One of the strongest memories I have of my elementary school years in Patrick Henry Village is that of playing marbles. But this wasn’t the familiar game of marbles where you draw a circle in the dirt, place all the marbles in the center, and then try to knock them out. Oh, no. In PHV, the game had become an art form. It may not have been unique to PHV, but I haven’t met anyone Stateside who has ever heard of this form of the game. Could it have been adapted from a German game?
Whatever the origin, the version of marbles we played at PHV was enormously popular among school-age boys. Everyone had their collection of marbles and often would display their prize possessions in a tin Sucrets lozenge box, which was perfect for displaying around 12 or 15 of your finest marbles. I recall back pockets having the familiar rectangular bulge of one of these containers, and the rattle it would make with each step.
Finest marbles? There was a complex hierarchy to determine the perceived value of each of these glass orbs. I say perceived because I’m sure it was almost wholly concocted by the kids themselves with little basis on actual rarity, and probably if you drifted from one of PHV’s many playgrounds to another, you’d find a different group of kids who might have different names and valuations for the same things.
But as I recall, at the bottom of the ladder of desirability was the Cats Eye. Everybody had lots of those. One of the most coveted marbles was the Bumble Bee, black and yellow and rarely seen. One time an older kid offered to sell one for a dollar, and my brother and I sprinted back to our apartment to try and be the first to get the money from our parents. Other marble types I recall off the top of my head are: Woodies, Steelies, Boulders, Milky Ways, Inkies, Green Grassies, Crystals, Striped Zombies, Hitlers, Beach Balls, Blue Bonnets, Sandstorms, Presidentials, Root Beers, Butterscotches, Bloody Marys, Spaghettis, Batmans, Ghosts…. The list went on and on and was probably infinite because I’m sure a lot of the names were made up on-the-spot in a bid to seem more knowledgeable than your opponents. For instance, I recall having an ugly green and brown marble which a classmate assured me was called a Polluted Water. That seems fairly unlikely, looking back, but I took this very seriously at the time and would often pore through my cheesecake tin full of marbles identifying them and admiring the ones I thought were more valuable.
How to Play
The rules were just as nonsensical and infinite as the names of the marble types, and it’s been over 30 years since I played, so I’m unable to fully explain how it worked. But here’s my best attempt.
Our game of marbles revolved around the pot, which was a small hole in the ground. Sometimes you’d find a popular patch of dirt with several pots dug into it for varied play. Shallow pots were of advanced difficulty because you could shoot your marble in one side and it would roll out the other. Sometimes a few extra marbles would be placed in the pot to act as blockers and make things easier.
At the start of the game, everyone would start a fair distance away from the pot and take turns shooting their marble toward it. Shooting the marble generally consisted of making a loose fist and flicking your thumb outward, but the middle finger was also a popular technique. At this stage, the game was a race to get into the pot first because whoever did that would get to call the rules for this particular match. It was very similar to a friendly game of poker, really, where the dealer of each hand might call different rules such as making dueces or one-eyed Jacks wild. I couldn’t begin to describe all the rule variants that were in every boy’s repertoire at the time, but it was very important that you get to the pot first so that you could choose the rules that you felt would give you the best advantage.
Once the rules were set, the objective changed. Now your goal was to eliminate other players from the game. Players had different states; I don’t recall them all, but there were maybe four and I know one was Poisoned. If you think of the game HORSE in basketball, this worked similarly. Everyone would start with a clean slate and would progress through the different states until they hit Death, when they were out. Gaining a new status is like gaining a letter in HORSE–it brings you closer to losing the game.
To progress another player toward Death, you had to hit their marble with yours. So after calling the rules for the game, this player would shoot outward from the pot toward the best target. If he missed, it could be bad luck for him because his marble might then be easy prey for the next player. If he hit, then he got another turn. I think normally he was allowed to hit the same target a second time to advance it yet again, but I’m guessing one of the spontaneously invented variant rules disallowed this.
Once you’d been hit, your status would continue to deteriorate one step with each turn you took. So your priority would be to get your marble into the pot, which would reset your status to the beginning so that you could keep playing. If you took too long to get to the pot or missed that critical final shot, then you were eliminated from the game. Obviously this reset ability could make for some extended matches, and I recall several times being called home to dinner but trying to hurry and finish the game first.
Games could be played for Funs or for Keepsies. Most of the time, you’d want to play for Funs because Keepsies meant that the winner would get to keep your marble forever! So if you did decide to play for Keepsies, the marble you chose to play with would be a very important decision and there might be some negotiation between players to make sure everyone was gambling similarly valued pieces. It seems like sometimes there would be additional marbles wagered as well, and they would be placed in the pot until a winner emerged.
It sounds crazy and inconsistent and broken and I’m sure that it was, given that your opponent always seemed to know of some additional rule which you hadn’t heard before. But at the time I didn’t suspect a thing, I just saw it as a fascinating and complex game where collecting the marbles themselves was just as fun as playing the game.
If anyone has heard of something resembling this form of marble game, I’d love to hear about it and see where perhaps my memory is faulty or just incomplete.