Bar Games

Words by Simon Difford

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Like so many sports played around the world, England is also where many, if not most, of the world’s bar games originated. Despite this, similarly to the sports we Brits have exported, the rest of the world now seem better at playing them. In the spirit of gamesmanship and being good losers we dedicate this page to the world’s bar games and the people who play them.

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Arm Wrestling

Requiring nothing but a table, two arms and a high embarrassment threshold, welcome to the world of arm wrestling (or armsport, according to the World Armsport Federation, which is campaigning for Olympic status). Attempts at an ironic revival have yet to prove as media-worthy as the World Toe-Wrestling Championships, held annually at Ye Olde Royal Oak in Wetton, Staffordshire, England.

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Pinball seems to have originated from the homely Victorian game of parlour bagatelle. Initially, bagatelle was played with cues on a large table. Later, it was shrunk and a plunger mechanism introduced, so that players had to fire a ball into one of a number of holes, all surrounded by pins.

The first pinball games, produced in the 1930s, were thin variations on bagatelle. The ball was shot up towards pin-guarded holes on a decorated board, and players had to shake (or 'grunch') the machine to steer the ball. With the introduction of flippers in the 1940s, more sophisticated electronics in the 1960s and computerisation from the 1980s, pinball has continued its pub dominance.


Like so many other English pub games, skittles dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. And then some. German monks were playing a version of it as early as the 4th century. Since the rise of ten pin bowling in the second half of the last century, nine-pin skittles has entered something of a decline, but there are still leagues in Nottinghamshire and the West Country.

The essence of all the various forms of skittles is to throw or roll a projectile down an alley in the aim of knocking down nine variously shaped wooden clubs, or skittles. Rules vary from region to region, as do projectiles - barrel-shaped cheeses are popular in Leicestershire, while London skittles uses a 10lb, discus-shaped cheese. In Hertfordshire a wonky wooden ball is traditional.

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It is surprising that a game requiring such complexities of mental arithmetic as cribbage ever established itself as a pub classic. A favourite of gentlemen gamblers in the 1600s and of seamen on sailing ships throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, play is fairly simple: it's the scoring that's hard.

Basically, the aim is to be the first to score 121 points or more - or to move your pegs all the way round the board. Six cards are dealt to each player, who discard two each and place them face down to form the 'crib'. They then take it in turns to lay down a card face up until one player cannot put down a card without taking the total value of cards on the table over 31. At this point the other player takes over. If they cannot go, play starts again with a new card until both gamers have played their hands. Points are scored for the cards that have been played (whether pairs, flushes, straights or last cards), and the dealer gets the points from the crib. There is an extremely lucid guide to the rules of cribbage online here - or just ask at your nearest English country pub.

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Shove Ha'penny

Versions of this deceptively skilful game have been played in British taverns for 600 years or so and there is at least one competitive pub league still active on the Isle of Wight. Shove Ha'penny is closely related to a game called Shovelboard, which was played by the aristocracy in olden times. Shovelboard involved pushing lumps of metal up a 30 foot table and betting on the outcome and in 1532 King Henry VIII lost £9 to one of his lords at it.

Unsurprisingly, the coins in use have changed somewhat over the last six centuries but the rudiments remain the same. Basically, the table is marked out with a series of horizontal lines. Players have to push their ha'pennies up the table and make sure they land between the lines, not touching them. More sophisticated boards have lift-out brass rods below the lines so that players can check that the ha'penny has landed correctly. The aim is to score three ha'pennies in each set of lines - no more, no less.

Pitch Penny etc.

A game so blissfully simple that even the drunkest medieval peasant could have remembered the rules, Pitch Penny is still occasionally played in rural areas. AKA Penny Slot, Penny Seat, Toss Penny and Penny in the Hole, it involves throwing a penny into a hole in the back or seat of a settle or bench. And, err, that's it.

Slightly more sophisticated is Toad in the Hole. This consists of throwing large brass discs at a table with a hole in the centre from a distance of about 8 feet. You score one point for a toad on the table and two points for a toad in the hole.

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A version of dominoes has been played in China since the 12th century and seems to have reached Europe through Venice and Naples. It arrived in Britain in the late 1700s, probably thanks to French prisoners of war, and instantly caught on in the pubs.

There are endless variations on how to play dominoes, but the simplest is the block game. The tiles are divided up equally between the players, who keep their hands secret. Whoever has the highest double starts and play goes round clockwise. A tile can be placed adjoining any tile with an identical number on it - thus, if a player has a 6:2 tile, the next player can put down either a tile with a 2, or a tile with a 6. Tiles can be placed at either end of the line of dominoes, and double tiles are played crosswise. Dominoes is still extremely popular across the Caribbean.

