I have been playing Bocce for about six years or so. It is an old game of “boules” that the Roman Legions used to play when they weren’t marching and conquering their neighbors. Since the Romans took the game with them wherever they went it became established in various locations from the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa to the borderlands of Scotland. Over the last 2,000 years there have been various regional variations of the game. There is a Greek version that varies somewhat from the Italian versions, which vary from the French version. Scotland has it’s own version. The game has probably died out in a few places only to be reintroduced a few generations later. In Italy there are minor variations based on regions — Sicily has a few different rules from what might be played in Rome or up in the north. Italian immigrants have introduced Bocce to any country where they settled. There is a newer French version called “Petanque” that originated around 1907 in the south of France that is played with hollow steel balls and does not require a formal court but can be played in a park and even around trees.
Here is a short description lifted from Wikipedia: Boules is “is a collective name for a wide range of games in which the objective is to throw or roll heavy balls (called boules in France, and bocce in Italy) as close as possible to a small target ball.” That covers it — in a nutshell. The target ball is called a Pallino (or sometime a Jack). It is much more complicated than that but essentially just as simple as that.
I live in New Mexico now but I first began playing the game in Missouri before I moved west. St. Louis has a large Italian population centered in a neighborhood called “The Hill”. There are several public bocce courts in the neighborhood and some people have courts in their back yards. I played a couple times at a local spot on “the Hill” called Milo’s. In Jefferson City, where I was living, the city built a couple courts in a local park and a micro-brewery opened two courts out in a patio area. I joined a bocce club and we played every week – year round. We even played on ice and on water saturated courts. Missouri summers are brutal – hot and humid – but we played anyway.
In 2013 I moved to New Mexico, just outside of Albuquerque. After about six months I decided to build a bocce court so I constructed one, with my neighbor’s help, out of scrap lumber and seven tons of crushed stone. Every bocce court I had played on was made with a crushed stone surface. Some courts are surfaced with oyster shell “flour” that provides a nice smooth surface. We don’t have oysters in New Mexico. My court is new so the crushed stone is a little loose and has to be groomed if it is used a lot. We went ahead and put in horseshoe pits next to the bocce court… just in case someone wanted to play horseshoes.
A few months later I discovered that there was an Italian-American social club that played bocce every month in Rio Rancho’s Haynes Park. Rio Rancho build two bocce courts of regulation size — but they were surfaced in a green carpet material…somewhat like a putting green. I started going each month but almost everything I knew about playing a good game of bocce was geared to a crushed stone surface. This was totally different — practically a different game. The court was super fast. I was used to lofting the ball for about eight feet so it would cover the distance but lose some forward energy and momentum when it hit the crushed stone surface and roll to the target pallino. Lofting a ball on the surfaced courts would send it flying toward the back board and out of play. Also, the players were very good at banking the balls off the side boards to get around other players’ balls and reach the pallino. I was not much of a side board player. My game suffered greatly on the surfaced courts and practicing on my home court wasn’t helping. I was struggling.
After about nine months of this one of the younger Italian players was my partner for a Saturday bocce session. He noticed my problem and gave me some pointers. I had a good eye and a straight aim but I was trying too hard and sending my balls past the pallino. I also need to lay the bocce out with a good roll and not loft the ball. Okay — I’ll try anything. I changed my delivery and my game improved. It got better the next month to the point that I was holding my own when teamed up against more experienced players.
The Italian-American club sponsors an Italian film festival and helps support the local children’s hospital. To that end they decided to hold a charity bocce tournament. I happened to be at the right place at the right time and I ended up being half of a two-person team…me and Cindy. Cindy was at about the same skill level as I am….meaning that we really needed some practice. We had a month to get ready so we had five or six practice sessions and I went over to the courts and practiced on my own a couple times.
Tournament day came pretty fast. We had to play six games over two days as a qualifying round to get into the quarter finals. We did not pose much of a threat but we were not push overs either. We managed to win only one game but all games were high score games and we were contenders right to the end of each game. The day dragged on and on. The referees allowed thirty minutes for each game but every game went over forty-five minutes because the teams were well matched and were having to fight for every point. Frames were moving forward one point at a time. To save time, they switched our last game of the first day to another court that we were not familiar with and that was our worst game of the tournament. We didn’t embarrass ourselves — we had a reasonable total number of points but we were not winning games. I think, in retrospect, that that was partially a mental problem. We were trying to win games when we should have been trying to win frames. We would be doing great…sometimes even a few points ahead…but we would have one dismal frame that allowed the other team to get three or four points and then we could not catch up. So — we didn’t make the quarter-finals.
All of the teams were playing better than usual all through the tournament. The teams in the finals were either teams that everyone guessed would do very well or were teams that had very good games and surprised everyone…including themselves. The semi-final game was amazing to watch. One experienced team got well out in front but the ‘dark horse’ team would not give up and struggled back from a seven point deficit. They tied it up. You could have heard a pin drop — the spectators were absolutely quiet. The winner had to win by two points and the score was flipping by one point from one team to the other at each frame. Finally the ‘dark horse’ team managed to get two points and won the game for third place.
For the final, the game was more lopsided. We had an unknown team show up but the young “kid” was the grandson of one of the long-time players. They got off to a good start but faltered once or twice during the qualifying round — they were beatable but very good. They managed to get into the final game to play against one of the usual good teams. “The kid” and his partner proved to be unbeatable during the final and won the whole thing.
I’m usually not a very competitive person in sport situations. I play for fun — but I admit that I was pretty much caught up in this tournament. I will be practicing for next year.