Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Pub games

Table skittles
I was in a pub in Southport a couple of weeks ago and noticed that a poker night was taking place. It's not something I've come across much before and it had me thinking about the various games that I've seen in pubs.

I used to play darts and even had my own set, which were black with black flights. Someone once said they looked like something out of Star Wars - as used by Dart Vader, I replied. My playing, like the joke, wasn't very good.

Chess and draughts are other games I've played in pubs, and although I enjoy a game, I am, again, not very good at either. I've seen backgammon, but I've no idea how to play it, but as it's associated with gambling, I'm not likely to find out as gambling has never interested me.

Table skittles and shove ha'penny are games I haven't seen in pubs for years, although dominoes can sometimes be found still. Table football was very popular in our student bar, and I did become quite adept, often taking on two opponents single-handed and beating them, which actually isn't quite as impressive an achievement as it sounds, but it looked good.

Bar billiards 
Bar billiards is a game I haven't seen since the 1970s, the last time was possibly in the Plough in Croft near Warrington. You'd hit the cue ball from one end of a table about the size of a pool table into one of 9 holes, easy enough so far, except that there also three mushroomed-shaped skittles; if you knocked one of these down, your break ended and you lost points. It was good fun but much harder than you'd think, and far more interesting than pool.

Very few pubs today still have full-size billiards tables, probably because they take up so much room. The last time I had a go, which was in a pub in Warrington, I couldn't get the hang of it at all - the level of skill required is far higher than pool, and certainly much higher than my ability. I did use to play pool a lot, although I wasn't very good, although one Saturday afternoon in my (then) local I beat all comers for about 3 hours, and in a pool competition at work, I once lost the game on my last shot in the final: I completely missed the black that I was trying to pot. My opponent had already started walking to the bar and had to be called back to take the final shot, and win the cash prize. Generally, though, my tenure of the pool table tended to be short.

I'm glad that quite a few pubs still have bowling greens. I remember when we students would go to the Plough in Houghton Green near our college and occasionally have a game of bowls. Although we enjoyed ourselves, the old fellows watched us and had a good laugh at us hippies (as they thought of us) being utterly useless on the bowling green. Still, it was nice way of spending a sunny afternoon, especially when you were supposed to be in a lecture.

A game I've only come across only in one pub was pétanque, in which you throw metal balls on a gravel pitch and try to get closest to a jack; it's also sometimes called boules. Another good summer game, but the pub concerned doesn't have the pitch anymore.

The key point about all of these activities is that they are social; you play them with other people, and you can still have a pint and a chat. Games machines, on the other hand, are solo activities: the companions of the player are reduced to spectators and often have to remain quiet so as not to disturb his or her concentration. They're not sociable activities and don't really fit into the pub ethos; their natural home is the amusement arcade. Proper pub games should enhance your enjoyment in the pub, not restrict it.


  1. I used to play bar billiards at my first local, its was there when i started going about 1989 for a few more years until they refurbished the place and it went. Great game, more interesting than pool

  2. Pool is a bit of a lowest common denominator game - the rules are much less complicated and it is easier to play. Plus, in American films, the good ol' boys in bars are always playing pool. Imagine a redneck drawling, "Y'all shooting bar billiards?"

  3. The Black Horse in Croston used to have a round pool table in the small front room. The room was so small you could only stand in one place, hence rotating the table to get the white in front of you. I seem to remember you had to rotate the table very slowly so as not to cause the balls to move off their position on the table.

    I've not been there for a while, but they used to have a bowling green and a boules pitch at the back of the pub.

  4. I've heard of, but never seen, a round pool table; the curve must make cushion shots trickier.

  5. Many pub games are certainly in decline, but there's still plenty of gaming going on if you know where to look. Long Alley and Table Skittles are still popular in the Leics/Northants area where I live, and Pétanque is a big game in Rutland with over 50 teams playing, mostly from pubs. I've been photographing some of these games for a blog, it has taken me to some great pubs I perhaps wouldn't otherwise have gone to, ie. off the beer geek trail: http://pub-games.blogspot.co.uk/

  6. Some interesting stuff on that website, Mark. Well worth a look.


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