Ringolevio (also spelled ringalevio or ring-a-levio) is a children's game that may be played anywhere but which originates in the streets of New York City, and is known to have been played there at least as far back as the late 19th century, when it was known as "ring relievo".[a] It is one of the many variations of tag. It requires close teamwork and near-military strategy. In Canada, this game is known as Relievio; that name was also used in Boston and Ireland in the 1950s. It is also, in some places, known as coco-levio.
Emmett Grogan wrote a fictionalized autobiography called Ringolevio, which was published in 1972. Echoing the memories of hundreds of thousands who grew up in the neighborhoods of New York, Grogan wrote: "It's a game. A game played on the streets of New York, for as long as anyone can remember. It is called Ringolevio, and the rules are simple. There are two sides, each with the same number of players. There are no time limits, no intermissions, no substitutes and no weapons allowed. There are two jails. There is one objective." The first chapter of this autobiography describes a particularly serious game of ringolevio played by Grogan and his gang.
It seems likely that the game was brought over from the British Isles; it is very similar to a game that is called Bedlams or Relievo. According to Stewart Culin, relievo became ring relievo and then ringoleavio. A similar game, called Prisoner's Base, was played by members of Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery against a group of Nez Perce.
The rules of the game
There are two teams. In one version, one team goes off and hides. The other team counts to a predetermined number and then proceeds to search for the first team. In another version, the two teams simultaneously attempt to capture all the members of the opposing team; each team has its own "jail", perhaps a park bench or other defensible turf. In Bay Terrace, Queens, both teams had a park bench jail; the winner was whichever team could capture all of the other team's members. Often, the game would go on so long that it was called on account of darkness. [b]
Anyone on the pursuing side can catch anyone on the pursued side by grabbing hold of them and chanting "Chain chain double chain, no break away." (In the Briarwood & Bay Terrace, Queens, neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s, the required chant was "Ringolevio, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3!") If the person pursued breaks free at any point during this brief recitation, the person is not caught and is considered still "in". If caught, the pursuer takes the prisoner to an area called the jail (the area was called the base in some variations) and the captive is considered "out".
Jail is any confined area, a porch or stoop (the front steps of a townhouse or Brownstone) or a space between two parked cars or bushes where members of the pursued team are accumulated. Any IN member of a team, can free all OUT team members in jail by barging into the jail without being caught, tagging the captives and shouting, "All in! All in! Free-all!" or "Home Free-all" in the Bronx. This means that all members of the team that were in jail are now free and have to be recaught, as they are then back in the game.
Many corruptions of the "all in, all in, all in, free allo" (such as "Olly olly oxen free") call at the end of game (when the other side gives up) have been concocted through the past century (not surprising, as the game's rules are passed by word of mouth from older to younger children), but when the jail is lacking just one or two opponents for a full win, the opposing team must concede defeat by announcing that the game is over and that all who were caught are in for free. Then the game starts again.
In some variations, the pursuing team cannot station any player of their team within line of sight of the jail. This is called "babysitting" ("puppy-guarding" is used in some areas). The cry of "babysitting" can be made by anyone in the jail who feels that any member of the opposing team is lingering near the jail and blocking their rescue.
Game ends when one team has caught all the members of the opposing team, at which point the captured team changes roles and now counts while the opponents hide.
Coordinated attacks to free the jail often employ military strategy in their use of terrain and engage in flanking maneuvers and feints that resemble battlefield tactics. The game itself, though, is rarely violent and fights are rare as all the running generally makes both the pursuer and pursued weak with laughter at the point of capture.
Each round of ringolevio lasts about half an hour, but the actual duration of play is a factor of the boundaries of play agreed to at the start of the game as well as the number of players on each side.
Games often have set boundaries of how far from the jail pursued players can go. Some games have been played with citywide boundaries with up to 40 players. These games had rounds lasting for weeks with suspension of play for half an hour before, during and after school hours. Winners have been accused of going "off the block" when their strategy left them undetected in a one-city-block game. If you strike "the pose of invisibility", you may go unnoticed in an obvious place.
One other variation allows the players in jail to extend out of the jail by holding hands, making it easier to be freed by teammates. "Electricity" conducts the tag of the savior to the last player tied to the jail through the chain of held hands.
In some neighborhoods of New York, the same game was called Ringolario. That's what it was called on Staten Island and in the housing projects on East 92nd Street in Manhattan.
Another version of Ringolario reached the suburbs of southeastern Pennsylvania around 1970. Two or three neighborhood properties (yards) were set to be the boundaries. The front porch of a home was used as the jail. Sneaking through shrubbery around the porch added to the surprise when team members freed their jailed teammates. The game was played at dusk and often lasted long after dark on summer evenings which added to the military nature of the game. Players would sometimes dress in dark clothes to elude capture. The rules required that the captor cry 1-2-3 Ringolario after grabbing or sometimes tackling (on grass) the pursued.
