When I embarked upon this book I knew how to play marbles. Of course I did. You drew a circle or a square in the dirt, then you and your fellow players dropped in your antes and, in turn, shot at them, winning those you were able to displace from the drawn boundary lines. Right? Wrong.
The varieties of marbles games are infinite and the techniques used in playing them are various.
Marbles games through the years have generally fallen into the three categories we described -- the chase, the hole and the circle or enclosure. But refinements and ingenious adaptations have been created in different countries, even in different neighborhoods, and in different times.
How big should the circle be? Or the square? When shooting at or into a cup dug into the ground, should one shoot knuckles down or simply bowl? Should the hole be deep or shallow?
Dug out or fashioned with the heel of a boot or a shoe or a sneaker? Why in one game are holes measured precise distances apart and in others placed willy nilly?
The rules for tournament marbles are rigorously prescribed, written down, and policed and yet for similar tournament games they are amorphous and freewheeling. Why? The answers are difficult to arrive at. Marbles literature is woefully weak on historical lore; one man's rules are another's discards, and structure in Surrey is ridiculous in Wheeling. The best explanation I can come up with is usage. Games are played one way in one place simply because they have always been played that way in that place. Clear? Of course not, but valid nevertheless.
The games of marbles have historical roots, and the similarities among the types of games -- chase, hole, and circle games -- are not to be denied, but in the actual playing, substantial differences arise.
The correct way of shooting, tournament marbles dictates, is to place all of the knuckles (save the thumb) on the ground, place the shooting marble inside the first finger between the tip and the first joint, and secure it there tightly with the tip and nail of the thumb. The marble is propelled by the thumb forcibly ejecting it from its nesting place.
But other games suggest that one can shoot without one's knuckles being grounded, or with one or two knuckles to the ground. Other dictate that marbles be shot from several feet above the ground. It is also true that placement of the knuckles and the height from which shooters are propelled make marbles do different things.
Slanting the hand forward and bearing down heavily on your first knuckle when shooting will generally cause a shooter to spin backward, or spin in place after striking a target marble. A player will aim carefully for one side of a target marble or the other, and a successful hit can cause the shooting amrble to carom considerable distances in either direction, it that is the player's wish. Shooting from above ground level with invariably force the shooting marble to bounce only a short distance from the spot of impact.
Just as in billiards, "English" can be obtained, but with marbles it is the thumb that acts as the cue tip -- under the marble for backspin, toward the top for the reverse. Body position is dictated by the lay of the game. If a shooter is near enough for a dead-on aim, he more than likely will get down in a prone position, dig his chin into the ground, close one eye and shoot. Others shoot on bended knee; other hunkered down on one side of their bodies; others form a crouch or a squat.
In theory it would appear that the stricter rules apply generally to games which I like to call shooters' or gamblers' games, that is, the circle games. In these -- though one might be playing with a fried -- the aim is to wipe him out, take all his marbles, drub him, defeat him, humble him, send him home without his shooter. It's war in agate, and naturally one doesn't give an inch here, a relaxation of rules there. That's not done.
On the other hand, in chasing games and hole games particularly, the object is either fun or simply killing time. Often marbles are won but just as often these games are played for simple enjoyment.
Common to all marbles games are a few general conventions. In all types of games, hole, chase or circle, a player who fails to achieve his objective -- either to get into a hole or to hit another player -- has to yield his turn to the next player. In hole games, a player who gets his marble into the hole is allowed to take it out and place it on the lip of the hole for the next shot in the game.