Pub Games and Their History

When enjoying a pint it is tradition to while away the time with a pub game. This has the advantage of making both the conversation and the beer last longer, whilst providing entertainment, and a great way of meeting new people!

There are obvious favourites such as pool and billiards, which most people play in a pub at some point. Games such as these can attract a great deal of competitiveness as honour, and even money are often staked on the results. However, pool, snooker, and various versions of billiards are often best enjoyed as part of a friendly competition, with ‘doubles’ (whereby you have two players on each team) being a great way to break the ice. Darts is also widely enjoyed, although it is a game best played why those who know what they are doing. Landlords are often resentful of drunken punters making holes in the wall, tables and anywhere else but the board! Other favourites include chess (best played relatively sober), draughts, backgammon, ludo, connect 4 (sometimes available in giant outdoor editions) and cards, all of which require little further explanation.

History of Pub Games

The enjoyment of games in drinking establishments can be traced as far back as the Roman Tavern, where a form of chequers was played. Undoubtedly, however, gaming will have accompanied the consumption of alcohol for the entire history of drinking as alcohol consumption, naturally, lends itself to playfulness. Throughout history, pub games have varied from more passive games of chance , such as cards, to more sporting games like darts and cricket, to the downright aggressive games such as cock-fighting, duck-shooting, bear-baiting and bare knuckle boxing. Needless to say, the more violent forms of pub entertainment have long ago been legislated against (those, of course, that weren’t already illegal).

Over the last thirty years, fruit machines, quiz games and the pub quiz have become increasingly popular, reflecting changing trends in society. Fruit machines and quiz games (that are often played for money) reflect developing technologies, and a more relaxed attitude to gambling, whilst pub quizzes often appeal to a crowd often previously maligned from pub-culture – educated discerning drinkers, who enjoy a quiet and chivalrous form of competition (of course, this is often the pretext, though these quizzes can often turn to farce!).

Despite the introduction of electronic games into the pub environment , many old and obscure pub games still exist. Here are a few to look out for:

Bowls: Bowls is played in a variety of different versions, the pub version usually being based on the french version ‘Petanque’. Bowls itself is thought to originate in Egypt, over 7000 years ago.

Shove Ha’penny: Shove Ha’Penny is played on a wooden board, on which 10 horizontal lines are drawn across. The object of the game is to ‘shove’ (often with the heel of the hand) a specified coin that must land neatly between the horizontal lines. To win, you must get three coins in each zone (of which there are nine!). Variations of the game are played using different boards and different size coins.

Skittles: Skittles has a long history in the pubs of England, and is a precursor to 10 pin bowling, which attracts a strong drinking culture in the U.S. Skittles is played in a variety of versions, ranging from large scale, outdoor versions, to mini table top versions. In all cases, the object is to knock over the upright skittles with a projectile, which is usually rolled along the ground, or the base of the game. Skittles is thought to date back to early Christian Germany, where monks would knock over wooden clubs or ‘kegel’s’ with a projectile – with each kegel representing a sin.

Marbles: the game of marbles is traceable to Ancient Egypt and has, in all likelihood, existed in one from or other since the dawn of humanity. Marbles has been played for centuries in pubs, and there is an annual marbles championship held in the Red Lion Pub, Hooe, East Sussex.

Yard of Ale: The Yard of Ale is a game in which a competitor attempts to drink and entire ‘Yard’ of ale. in one go without spilling any, and without taking a breath. The Yard glass which contains 3 pints of ale is long, difficult to hold and has a bulb at the end making it impossible to stand upright . Prizes are awarded for managing to drink the entire yard, or for managing to drink the yard in the quickest time. Curiously, winners are often awarded with yet more ale!

As well as pub games that involve various props there are innumerable ‘word games’ that can also double as drinking games. The object of many of these games is to ‘drink whilst you think’. One example can be played by three or more players. The first player will say the name of a famous person, such as ’Margaret Thatcher’; the second person must say the name of a famous person beginning with the first letter of the last persons surname. For example, ‘Terry Wogan’ would be a suitable reply to Margaret Thatcher, for which ‘William Shakespeare’ would be a good reply from the third person. The game goes around and around, with each person having to ‘drink’ whilst they ‘think’ of an answer. The point being, if you cannot think of an answer you will have to drink and drink. Strangely, this builds a lot of pressure, and is also a lot of fun – a great way to get people interacting.

Pub Games are a traditional way of involving friends and strangers is open exchange, and are also an important part of the pub heritage. The existence of new and old games alongside each other points to the resilience and diversity of the British Public House.

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