Tiddlywinks is an indoor game played on a flat felt mat with sets of small discs called "winks", a pot, which is the target, and a collection of squidgers, which are also discs. Players use a "squidger": a disk (nowadays made of plastic) used to propel a wink into flight by pressing down on the edge of a wink, thereby flicking it into the air. The objective of the game is to score points by sending your own winks into the pot and preventing the opponent from "squopping" your winks by placing your own winks on top of them. As part of strategic gameplay, players often attempt to squop their opponents' winks and develop, maintain and break large piles of winks.
Tiddlywinks is sometimes considered a simpleminded, frivolous children's game, rather than a strategic, adult game. However, the modern competitive adult game of tiddlywinks made a strong comeback at the University of Cambridge in 1955. The modern game uses far more complex rules and a consistent set of high-grade equipment. The rest of this article concerns the adult game.
Tiddlywinks is a game for four players, playing in partnerships, though it is often played between two opponents, each playing the role of two partners. Each player controls the winks of one colour, the colours being blue, green, red and yellow. Red and blue are always partners against green and yellow. There are six winks of each colour, which begin the game in the corners of a felt mat measuring 6 feet by 3 feet. This mat is usually placed on a table, and a pot is placed at its centre.
The players take turns, and there are two basic aims: to cover (or squop) opponent winks, and to get one's own winks into the pot. As in pool or snooker, if a player pots a wink of his own colour, then he is entitled to an extra shot, and this enables a skilled player to pot all of his winks in one turn. The point of squopping, which is the key element distinguishing the adult game from the child's game (though recognized in even the earliest rules from 1890), is that a wink that is covered (even partially) may not be played by its owner. The wink on top may be played, though, and top-level play involves sophisticated shots manipulating large piles of winks.
The game ends in one of two ways; either all the winks of one colour are potted (a pot-out), or play continues up to a specified time limit (usually 25 minutes), after which each colour has a further five turns. Then a scoring system is used to rank the players, based on the numbers of potted and unsquopped winks of each colour.
National and international organisations
There are two national associations, the English Tiddlywinks Association (ETwA) and the North American Tiddlywinks Association (NATwA) (the Scottish Tiddlywinks Association disbanded in the late 1990s). These organisations are responsible for the running of tournaments and maintaining the rules of the game (which actually differ only slightly between the two organisations; the NATwA rules are based on the ETwA rules). International competition is overseen by the International Federation of Tiddlywinks Associations (IFTwA), though in practice it is rarely called upon to intervene.
Although tiddlywinks nowadays is a singles or pairs game, competition in the 1950s through the 1980s centred on team competition, with teams consisting of several (three or four) pairs. There were a number of university teams, and international matches were also played. More recently, singles and pairs tournaments have come to be the focus of competitive tiddlywinks, with only a few team matches being played each year. The four most prestigious tournaments are the National Singles and National Pairs tournaments held in England and the USA. The World Singles and World Pairs championships operate on a challenge basis; anyone winning a national tournament (or being the highest-placed home player behind a foreign winner) is entitled to challenge the current champion.
There are several other less prestigious tournaments in England and the USA throughout the year, often with a format designed to encourage inexperienced players. The results of tournaments and World Championship matches are used to calculate Tiddlywinks Ratings, which give a ranking of players. Typically there are about 120 players in the Ratings system.
Skill versus strategy, and comparable games
The important appeal of the game for many players is the required combination of manual dexterity and strategic thought. Tiddlywinkers often claim that the game combines physical skill (such as in snooker or golf) with the strategy of chess. What is true is that tiddlywinks is unique in the combination of skill and strategy it requires. Strategy in tiddlywinks is often rather deep, since winks can be captured. Strategic and tactical planning involves anticipating opponents' moves rather than just building a sequence of one's own moves. Another factor that complicates the game is that there is a time limit to the play of the game, rather than until some objective in the game has been met.
All in all, tiddlywinks goes beyond the purely cerebral nature of a game such as chess. The fact that shots can be made or missed, together with the continuum of possible outcomes, makes strategy much less rigid than in chess, and prevents planning more than seven or eight shots in advance.
The winks and pot used in competitive play are standard, and are supplied by the English Tiddlywinks Association. The pots are made of moulded plastic (historically always red, though there is no known reason for this), with specified diameters at the top and the base, and specified height. The winks are made in Italy to specified measurements, and are made by slicing an extruded cylinder rather than by moulding, and then smoothing them in a tumbler. Although this leads to some minor variation in thickness, it produces a much smoother edge to the wink than seen on cheap moulded winks.
The mats are made of thick felt. Mats obtained from different suppliers have different characteristics, and part of the skill of a tournament player is to adjust to different mats.
