2020 rules – removing the “moistening” rule

[For other posts about the 2020 rules and changes to the rules, see THIS.]
For many years, Article 16 of the FIPJP rules said this: “It is forbidden to moisten the boules or the jack.”   Its counterpart in the rules of Petanque Libre was: When a player plays a boule, the boule must be clean and dry (weather permitting). I assumed that it was an anti-mud rule, like the rule that you must clean mud off of a boule before measuring. (You have to measure to the surface of the boule, not to the surface of a mud coating.)

It seemed a straightforward rule, so I was surprised when it was removed in 2020. If it was so straightforward, then why, I wondered, was it removed? And I began to wonder— If the FIPJP international umpires were so willing to remove it, why was it in the rules in the first place? I started surfing around the web, looking for answers.

Why did the moistening rule exist in the first place?

When I was a beginning player, a friend told me that a wet boule will pick up dirt as it rolls, slowing it down. To my friend, playing with a wet boule was like playing with a stuffed boule— a form of cheating. Just as stuffed boules are forbidden, so wet boules are forbidden.

This seemed implausible to me. It seemed unlikely that a wet boule could pick up enough dirt as it rolled to significantly affect its motion. If it could, the amount of dirt and its effect would be unpredictable.

Another theory is that the rule is designed to keep players from spitting on their boules, a gross, unhygienic practice that harms the image of the game. Not likely. If you want to prohibit players from spitting on their boules, write a rule prohibiting spitting on boules, like the rule that prohibits smoking during a game.

There is another theory. With a bit of moisture on a boule, some players can throw a boule whose trajectory will curve in mid-air, like a spitball in baseball. That gives skillful players an unfair advantage over less-skillful players, an advantage that is somehow “outside the spirit of the game.” But I don’t buy that, either. First, I doubt that it is possible to throw a curving spitball with a petanque boule. Certainly, it has never been shown to be possible. Even if it is possible, I don’t think that it would be a useful skill in petanque— unlike in baseball, a shooter or a pointer isn’t trying to get around an opposing player standing in the head. And even if it is useful, I see no reason to ban it. Certainly there is nothing unfair about some players being more skillful than others.

Another theory is that a little moisture on the hand (and so on the boule) gives a player a better grip on the boule. This seems to me plausible and true. Jac Verheul says—

During a lot of years I played with a wet towel. Not in order to moisten my boules, but just to moisten my hand. In that time I played with stainless steel boules that always slipped out of my hand, even when they had some grooves. But since about 2004 I play with carbon steel boules, and there is no more reason to moisten my hand. It’s all a question of a good ‘grip’.

Behind many of these theories, in addition to the idea that playing with wet boules must provide some kind of advantage, is the idea that that advantage— whatever it is— must somehow be unfair. I don’t understand that idea, and 15 years ago neither did Graeme Burnard. Graeme was (still is?) a member of Petanque New Zealand. In 2006, he wrote a post called Rules, Rules, Bloody Rules in which he rails against petanque rules that make no sense— stupid rules. One of the stupid rules is the moistening rule, aka the “wetting the rag rule”.

I understand it is illegal to wet one’s rag as “it gives one an unfair advantage”. Excuse me? Isn’t that about as silly as banning sunglasses, hats with a brim, sleeveless shirts… Wouldn’t they all give you some advantage over someone who was wearing no hat, and wearing overalls and woolen long johns when it’s 30 degrees Centigrade.

Listening to Jac and Graeme, I’m beginning to understand that for all practical purposes, the moistening rule wasn’t a rule against moistening the boules. It was a rule against playing with a wet boule towel.

This is from Graeme’s post.

Anyway, the whole reason for putting pen to paper was about a rule I discovered whilst playing in the Kapiti Open Doubles last weekend and I have to confess that I cheated during the tournament. Not only did I cheat, I knowingly cheated, and not only did I knowingly cheat, I enjoyed cheating knowingly. It is so bad, I can’t bring myself to mention it, but I have to because I wouldn’t be able to face my conscience ever again. I…….., I………, I………(come on Graeme, be brave), I……… WET MY RAG!!! There, I’ve said it!!. Oh, the relief!!!!

Yes, I wet my rag. Oh my God. I gave myself an advantage over the other 47 teams. It worked too. We went from 27th to 26th place. Now, I understand it is illegal to wet one’s rag as it gives one an unfair advantage over the opposition. Excuse me? Isn’t that about as silly as banning sunglasses, hats with a brim, sleeveless shirts, crutchless underwear. Wouldn’t they all give you some advantage over someone who was wearing no hat, and wearing overalls and woolen long johns when it’s 30 degrees Centigrade.

I actually used my rag to put around my neck to cool off. Having suffered in the last 12 years from Legionnaires Disease, a heart attack and a mild stroke (and I am not yet 50) I get tired easily and feel the heat and now some tosser is going to tell me I cannot wet my rag to cool off. Apparently the rule actually relates to wetting your boule, but I cannot see how that can give you an advantage. What scientific studies have been done to ascertain this and wouldn’t the boule blow dry itself as it sailed through the air on its way to a perfect carreau so any advantage would soon disappear?

I understand that one player in last year’s Trans Tasman had his wet rag taken off him. I mean, really, have you ever heard of anything so stupid.

