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Knucklebones, or Jacks, is a game of very ancient origin, usually played with five small objects. Originally the "knucklebones" (actually the astragalus: a bone in the ankle, or hock) were those of a sheep, which were thrown up and caught in various manners. Modern knucklebones consist of six points, or knobs, proceeding from a common base, and are usually made of metal or plastic. The winner is the first player to successfully complete a prescribed series of throws, which, though similar, differ widely in detail. The simplest throw consists in tossing up one stone, the jack, and picking up one or more from the table while it is in the air. This continues until all five stones have been picked up. Another throw consists in tossing up first one stone, then two, then three and so on, and catching them on the back of the hand. Different throws have received distinctive names, such as "riding the elephant," "peas in the pod," and "horses in the stable."
As with many children's playground games, the game is known by a wide variety of names including astragaloi, hucklebones, dibs, dibstones, jackstones, chuckstones, five-stones jackrocks, onesies, jax, kugelach, batu seremban, or snobs.
The origin of knucklebones is closely connected with that of dice, of which knucklebones is probably the more primitive form. Sophocles, in a fragment, ascribed the invention of knucklebones to Palamedes, who taught them to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain allusions to games similar in character to knucklebones, and the Palamedes tradition, as flattering to the national pride, was generally accepted throughout Greece, as is indicated by numerous literary and plastic evidences. Thus Pausanias mentions a temple of Fortune in which Palamedes made an offering of his newly invented game.
According to a still more ancient tradition Zeus, perceiving that Ganymede longed for his playmates upon Mount Ida, gave him Eros for a companion and golden dibs with which to play. He even condescended sometimes to join in the game (Apollonius). It is significant, however, that both Herodotus and Plato ascribe a foreign origin to the game. Plato (Phaedrus) names the Egyptian god Thoth as its inventor, while Herodotus relates that the Lydians, during a period of famine in the days of King Atys, originated this game and indeed almost all other games, with the exception of chess.
There were two methods of playing in ancient times. The first, and probably the primitive method, consisted in tossing up and catching the bones on the back of the hand, very much as the game is played today. There is a painting excavated from Pompeii, currently housed in the Museum of Naples, which depicts the goddesses Latona, Niobe, Phoebe, Aglaia and Hileaera, with the last two being engaged in playing a game of knucklebones. According to an epigram of Asclepiodotus, astragali were given as prizes to schoolchildren, and we are reminded of Plutarch's anecdote of the youthful Alcibiades, who, when a teamster threatened to drive over some of his knucklebones that had fallen into the wagonruts, boldly threw himself in front of the advancing team. This simple form of the game was generally only played by women and children, and was called pent alit ha or five-stones. There were several varieties of this game besides the usual toss and catch; one being called tropa, or hole-game, the object of which was to toss the bones into a hole in the earth. Another was the simple and primitive game of odd or even.
The second, probably derivative form of the game was one of pure chance, the stones being thrown upon a table, either with the hand or from a cup, and the values of the sides upon which they fell were counted. In this game, the shape of the pastern-bones used for astragaloi as well as for the tali of the Romans, with whom knucklebones was also popular, determined the manner of counting. The pastern-bone of a sheep, goat, or calf has two rounded ends upon which it cannot stand and two broad and two narrow sides, one of each pair being concave and one convex. The convex narrow side, called chios or the dog was counted as I; the convex broad side was counted as 3; the concave broad side was counted as 4; and the concave narrow side was counted as 6.
Four astragali were used and a total of 35 different scores were possible in a single throw. Many of these throws received distinctive names such as: Aphrodite, Midas, Solon, and Alexander. Among the Romans, some of the names were: Venus, King, Vulture, etc. The highest throw in Greece counted 40, and was called the Euripides. It was probably a combination throw, since more than four sixes could not be thrown at at a single time. The lowest throw, both in Greece and Rome, was the Dog.
The modern game
The modern game may use a rubber ball, and the knucklebones (jacks) are made of metal or plastic. There are variants of the rules, for example: the players decide who goes first, usually through "flipping." This is when the set of jacks is placed in cupped hands, flipped to the back of the hands, and then back to cupped hands again; the player who keeps the most from falling in his/her turn goes first; or perhaps via ip dip, (or Eeny, meeny, miny, moe), or a variant thereof. Then the jacks are scattered loosely into the play area. The players in turn bounce the ball off the ground, pick up jacks, and then catch the ball before it bounces for a second time.