Squidgers are custom-made by their owners. A player may use as many as he likes, selecting an appropriate squidger for each shot. Top players will carry anything up to twenty different squidgers, but will not typically use all of them in one game. The rules governing squidgers are liberal; a range of dimensions are permitted, and the material is not specified, except for the condition that squidgers must not damage winks. Typically squidgers are made from different types of plastic, though glass, rubber, cork and onyx are often seen. The squidgers are usually filed or sanded to give a sharp edge and then polished.
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Blitz: an attempt to pot all six winks of a player's colour early in the game
Bomb: to send a wink at a pile, usually from distance, in the hope of significantly disturbing it
Boondock: to free a squopped wink by sending it a long way away, leaving the squopping wink free in the battle area
Bristol: a shot which moves a pile of two or more winks as a single unit; the shot is played by holding the squidger at a right angle to its normal plane
Carnovsky (US)/Penhaligon (UK): potting a wink from the baseline (i.e., from 3 feet away)
Cracker: a simultaneous knock-off and squop, i.e. a shot which knocks one wink off the top of another while simultaneously squopping it
Crud: a forceful shot whose purpose is to destroy a pile completely
Good shot: named after John Good. The shot consists of playing a flat wink (one not involved in a pile) through a nearby pile with the intent of destroying the pile
Gromp: an attempt to jump a pile onto another wink (usually with the squidger held in a conventional rather than Bristol fashion)
John Lennon memorial shot: a simultaneous boondock and squop
Lunch: to pot a squopped wink (usually belonging to an opponent)
Scrunge (UK): to bounce out of the pot
Squidger: the disc used to shoot a wink
Squop: to play a wink so that it comes to rest above another wink
Sub: to play a wink so that it ends up (unintentionally) under another wink
The game began as an adult parlour game in Victorian England. Joseph Assheton Fincher filed the original patent application for the game in 1888 and applied for the trademark Tiddledy-Winks in 1889. John Jaques and Son were the exclusive distributors of the game named Tiddledy-Winks. However, competition was quite fierce, and for several years starting in 1888 other game publishers came out with their own versions of the game using other names, including Spoof, Flipperty Flop, Jumpkins, Golfette, Maro, Flutter, and many others. It became one of the most popular crazes during the 1890s, played by adults and children alike. In its earlier years, many different varieties were produced to meet the marketplace demands, including those combining tiddledy-winks principles with tennis, basketball, croquet, golf, and other popular sports and endeavours. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the public perception of the game changed.
The birth of the modern game can be traced to a group of Cambridge University undergraduates meeting in Christ's College on January 16, 1955. Their aim was to devise a sport at which they could represent the university. Within three years the Oxford University Tiddlywinks Society was formed; although the two universities had been playing matches since 1946. The English Tiddlywinks Association (ETwA) was founded in 1958. In the same year, an article appeared in The Spectator entitled "Does Prince Philip cheat at tiddlywinks?" Sensing a good publicity opportunity the Cambridge University Tiddlywinks Club (CUTwC) challenged Prince Philip (later to become Chancellor of the University in 1976) to a tiddlywinks match to defend his honour. The Duke of Edinburgh appointed The Goons as his Royal champions. The Duke presented a trophy, the Silver Wink, for the British Universities Championship. During the 1960s as many as 37 universities were playing the game in Britain.
In 1962, the Oxford team toured the United States for several weeks under the sponsorship of Guinness. They were undefeated against teams from the New York Giants and various American colleges and newspapers. A very prominent article appeared in Life magazine in October 1962 with coverage of the Harvard team. In the next couple of years, Harvard and other colleges continued to play, though at a low ebb.
The North American Tiddlywinks Association (NATwA) was formed on February 27, 1966 with founders from both American (Harvard University and Harvard Medical School) and Canadian (University of Waterloo and Waterloo Lutheran University) teams.
In the meantime, in the Fall of 1965, Severin Drix started a team at Cornell, and challenged his friend Ferd Wulkan of MIT to start a tiddlywinks team. MIT and Cornell played in NATwA's tiddlywinks tournaments starting in February 1967, and became dominant. The Harvard and Waterloo teams disappeared from the scene by 1968. The game took particularly strong root at MIT, and the early development of most American players can still be traced to MIT today.
While the basic elements of the adult game were devised by CUTwC in its early years, the rules have continued to be modified under the auspices of the various national tiddlywinks associations. ETwA coordinated the game throughout the boom period of the 1960s when winks flourished. A decline in interest within the UK in 1969-1970 led to the establishment of the three national competitions which have been contested to date, namely the National Singles, National Pairs, and the Teams of Four. There are also annual Open Competitions, notably in Oxford, Cambridge and London.
