Short answers to the top 7 FAQs about the rules of petanque

(1) The jack is dead. What do we do now?
If only one team has unplayed boules, that team scores the same number of points as it has unplayed boules. Otherwise, neither team scores any points. The circle is placed on the assigned terrain, as close as possible to the place where it (the jack) was last alive. The team that last scored points, throws the jack.

(2) What do you do when two boules are the same distance from the jack, or when the terrain is empty?
When one of the teams has the point, the other team throws. When neither team has the point (as in these two cases), the teams throw alternately until the point is decided, starting with the team that threw the boule that created the undecided point.

(3) What do you do when the first boule thrown goes out of bounds?
The other team throws its first boule, and alternate play continues until one team has the point.

(4) If a boule hits something overhead (tree branch, light fixture, ceiling) is it dead?
No, not unless the boule horizontally crossed a dead-ball line at some point.

(5) What do you do when a player accidentally picks up the circle too soon?
Put it back as close to its original location as you can, and carry on with the game.

(6) What do you do when a player accidentally picks up a boule too soon?
Do not call the umpire. Put the boule back as close to its original location as you can, and carry on with the game.

(7) How does the “stepping back” rule work?
When placing the circle, if there is no direction to which you can throw the jack to 10 meters (bearing in mind that a jack thrown to 10 meters must also be at least a meter from all dead-ball lines), you may stand in the circle, face the circle’s position in the previous mene, pick up the circle, back away from the circle’s previous position until there is some direction in which it is possible to throw the jack to 10 meters, and put the circle down in that new location.


The hidden jack and Articles 9 and 11

Article 11 says–

If, during a mene, the jack is unexpectedly hidden by a leaf of a tree or a piece of paper, these objects are removed.

Some players hold that Article 11 is about only leaves and pieces of paper, and that Article 11 is NOT applicable if (for example) a plastic bag blows onto the terrain and hides the jack. But of course that’s wrong.

Leaves and old newspapers are given only as examples, and Article 11 is clearly meant to apply to other things too. If something from outside the game comes onto the terrain and hides the jack from the player in the circle, then that alien thing should be removed. It doesn’t matter what that alien thing is, how many there are, or how they got there. It could be a leaf, two leaves, three leaves, a piece of paper, an old plastic bag, an empty soda bottle, a soccer ball, a balloon from a nearby birthday party, a meteor from outer space.

It is true, though, that a rule written in terms of examples (rather than criteria) is a badly-written rule. Article 11 does require interpretation. While exploring possible interpretations, players have asked some interesting questions about borderline situations. Some are hypothetical, but some really happened.

  1. The jack is half-buried in soft dirt. A player tries to shoot the jack, but his boule falls short. It hits the ground in front of the jack and pushes up more dirt, completely hiding the jack.
    • Is the jack dead (as specified in Article 9, “The jack is dead when the displaced jack is not visible from the circle.”)?
    • Or should the pushed-up dirt be removed (like a leaf, as specified in Article 11)?

  2. A player tries to shoot the jack. His boule misses, hits the ground, and pops a large stone out of the terrain. The stone flips through the air and lands directly in front of the jack, hiding it. ► Is the jack dead? Or should the stone be removed?
  3. A player points a boule. As it rolls across the terrain it encounters a leaf. It pushes the leaf ahead of it as it continues to roll. When the boule finally stops, the leaf is sitting in front of the jack, hiding it. ► Is the jack dead? Or should the leaf be removed?

When these questions were discussed on the “Ask the umpire” Facebook group, the consensus was that in all of these cases the jack is hidden and dead. Presumably the commenters felt that Article 9 was the applicable article; two actually cited Article 9.

This is interesting because Article 9 is about “the displaced jack” and the jack isn’t actually displaced in any of these situations. Why did the commenters feel that Article 9, rather than Article 11, is the applicable article?

My guess is that they used the interpretation of Article 11 that I proposed at the beginning of this post—

If something from outside the game comes onto the terrain and hides the jack from the player in the circle, then that alien thing should be removed.