In a comment on the post, Andy Gilbert (National & International Arbiter) wrote—

As you mentioned there was a recent incident at the Trans Tasman. Unfortunately I was the official at that infamous game. Acting on direct instructions from the international arbiter, Andre Deramond, to enforce the ‘wet rag rule’ throughout the tourney I called the Tahiti team captain for using a wet rag and asked her to take it away from the terrain. With ill grace she tossed it to the side. The other team members also made a hasty effort to change rags before I inspected them. I assume they were all using moistened rags.

So again we see the moistening rule being interpreted as forbidding players from playing with a wet boule towel.


There are a couple of comments on Graeme’s post that I find especially interesting. In the first, Tom van Bodegraven says—

I agree with the essence of what Graeme Burnard wrote. If a rule makes absolutely no sense and can not be justified through common sense or science, it should be removed. [Other commenters] have brought up many examples of the absurdity of Art. 16. I do not know how and when this Article 16 came about, but I feel the people responsible [i.e. the FIPJP international umpires who wrote Article 16] should be charged with bringing the game into disrepute. Maybe a submission should be tabled at the forthcoming PNZ AGM for the removal of Art. 16 from our NZ playing rules.

In the second, Michael E writes—

If the rule is stupid then we (or PNZ) do have the right to change it. We’re not beholden to FIPJP as to how the game is played in this country.

Note that what we’re seeing in these two comments is a grassroots call for the removal of the moistening rule. This is in 2006, 15 years before the FIPJP actually did remove it.

In another comment, Michael E notes that although New Zealand umpires interpret the moistening rule as a ban on wet boule towels, some other umpires do not.

During the World Championships 2006 Final, one of the Belgian players grabbed a bottle of water, wet his rag, and rung it out over the terrain. This was in front of the crowd, the opposition, on national TV, and with two arbitres… who watched him and took no action.

Michael goes on to make the same point that Jac Verheul made earlier.—

Most of the reasons given for a supposed advantage [of playing with a wet rag] are ridiculous and unfounded. I know myself, and I’ve spoken to many players who play with a wet rag, and the perceived benefit is only that the contact between the ball and the hand is ‘cleaner’ if the hand is slightly damp. Remember the rag is damp, not wet. Any moisture applied to the ball will evaporate before it is played anyway.

All of that was being floated as long ago as 2006. And it still is. Apparently, not long ago, at an international competition, there was an incident involving an umpire, a wet boule towel, and a Thai player who was using the wet boule towel to help keep cool. (I don’t know any more details of the incident. If you do, I’d appreciate it if you left a comment.)

What was the moistening rule REALLY about?

I think it’s fair to say that nobody has been able to offer a good reason for the moistening rule, and that nobody knows why the rule was originally inserted into the FIPJP rules. What is certain, however, is that umpires widely interpreted the rule as banning players from playing with wet boule towels or rags.

This is a problem. Many players actually do like to use a wet boule towel, and they have good reasons for doing so. In hot, tropical climates, carrying a wet boule towel can help a player stay cool. A wet boule towel can help keep a player’s hands from becoming uncomfortably dry. Above all, a wet boule towel may improve a player’s grip by keeping his/her hands slightly damp.

These benefits (or “advantages” if you will) should be available to all players. Some players believe that the FIPJP rules forbid players from wearing gloves because wearing gloves gives a player an “unfair advantage”. They are mistaken. The FIPJP rules do not forbid glove-wearing, and any benefits/advantages that gloves confer are not unfair— they are available to all players equally. If I’m wearing gloves and you want to wear gloves too, you can. The same (now, in 2021) is finally true of carrying a wet boule towel.

Why was the moistening rule removed?

Now that it’s gone, we can ask: Why was the moistening rule removed?

Mike Pegg says that the rule was removed “because it is extremely difficult if not impossible for the umpire to enforce/check that each and every player is not using a damp cloth.” Note Mike’s reference— not to damp boules but to a damp cloth.

I doubt if we’re ever going to find out why the moistening rule was removed now, in 2020. But given that there never was a good reason for the rule, and given the fact that players have been deeply unhappy with the rule for decades, it seems silly to ask why the rule was removed now. The appropriate question is— Why wasn’t it removed years ago?


2 thoughts on “2020 rules – removing the “moistening” rule

  1. Op 10.02.21 om 23:57 schreef The Rules of Petanque:

    Hi Jules,

    As always, an interesting post.

    As a former secretary of our Dutch Rules Committee, I am always interested in your opinions. They help us in translating the rules from French/British English to Dutch, and sometimes give new insights when interpreting them in case of unclear wordings.

    One of the other members of the committee (Niek Tholen) reminded me that the late chairman of our rules committee (and of the Dutch Federation), Frans van Voorst, had another plausible explanation for the existence of this rule. He reasoned that this rule originated from the time where Tuberculosis was a non-neglectible risk — by spitting, the other players might risk being infected as well.

    If he was right, abandoning this rule has been a bad idea, especially in the current Corona crisis…

    Kind regards,

    Boudewijn Waijers, currently member of the Dutch Disciplinary Committee.

    > WordPress.com > Jules Lenoir posted: “For many years, Article 16 of the FIPJP rules > said this: “It is forbidden to moisten the boules or the jack.”   Its > counterpart in the rules of Petanque Libre was: When a player plays a > boule, the boule must be clean and dry (weather permitting). I ” >

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