The first serious trans-Atlantic contact was established in 1972, when a team from MIT toured the UK. The success of the Americans shocked complacent Britons. Competition started at the highest level, the World Singles, in 1973. A challenge system was agreed between ETwA and NATwA. The supreme ruling body in world contests is the International Federation of Tiddlywinks Associations (IFTwA). To challenge at the world level, a player must win one of the national titles, or finish as the highest placed home player behind a foreign winner. There have been over 60 World Singles contests to date. The Americans dominated all the early matches, and it was not until the 22nd contest when a Briton won for the first time. Since then the top Britons and Americans have been closely matched. After the establishment of the World Singles, a World Pairs event followed, and there have now been over 35 World Pairs contests. International matches have been played since 1972.
During its history, winks has enjoyed variable levels of interest. The game has never taken a strong hold outside the UK and North America. The focus of British tiddlywinks is still at Cambridge, and CUTwC's 50th anniversary celebrations in 2005 were well attended. The Oxford University Tiddlywinks Society has recently fallen out of existence. Despite this there has recently been some resurgence in the game, with new clubs having been formed recently in the University of York and in Shrewsbury School.
In America, there has been a tradition of tiddlywinks in Washington DC, Boston, Eastern Ohio, and Ithaca, and a renewal of winks through the MIT Tiddlywinks Association. National competitions are well attended, with a group of enthusiastic young players joining the stock of veteran players who have proved themselves at the highest level in world competition. In the USA, the game has a firm footing in certain high schools, since the children of many of the players who took up the game in the late 1960s and early 1970s are now of high school age. These players are now looking to revive university tiddlywinks in the USA.
On March 1, 2008, there was a Royal Match in Cambridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original Royal Match played against The Goons in 1958 (see above). CUTwC players took on HRH Prince Philip's Royal Champions, the Savage Club, with members of the original 1958 CUTwC team in attendance. Cambridge repeated their victory from 1958 by winning the match 24-18.
- Lillie Struble, letter in Library Journal, 15 April 1978, page 790. "Have we sold our precious heritage in exchange for frivolity and a game of tiddlywinks?"
- James A. Mackay, Childhood antiques, 1976, page 76. "There were some board games, however, which provided little or no intellectual stimulus. Chief among these was […] tiddlywinks, whose apparent inanity (to the uninitiated) is often regarded as the ultimate in useless activities."
- Ian Wooldridge, UK Olympic Committee, as quoted in British Airways magazine (1960s, date unknown): "At the risk of propagating royal support for tiddlywinks, a game of the utmost tedium played by anti-athletes too tired or apathetic to get up off the floor, I have to concede that his argument makes sense."
- Patrick Barrie, Tiddlywinks World Ratings, retrieved July 6, 2009
- Rick Tucker, Lexicon of Tiddlywinks, 1994 (updated through 2010)
- Philip M. Cohen, "Winking Words", Verbatim (magazine), December 1977, page 4
- Eric Partridge, A dictionary of slang & unconventional English, 8th edition, edited by Paul Beale, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, ©1984, Appendix devoted to tiddlywinks jargon
- Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989. Entry for squidger.
- Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989. Entries for squop, v. and squop, n.
- UK Patent # 16,215 (1888), filed November 8, 1888 by Joseph Assheton Fincher
- Trade Marks Journal (UK), May 15, 1889, issue 581, page 476.
- UK copyright applications at the National Archives, Kew
- Rick Tucker, "Tiddlywinks: The Classic Victorian Pastime: On Target for the 21st Century", October 1996, American Game Collectors Association, Game Researchers' Notes, ISSN 1050-6608
- To the death... The Times Sporting Diary, Simon Barnes Dec 21, 1985; pg. 8; Issue 62327; col A
- Guy Consterdine, On the Mat - 1954-1957 - The Origins of Modern Tiddlywinks, March 1967
- Guy Consterdine, Winks Rampant - 1957-1958 - The Development of Modern Tiddlywinks, October 1972
- Time, "Winking In", September 14, 1962
- Life (magazine), "Hold that Squop!", December 14, 1962, pages 121-122
- The Coryphaeus, Waterloo University, March 18, 1966, volume 6, number 24, page 3: Twinx trounce Harvard, we laugh
- Severin Drix, "History of the North American Tiddlywinks Association, 1962 to 1969", appearing in The Missing Wink, August 1974 and February 1975
- The Tech (MIT newspaper), "MIT's World Champions", April 25, 1972, page 7
- Tech Talk (MIT administration newspaper), "Winkers Take World Title in British Tourney" (page 1) "Winksmen Take World Championship" (page 3), April 5, 1972
- Winking World 21, "Bumper MIT Tour Edition", October 1972
- Washington Post, "Family's Game Is No Joke; Silver Spring Father and Sons Revel in Competitive Tiddlywinks", January 21, 2006, page B-1
- Royal Match of Tiddlywinks, on University of Cambridge website