The expression “something that doesn’t belong in the game” is of course quite loose. But after years of playing, players have an instinctive feeling about what is part of the game and what is not. The jack is part of the game. The boules are part of the game. So is the surface of the terrain. Soft dirt in some areas of the terrain, partly-buried stones in the terrain, even leaves lying motionless on the surface of the terrain… these are all normal and familiar. They are parts of the terrain, and as such they are part of the game.

And of course, we’re used to boules pushing bits of the terrain around. Thrown boules make divots. That’s why there are rules about filling holes in the terrain.

If all of these things are part of the game, then in none of the three situations did anything alien, anything from outside the game, come onto the terrain. I think that’s why none of the commenters chose to apply Article 11. And with Article 11 out of the running, the only other applicable rule is Article 9. The jack can’t be seen from the circle, so it is dead.

Leave things where they are (and forget about marked positions)

In petanque, there are only a few things that can legally (note: legally) move a ball in a game. It can be thrown by a player. It can fall onto the terrain and bounce or roll. It can hit or be hit by another ball in the game. And that’s about it.

By "ball", I mean a boule or jack. By "move a ball" I mean change the ball's location or speed or direction of movement... to "displace, stop, or deviate" it.

There are a lot of non-legal things that can move a ball. The wind. The shoe of any human being. A dead boule bouncing back onto the terrain. A child or an animal or a football crossing the terrain. Being thrown “contrary to the rules”.

In all such non-legal events, the default course of action is simply to leave things where they are and carry on with the game.

Muttering under your breath is therapeutic, but optional

The FIPJP rules repeatedly mention another course of action— to put the ball back in its original location if that original location was marked. Some players take the repeated references to marking the balls as an indication that they should always mark the locations of everything. And they claim that, where they play, that’s what everybody does.

That’s nonsense. First of all, in normal play nobody does it.  In all of Youtube, you will not find a single petanque video filmed in the last 20 years in which the players routinely mark even the jack.  (At one time, it was traditional for the team that threw the jack to immediately mark the jack’s location. That way, if the first boule pushed the jack and the opponents challenged the jack, the original location of the jack could be established. But that custom faded long ago.)

Second, marking everything is a terrible idea.  There were enough problems with circles drawn on the ground, back before plastic circles appeared in 2005. In a triples game of 10 menes, we would need to draw only 10 circles.  But we would need to mark 130 initial locations of jack and boules, plus perhaps 40 more locations for balls that are moved. There would be so many marks on the ground that if you wanted to return a moved boule to its original location, you wouldn’t be able to find that location amidst the welter of marks on the ground.  To control the mess, you’d need to sweep the terrain after every mene.

There are a few situations in which the wise player will mark the location of the jack.  On a windy day, you should mark the jack in case it might be moved by the wind.   Or if another game moves into a position where its boules might come onto your terrain, you might want to mark the locations of your balls.  But it’s certainly not something you want to do all the time.

So if you’re out playing with your friends, and nothing is marked, and a ball is moved in some non-legal fashion, don’t worry. You know what the standard, officially-approved FIPJP course of action is. Just leave everything where it is and carry on.

If you’re with friends, and you know where the original position was (even though it wasn’t marked), and everybody is cool, you can put it back. But remember that in an organized, umpired tournament, if the umpire comes over and he doesn’t see marks on the ground… everything stays where it is.


Redrawing the circle

Article 6 says –

One of the players of the team that won the draw chooses the starting point and draws or places a circle on the ground such that the feet of each of the players can fit entirely inside it. However, a drawn circle may not measure less than 35cm or more than 50cm in diameter.

A common question about this rule is –

I can’t fit my feet inside the circle that was drawn by the opposing team. What should I do? Can I redraw the circle myself?

The answer is NO, you can’t redraw the circle if it was drawn by the opposing team. The proper procedure is to point out that the circle is too small for your feet, and to ask the opposing team to redraw the circle.