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A truly venerable game, this has been played in England for at least a thousand years in pretty much the form it is today. It may have originated with horseshoe throwing or may even date back to the Ancient Greek Olympics. Nobody really knows. But certainly by 1388 enough lowlifes were playing it in taverns for the government to make it illegal. Which, like most forms of prohibiting fun, clearly worked an absolute treat.

True quoits is not a game for wimps. It involves throwing steel rings weighing 5-10lb anything from 11-18 yards (depending on which version you play) at a pin embedded in a 3 foot clay square. The point is not necessarily to hit or encircle the pin but to occupy key points within the square and block your opponent's team. Quoits is rarely played in England, but Scotland and Wales still play an annual international.

Aunt Sally

Barely seen outside Oxfordshire, England, Aunt Sally is still hugely popular within the county, where there are several pub leagues. The game has been played there since the 17th century and some suggest it took root when King Charles set up court there during the Civil War. It seems to have evolved either from a version of skittles or from an unpleasant tavern game where punters threw sticks at a tethered cockerel until the one who killed it got to take it home for dinner. Nice.

Essentially, players have to throw sticks at a small wooden doll with the aim of knocking it off a swivelling platform. There are generally eight players to a team and each gets six sticks to throw one at a time from a distance of ten yards. Hitting the doll is apparently surprisingly hard.

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Pool is one of a whole raft of games which descends from the 14th century game of ground billiards - a game very similar to croquet. Ground billiards began to be played on tables in the 1400s, although it was played with mallets rather than cues, and the pockets were obstacles to be avoided. Early versions also featured a croquet-like hoop through which to direct the balls.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the various different types of table billiards began to seriously diverge. Snooker emerged from one branch, pool from another and pinball from a third. Pool as played in pubs and bars today is eight-ball pool, one of a series of American variants which emerged in the early 1900s. Rules vary hugely from place to place, but the general aim is to pot all seven of your own colour balls (whether red or yellow) followed by the black. Today pool is second only to darts in popularity, although table football is re-emerging as a challenger.

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Ringing the Bull

An extremely ancient and now very rare pub game, this is so simple that not even the most competitive of country pubsters have organised a team or a league. It allegedly originated with the Crusaders, who brought it back from their visits to the Holy Land - given it is still played in Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, the Crusader pub built in Nottingham, England in 1189, there may be some truth in this. It seems plausible that the ring was a version of the swinging steel rings which early knights used for target practice with their lances.

An indoor game, the aim is to swing a metal ring suspended from a rope onto a horn or hook in the wall - originally, this would have been a bull's horn. This can be done clockwise or anti-clockwise - even behind one's back. Experts will start their swing close to the target and the holy grail of bull ringing is a throw which goes round the room twice before landing on the horn.

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This very English of sports (yes is far more than a mere game) will forever be associated with large-breasted ladies and ample-bellied gents. One of the more recent pub games, darts originated in the nineteenth century as a game called 'Puff and Dart', where players had to use a blowpipe to speed darts to their target. Inadvertent inhalation could be fatal.

'Dart and Target', the basis for the modern game, emerged at the turn of the last century and by the 1930s was a relatively popular pub sport. Then in 1937 the King and Queen toured a social club in Slough and indulged in a quick round. Popularity mushroomed and today 6 million people play darts regularly.

But don't call it sexist. The British Darts Organisation formally complained when Kelvin Mackenzie started Topless Darts on Live! TV. Apparently, the get-your- tits-out-and-win-a-T-shirt format was 'undermining the sport of darts and demeaning to women'. In that order.

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The oldest known board game, backgammon is beloved of Bond villains, Mediterranean geriatrics and English public school travellers. Highly popular as a gambling game and played for tens of thousands of dollars by high stake plyers, it works perfectly well played for no money in a bar. The rules are a bit complicated for a proper pub game but the aim is to bring your pieces round the board using dice, then remove them from the board altogether. The 'gammon' of the name is an old English word for 'game'.

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Table Football

Like so many European inventions, it took the Americans to popularise table football. While football has been played for many centuries, 'foosball' seems to have originated in German villages between the wars. It was played as a post-match relaxation with clumsy metal figures and wooden rods.

When the war ended troops brought the game home. Plastics and metal were no longer prioritised for weapons manufacture, and baby foot began its rise to world domination. In the 1980s and 1990s trendy media agencies often had footie tables in their offices (we even had one in our office), and it is currently undergoing a huge resurgence in pub popularity.

Bar Billiards

An obscure version of the family of games which encompasses, variously, pool, snooker and pinball, like all the best pub distractions this is infuriatingly simple yet genuinely challenging. The aim is to pot balls into various holes without knocking over the skittles which are placed around the table. You score for potting balls but lose points for dislodging the skittles - an unlucky strike on the black skittle will cost you an entire game's points. The ubiquity of pool has made this fine game something of a rarity, but the World Championships are still played yearly. In Jersey.

All the old-fashioned games featured here can be bought online at

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