by Ray Ager
Pétanque is officially defined as “a sport in which three players play against three players (triples)”. The game can be enjoyed at any level, from the player who enjoys a Sunday afternoon game to the keen competition player who trains daily and enters a competition every weekend. Each country has its own governing body and there is a programme of club, regional, national and international competitions, culminating in an annual World Championship.
Pétanque is like any other sport, if you take it seriously then you need to learn the correct techniques and practise regularly – a classic case of “easy to learn but difficult to play well”.
In contrast to lawn bowls, pétanque is traditionally played on an uneven, unprepared terrain. The traditional French village square will have tree roots, stones, gullies where the rain drains, ruts from the market vehicles. All of this makes up the “character” of the terrain and “reading” the terrain is very much a part of the game.
While the uneven nature provides an element of luck for the beginner, it provides a test of skill for the experienced player, who will study the terrain carefully before deciding where best to land the boule so that it isn’t deflected and what type of shot, rolling, half-lob or high-lob to play.
Compared with French terrains, many terrains over here tend to be rather smooth, some clubs raking the terrain flat, removing stones, etc. Rather than only playing on the flatter, smoother parts of the terrain, much better to try the rougher, uneven areas to improve your pointing skills. Remember, when you have the jack, you choose where you want to play to best suit your own team and disadvantage the opponents. Practise playing on all parts of the terrain, don’t just play up and down the same area.
Every terrain is different. Playing on different surfaces will help improve your game.
Any serious player will use competition boules, not the sets of cheaper leisure boules found in gift shops. It’s important to choose the correct size boule to fit your hand and the most suitable weight, hardness and stripe pattern for your style of play. Most players start with a set of cheaper hard boules and move on to either soft or semi-soft boules when they have gained the necessary experience. As a rough guide, 73 or 74mm is an average size, 700g is a good average weight, suitable for all-round play. Permitted weights are 650 to 800g, size/diameter 70.5 to 80mm, minimum hardness 110kg/mm2.
The different shots are pointing, getting a boule near the jack, and shooting, hitting an opponent’s boule out of the way. Triples teams are usually made up of a pointer, shooter and middle player, who can point or shoot as the game dictates. Doubles teams are usually a pointer and a shooter. Playing singles, you must be able to both point and shoot. Triples is the best format, as it offers the most scope for team tactics with six players and is also the most social. In contrast, singles is more of a “minimalist” game, offering less scope for tactics.
The stance can either be squatting or standing. Squatting offers the best view of the terrain and is the recommended stance, especially for shorter ends, 6 to 8m, and hard, rolling terrains.
There are three main shots to learn:
- Rolling, where the boule lands close to the player and rolls most of the way to the jack. Used mainly on hard, smooth terrains.
- Half-lob, where the boule lands about half-way between the circle and the jack and then rolls. A common shot, used to land the boule to avoid any stones, blocking boules, etc.
- High-lob, the boule is thrown high with a lot of backspin, so that it descends almost vertically and lands near the jack. A difficult shot to learn but very effective on wet terrains or thicker gravel where the boule doesn’t roll as much, or where there are blocking boules.
The Landing Spot/La Donnée
Selecting la donnée is the key to successful pointing. Reading the terrain and choosing the correct landing spot is a key skill required for accurate pointing. The landing spot should be flat and free from stones that will deflect the boule. Remember the rules allow the team about to play to fill in any one hole. This can help prepare the landing spot. Although many players do it, especially in informal, friendly games, you are not allowed to smooth over the terrain or prepare a landing spot during a game.
Practise the different shots at different distances. Mark different landing spots and practise throwing the boule to land on them.
The classic shot is a direct boule-to-boule hit (au fer). Although more difficult, the main advantage is that the shot isn’t affected by the terrain. The alternative is a rolling shot (à la rafle) where the boule rolls along the ground before hitting the target boule. This is very much frowned upon by pétanque purists. Its main disadvantage is that you can only do this on a smooth terrain and where there are no blocking boules.
If you can, practise shooting into a tyre which teaches you the correct arc for shooting, and practise shooting the middle of three boules, again, forcing you to use the correct arc. Make sure you practise at all distances – if you can only shoot at short distances, the opponents will simply play a long jack!
Although some shooters do throw the boule quite hard, this isn’t necessary: many shooters use a much gentler lob, about head height, to land onto the target boule.
Shooting doesn’t require much more strength than pointing – “if you can point, you can shoot” – simply the target is different: for pointing it’s the landing spot, for shooting it’s the target boule.
Many say that shooting is easier than pointing where you have to take into account the type and irregularities of the terrain and be able to play a range of different shots.
The main thing to remember when shooting is that the body stays still and only the arm swings backwards and forwards, like a pendulum. You must aim straight to hit the boule …
Pétanque is a highly tactical game: Chess on Gravel is one description.
Where to place the jack is the first consideration: long or short, on smooth or rough ground? You want to best advantage your own team whilst disadvantaging the opponents. Of course, you need to be able to accurately throw the jack where you want it. Although sometimes neglected, throwing the jack is an important part of the game that needs to be practised.
Placing the first boule, is the next consideration. Boule devant, boule d’argent, meaning a boule in front (of the jack) is better than one behind or to the side. If a boule is too close to the jack, a competent team will simply shoot it out, giving them the advantage (especially if they do a carreau to boot). About 30 to 40cm in front is usually considered best, as this presents more of a dilemma for the opponents, whether to point or shoot.
Tu tires ou tu pointes? Do you shoot or point? This is the question you’ll be asked when playing in France, to determine your position in the team. Whether to point or shoot (the next boule to be played) is the main tactical consideration in games. As a rough rule of thumb, point if you think you can beat the opponent’s boule, otherwise shoot. However, many factors need to be taken into account:
- the score and how many points you need
- the ability of the players
- the risk of a shot going wrong, either pointing or shooting
Why shoot? The most common reason is to remove an opponent’s boule that’s difficult to beat. Other reasons include:
- To gain extra points – you have 4 boules in the head but the opponents are holding the second nearest boule to the jack. If you shoot it, you will win 4 or 5 points. If you point, you can only win 1 or 2 points.
- To remove a blocking boule which risks being knocked on to score if you point.
- Shooting the jack, either to win extra points or to save a hopeless end.
“Shoot first” or “point one, then shoot”? The opponents have played a good first boule, do you shoot it straight away or “point one, then shoot”? Like everything in pétanque, it depends. You need to evaluate various factors:
- If you carreau, all well and good, but if you remove the boule but don’t carreau, will you have the advantage? Perhaps you need to “point one, then shoot”.
- What’s the risk of the jack moving? If the boule is on or close to the jack, the risk is higher and you should probably shoot first. If you point first, then shoot and the jack moves, your pointed boule may well be wasted.
- If you point and your boule is close to the target boule, you’ve made the shooter’s job more difficult – don’t blame them if they hit the wrong boule!
- The pointing and shooting abilities of both teams.
- Play as a team, agree the jack, evaluate the head and agree what shot to play.
- Blocking boule? Don’t aim straight at the jack, play to the side.
- Don’t play two shots (pointing or shooting) consecutively without stepping outside the circle either for the team to reevaluate/check what the team should do next or to gather yourself together.
- Playing with and against different players on different terrains will improve your game much more than always playing with the same players on the same terrain.
- Join the EPA to play in national and regional competitions, and play in other clubs’ events. It’s great fun and the best way to improve your game.