No matter where you play, it’s best to wear low, soft-heeled shoes. Bocce games can keep you on your feet for a long time. Therefore, you want to be sure to wear shoes that give you plenty of support.
High heels are a big no-no, as they can tear up or puncture the court.
Scoring Points and Taking Home the Trophy
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Once you’ve learned how to play bocce, the basic rules are simple to remember. The object of the game is to roll your bocce balls closer to the pallino than your opponent.
As you’ve probably guessed, the ultimate goal is to earn as many points as possible. Here’s how players earn those points and keep score:
The game consists of several frames. Frames are played alternately from one end of the court to the other. Scoring takes place at the end of each frame, and only the team with ball(s) closest to the pallino earns points.
A team earns one point for each ball that is closer to the pallino than the closest ball of the opposing team. If a ball touches the pallino, it’s said to be “kissing the jack.” A ball kissing the jack is worth two points.
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If the two balls closest to the pallino belong to opposing teams and are exactly the same distance from the jack, neither team scores a point. Instead, the pallino returns to the team which delivered it for a re-toss.
Only balls which are proveably closer to the jack than any opponent’s balls may award points. This is why it’s good to have a measuring device to help you ensure accuracy.
Additional frames continue until one team reaches a set point total.
How to Win Bocce
More than even knowing how to play bocce ball in the first place, you probably want to know how to win bocce ball. Well, when it comes to this game, the best offense really is a good defense.
It will take some time, but to become a good player, you have to learn when to aim for the pallino and when to aim for other balls on the court. It might behoove you to knock an opponent’s ball out of play or knock one of your own balls that are already in play closer to the pallino.
Most importantly, keep in mind that winning a frame is far more critical than scoring additional points. You don’t score any points if the opposing team has the closest bocce to the pallino. So, defending your position may be wiser than trying to get an extra point or two.
Traditionally, frames continue until one team reaches a score of 12. Players may also choose other ending scores. It’s also common to use 11, 13, 15, or 16 points instead. In the end, it just depends on how long you want your game to last.
Get Your Bocce On!
Now you agree that it’s about time you learn how to play bocce, don’t you? After all, it’s a historical game that is once again sweeping the globe by storm!
Now that it’s growing in popularity in the United States, it’s gaining new momentum all around. Officials have even begun discussions to reintroduce bocce to the Olympics.
Bocce’s versatility makes it the perfect family game to play in the backyard or take on vacation. Teaching your kids how to play bocce ball could lead to years of family fun and healthy competition.
Plus, it’s a game for people of all ages, gender, and athletic ability. You can play on any level surface with anyone who is willing to try. The rules can be modified according to the player’s age, ability, and competitiveness.
Not only can you play games in the local park or your backyard, but many bocce locations are also springing up at country clubs and recreational centers across the country. So, get out there and bocce!
What techniques have you used to teach your family how to play bocce ball? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!
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