Don’t be shy. 35 centimeters, the minimum legal size for a drawn circle, is about 14 inches. Unless you have unusually large feet, a circle that is too small to hold your feet was probably illegally small to begin with. If that is an issue, you can always take out your tape measure and measure it.

Remember… When deciding whether or not your feet fit inside the circle, you must be standing with your feet together, side by side.

There is a proper procedure for redrawing the circle.

  • Do NOT extend the old circle outward in one direction, so that it becomes an oval rather than a circle. The new circle should be as close to a proper circular circle as you can make it.
  • Draw the new circle so that (if it was drawn precisely) it would share exactly one point with the old circle, the point that was closest to the jack. Here is a diagram.

When the circle is redrawn, note that it doesn’t have to be redrawn so that it is a full 50cm in diameter. It only has to be big enough so that you can stand with feet together, side by side, and they fit entirely within the new circle.

The string is not the boundary line

A playing area contains an indefinite number of terrains defined by strings… —Article 5 – “Playing areas and regulation terrains”

Boundary lines are like invisible walls rising up from the ground, separating lanes from other lanes and from out-of-bounds areas. When the authorized officials lay out the lanes in the playing area, they are in a sense doing two things— installing the invisible walls, and installing strings to show players the locations of the walls.

A string shows the location of a boundary that was installed by the authorized officials. But the string itself, as a physical object, is not the boundary line, and moving it does not move the boundary line.

Recently a question was posed to international umpire Mike Pegg.

A boule moving rapidly toward the out-of-bounds line is caught by the boundary string. The string stretches and then, like a bowstring launching an arrow, pushes the boule back onto the terrain. Like this.
boule_stretches_stringIn the scenario depicted in the picture, did the ball cross the boundary line or not? Is the boule dead or alive?

Mike answered

[T]he boule would be considered live if it has not fully crossed the dead ball line. … In the diagram the boule has not crossed the line…. so it is not dead.

In Mike’s view, the string is the boundary line. It follows that if a boule moves a string, it moves the boundary line.

I disagree. In my view—

  1. The string is not the boundary line.
  2. Anybody or any thing can move the string. But the boundary moves only when the string is installed or moved by an authorized official.
  3. In the diagram, the boule moved the string. But it did not, and could not, move the boundary line.
  4. The boule completely crossed the boundary line. Therefore, it is dead.

When a player must leave during a game

It happens. In the middle of a game, a player must leave. Perhaps there is sudden news of a family emergency. Perhaps he is attacked by a sudden bout of illness. Perhaps he is attacked by a BEAR!  In any event, he has to leave.

When this happens, his teammates are left with the question “How do we carry on with the game?” Sometimes the question is “Bob had to leave. Can Jim play his boules?”

How does the game proceed?

The answer is a definite “It depends.”

If the context is a formal, organized competition, the first option is to replace the player who is leaving with another player. To do this, the affected team would call the umpire, notify him, and get his permission/approval for the change. (In the FIPJP world championships, the triples teams are required to have four members. The fourth member is a backup for just such situations.)

In a formal competition, if no replacement player can be found, the remaining players can NOT play the boules of the departed player. They must continue by themselves, with each player playing only his own boules.

Still… umpires have a lot of discretion in making decisions that allow competitions to continue smoothly. Each situation is unique, and a particular umpire in a particular set of circumstances might see other options.

If the context is a friendly game, the players can be more relaxed about following the letter of the law. The affected team would try to find a replacement player. Failing that, the remaining teammates could increase the number of boules they play.

Just as an umpire has a lot of discretion in making decisions in a formal competition, the players in a friendly game are free to continue in any way that is acceptable to both teams. The players might, for instance, simply stop the game, re-form the teams, and start again.

Where you run into problems is in a friendly but competitive game (no umpire) where one team is happy to proceed in a relaxed way, while the other team feels that “the rules are the rules”. In such a case, there can be disagreement about how to proceed.

At this point we have a human relationship problem, not a question about the rules of petanque. This is tricky territory. But if you can remember that this is not about the rules of petanque, but about getting along with people who you want to keep as friends for a long time, you’ll be OK. You’ll figure out something.