The number of jacks to be picked up is pre-ordained and sequential; at first you must pick up one ("onesies"), next two ("twosies"), and so on, depending on the total number of jacks included, the number may not divide evenly and there may be jacks left over. If the player chooses to pick up the leftover jacks first, one variation is to announce this by saying "horse before carriage" or "queens before kings." The playing area should be decided between the players since there is no official game rule regarding that.
The winning player is the one to pick up the largest number of jacks. If playing with fifteen, that goal is rarely, if ever, achieved. Regardless of the total number of jacks in play, the player who gets to the highest game wins. Game one is usually single bounce (onesies through tensies); game two is chosen by whoever "graduates" to game two first, and so on. Some game variations are "double bounces," "pigs in the pen," "over the fence," "eggs in the basket" (or "cherries in the basket,") "flying Dutchman," "around the world," etc. Some games, such as "Jack be nimble," are short games which are not played in the onesies to tensies format.
Games played with knucklebones
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- Over hand ones, twos, threes, fours—first "jockey" then eliminate all you have caught except one. Throw this one up and whilst it is in the air quickly pick one (two, three, or four) up off the ground, and then catch the one you threw up. Repeat with remaining knucklebones. You are able to sweep the knucklebones prior to picking them up.
- Scatter ones, twos, threes, fours—Scatter all five, select and pick up one, throw it up and without "sweeping" proceed as above.
- Dumps—hold five knucklebones in the palm, then dump them in a heap on the ground. Select one which you must take away without disturbing any others. Throw this one up, pick up other four, and catch the first one.
- Reverse Dumps-hold all jacks in the hand, throw one up and dump all others down on the floor. Then throw the one up again and pick up the four to finish.
- Overhand scatter ones, twos, threes, fours—first "jockey" then proceed to scatter remaining knucklebones.
- Clicks—first "jockey" then proceeded as with over hand ones. When catching the one you threw up the knucklebones must click.
- No click—same as above but knucklebones must not click
- Little jingles—first "jockey", continue as over-hand ones, but keep all jacks caught in your hand at all times (including those caught while jockeying).
- Big jingles—same as above but all jacks must be thrown up each time.
- Juggles—First "jockey". Throw one in the air and whilst it is in the air pick up another, throw that second one up, then catch the first, then catch the second. Proceed until all the jacks have been completed.
- Horse in the stable—First "jockey". Then put the tips of your five fingers of one hand on the ground, so as to make four arches. If, in "jockey" you catch say two, you put one in the 'stable' formed by your hand. Throw the other one up and whilst it is up 'sweep' another jack through one of the arches so that it stays in the stable. You can 'sweep' as many times as you like. Proceed until all 4 are stabled (each jack MUST go through a different arch!) When the 4 are in the stable take the hand away throw the fifth jack in the air and whilst it is up pick up the four and catch the fifth.
- Through the arch—As above, but only make one arch with the thumb and forefinger, and allow only one 'sweep' to get each jack through.
- Over the line—First "jockey". Place your (left)hand down on the ground. Put all the jacks caught except one, on the left side of the hand. Throw your jack up in the air and whilst it is up quickly move a jack from the left to the right hand side of the hand. Do this until all four jacks are on the left side and try and keep them together. There must be no sweeping. When the four jacks are in the position to throw the fifth up and pick up the other four and catch the fifth.
- Over the jump—as above except you put your hand vertically on its edge instead of on the ground so it makes it harder.
- Thread the needle—Same as above except the jacks have to be dropped through a circle made by the thumb and forefinger that is held about 8 inches from the ground. Once all have gone through—pick them up.
- Eggs in the basket—Same as above except the your hand is cupped palm up to form the basket, the jacks have to be placed in the "basket" without clicking, as this will break the eggs
- Catching flies—As 'scatter ones' but the catch must be done with a quick snatching downward movement making it much harder than the ordinary system of catching with palms upwards.
Other challenges include:
- This is the house that Jack built—The house that jack built is when you separate your knuckle bones into a square form. Then you go around the square with your finger saying this is the house that jack built; then you throw it up in the air catch it and put it in the middle. If, however, you land in an empty space, your turn is over.
