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THE GAMES WE PLAYED.   8. Marbles.  [7min read]. 

Here’s another of those ancient games from pre-Christian days.  It was certainly popular in Rome. It really took off in the early 20th century when mass production of glass marbles started in Ohio, USA.  The Japanese dominated in the 1950’s with the introduction of the “glass eyes’ by putting strips of colour inside a clear marble.  The “glassies” [Afrikaans]were our favourite.

Most games started with a brief agreement on the rules of the game which could vary on any given day.  Could you swop your large “goon” for a smaller standard-sized marble when you were not shooting?  If the marble fell from your shooting fingers, was that a “glip laat le” [slip and let it lie], or could you still play a proper shot after that?  Did you have to give up your favourite shooter, especially a “sodie”[slightly roughened marble used in making sodas, especially ginger beer] or could it be swopped by paying up with a standard marble?  Could you replace your shooter with a smaller marble or irony [small ball bearing] when someone tried to shoot at it?

Site selection was critical.  Winter ws preferred for the firmer sand after the rains. We had two favourite spots.  Opposite our house to the north were the Mehls, who had a firm-packed sand patch on their pavement where a car was parked unless it was marble season.  The Stephens’s, to the south, had a similar area in their driveway.  Groups of three  to ten youngsters joined up to do battle at these sites.

To join was easy.  One placed a sacrificial marble in the “pot” which was an oblong shaped area drawn on the sand.  Marbles of the rest of the combatants were placed  in a row about two centimetres apart.  The pot was aligned at right angles to the throwing line about five to eight paces away.

One threw one’s shooter at the pot.  Most of the time one missed and the next person had a go.  If one was successful at knocking a marble out of the pot on one’s opening throw, then one immediately could shoot at the other marbles in the pot. This continued until one missed.  Any marble knocked out of the pot was pocketed so that the aim was not to shoot too hard, but the shot had to be hard enough to knock the marble and one’s shooter clear of the pot.  The rest could try their luck later with their opening throw if any marbles were left to aim at.

Once all had finished their throws, the competitors had a chance to shoot at the marbles in the pot or shooting at their opponents’ marbles.  Any successful contact of the opponent’s marble, meant they had to forfeit a marble to the shooter and go back to the throwing line.  Any successful pot shot also meant another marble in one’s pocket.

Part of the rules to be agreed was whether one could move one’s marble line-up to allow a tighter angle to the pot or shoot only from where one lay.  The more angled shot could line up two or three marbles if one missed the first one.   If one struck a marble in the pot, but one’s own marble remained in the pot then one had to forfeit the marble shot at as well as a fine of one marble which had to be put into the pot for being in the “vet” [fat].  The dryer strips with more loose sand resulted in more people trapped in this fashion.

“Glassies” were favoured items as were the slightly roughened surface of the “sodies” which were preferred as shooters.   Appropriate sized “ironies”[ball bearings] could also be used, though I found them too slippery.

I tended to “knyp in die hoender se hol” [pinch in the fowl’s bum] with my shooter between thumb nail and mid-index finger.  A calloused thumb nail was a sure give away of my shooting technique.

My “pinching”                              The better technique            The “slingshot”, the ultimate style

The better shotsmen used the thumb and tip of index finger.  The best marksman, by far, was an occasional visitor to his aunt’s place. He used a two-handed slingshot action with marble held between the left index and middle fingers while the right middle finger was used to flick the marble at great speed to the target.

This visitor managed to clean us out regularly and many of us would not play when he was around.  He was just too good for us.  He was also the only player who could smash a marble with his shots, especially when he used an irony.  His was a unique skill.

Here was another of those games that went on for hours and I generally lost most of my marbles. [My kids would say that I really did!! Thanks guys.]. It was a rare day when I returned with more marbles in my pocket than when I started the game, but it was the challenge of those rare wins that brought me back each day till the season was over.  Many decades later, golf has the same fatal attraction for me.


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