- Camels—Lay the 5 jacks on the ground in a row so there are no gaps between them. Then move the second one to the end, the fourth one to the end and then pick up the second one from the end. Jockey this one onto the back of your hand. Then pick a finger to use, and with the jack on the back of your hand, move the finger in and out and around the jacks on the ground without touching them or dropping the one on the back of your hand. Once you have woven through them all, throw the one on the back of your hand into the air and pick up ALL of the others (in one movement), finally catching the fifth.
- Boats in the harbour—The same as "Horse in the stable" except hand is flat to the ground with fingers wide apart.
- Cut the cabbage—The same as "catching flies" except instead of a downward swipe, a horizontal swipe is performed when catching the jack—as if a whole cabbage is in front of the player and is being sliced through the middle.
- Flush the Toilet—Like "Big Jingles" except you must hit the ground twice (flush the toilet) each time you throw the knucklebones up.
- Sweep the Kitchen – Arrange four jacks in a square, throw one jack up and pick up one jack from the square (a kitchen “chair”); while holding that one, throw a jack up again and “sweep” the floor underneath it. Throw the jack up a third time and put the “chair” back down. Repeat for all four “chairs”. Then throw the jack up again and pick up all four at once to finish.
A similar game is played in many African countries using pebbles without a rubber ball.
Another variation played in Australia uses five knucklebones from a lamb shank or colored plastic objects that resemble the knucklebones. The player tosses the five jacks in the air catching as many as possible on the back of the hand, then tosses the jacks on the back of the hand, flips the hand over, and catches as many as possible in the palm. The player then puts down all but one jack which he or she has caught and tosses the last jack in the air and attempts to pick up each of the remaining jacks that are lying on the ground before catching the tossed jack in the same hand. In the first round, the jacks are picked up one at a time, in the second two at a time, and so on.. Variations include swapping hands, playing with one's eyes closed, clapping quickly before picking up the jack, "catching flies" (where the jack that is tossed in air is caught overhand after the one on the ground has been picked up), and playing with a second set of jacks placed between the fingers – first one, then two etc.
Another variation played by Israeli school-age children is known as "kugelach" or "Chamesh Avanim" (חמש אבנים, "five rocks"). Instead of jacks and a rubber ball, five die-sized metal cubes are used. The game cube is tossed in the air rather than bounced.
In the North East of England, the game with five cubes (wooden rather than metal) is called "chucks". A similar game to the Israeli game above used to be played in the Midlands and was called "snobs".
A very similar variation called "beş taş" (or "five rocks" again), is played by children in Turkey with five pebbles. One pebble is tossed into the air and the player tries to pick up those on the ground one by one, then two by two, and so on, before catching the pebble in the air.
In Brazil, there are two common variations of the game. The first is similar to the Turkish version and played with pebbles. In the second, the pebbles are substituted by small cloth bags filled with either grains (the most popular being rice), or sand, and sewn shut.
In modern day Korea, a similar form of jacks called gonggi (pronounced, gong-gee) is played by children. The differences here are that they use five weighted plastic "stones" called gonggi and the game is played without a rubber ball. The goal of the game is to throw one gonggi into the air, snatch up another on the ground, and catch the first gonggi before it hits the floor. The game progresses in this fashion, similar to jacks, until all gonggi have been picked up. Then the gonggi are placed in the palm of the hand, then flipped onto the back of the hand. Depending on how many land on your hand, you add a certain amount of years. At the beginning of the game the players will determine how many years they are playing to.
"Chinese Jacks" were a popular version of jacks in the United States in the 1980s. They are made up of small, colorful, linkable plastic rings that can also be used for making friendship jewelry, chains, hopscotch, diving toys, etc. To play the game you first make five jacks by linking nine rings around one center ring. Then the game play is very similar to gonggi.
The "taba game" (Jogo do Osso, in Portuguese) is an alternative name for knucklebones. It is a very popular game played by the gauchos of 19th century Argentina and Rio Grande do Sul. The game originates from Greece.
The game is played in a field where the taba or talus bone is thrown to the air. Upon falling the people making bets guess if it will fall upward (suerte) or backward (culo).
- FN David. Games, Gods and Gambling: A history of probability and statistical ideas. London: Charles Griffin & Co., 1962. rpt New York; Dover, 1998. p 2.
- Herodotus, The Histories, Book I
- Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here