In Northeast Philadelphia, the variation played was called "Freedom." Players were captured by being taken hold of long enough to say "1-2-3 come with me, you're my prisoner." or "1-2-3 you're my man, no breaksies, safety lock" or, in suburban Philadelphia it was, "1-2-3 your my man that breaks no holds." Players were released from the base/jail when a member of their team was able to sneak close enough to touch a team member and cry "Freedom!" at which point all members of the team rush out in a bunch to make it as difficult as possible for the jail-keeper to recapture them. The jail was a railed porch (the railing looking like the bars of a jail and providing a single approach to guard.) In Olney, this variation was much more aptly named, "Spring!"
This game was called Spring, as in Spring out of jail, in some Catholic schoolyards in North Philadelphia during the early 1960s and at least through the 1980s. "Spring!" is all that needed to be yelled as the pursued team member touched the base to release all his members out of jail by running in uncaptured. At Saint Henry parish, which was located at 5th and Cayuga, the words used by the pursuing team to capture a member of the pursued team was "One, Two, Three Your My Man, no breaksies". The jail was simply a large metal grate on the ground of one end of the schoolyard. The jail was protected from Springing by members standing in front of the grate. In a twist not noted elsewhere, the pursued team had a safe place where they could not be captured by simply holding on to a window grate over a window at the other end of the schoolyard. Also, if a pursued team member was holding on to the safety area and they in turn were holding hands with a team member not touching the safety grid, that team member was also safe because of "Electricity".
At a summer resort in Ulster County ca. 1968-76, the game was called "slip", the call required to secure a capture was "slip one two three", the detention area was "base", the play area was a two-acre premise, and considerable time was spent debating the rules that would apply, including the permissibility of "base sitting", i.e. "babysitting" as described above. The base was a swingset and each player detained at the base was generally required to be in physical contact with it. As above, the games generally started around dusk and could continue for hours after dark. While rough play, anger or fighting could occasionally occur, weakness with laughter, or sheer fatigue, would often accompany physical contact between players as indicated above. During this same era, in Kingston, also in Ulster County, the game was also called "slip" and involved (at least in the Rondout, New York neighborhood) by having the seeking team members visually identify a hiding team member using the word "dow" and stating the players name and where seen—e.g., "Dow Hank behind the Hahn's garage!" If the seeking player had correctly identified the hiding member's hiding place, that player came and out and went to the jail area to await possible rescue by a teammate or the call of "Olly Olly Oxen Free!!!" to end the round if the seeking team had given up.
In Boston and suburbs, players were captured by being taken hold of long enough to say "1-2-3 caught by me, no Relievio rest". Guarding the jail was accepted and one or more members of the pursued team would maneuver to lure the guard away, who was eager to fill his or her jail. If a pursued team member made it into the jail without getting caught, he would yell "Relievio" or "1-2-3 freed by me", to free the captured players. This person could then run away with his teammates or declare "Relievio rest", and remain in the jail to rest, immune from capture. Also, even when the jail was empty, any pursued team member could use the jail declaring "Relievio rest" to rest unbothered by pursuers. If the jail filled with captured players while at rest, the player would have to leave and come back to free them. "Electricity" was a seldom used feature of the game, with it being part of the rules decided upon at the beginning of the game.
In Chicago, during the 1950s, when the game was still in process, and we all had to go home and stop .... the unfound hidden players would come out only after the searching team would shout out: "Oli Oli Ocean, Free for Bobby (the names of the still hidden players)."
In India, the game is generally played by kids in apartment complexes under the name "Cops and Robbers". There is no way for the other players to know that the game has ended, so one must stealthily come out of their hiding place to check whether the game is over, and if it is not, make their way back to the hiding place.
In popular culture
In addition to Grogan's eponymous book, the game is mentioned in
- The PBS documentary, New York Street Games (2010), featured Ringolevio as one of the games popular in New York City.
- In the film "Fallen" John Goodman shouts "Olly Olly Oxen Free O" upon encountering Denzel Washington.
- A book by Emmett Grogan. 
- Ringalevio is mentioned in Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis, The Waste Lands, and It.
- It is mentioned as ring-a-levio and ring-a-leary-o, in George Carlin's autobiography Last Words.
- It is mentioned as one game played by several kids (including the author himself) in Bob Keeshan's autobiography, Good Morning, Captain.
- The game was referred in Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides as ringolevio.[c]
- It is mentioned in the Little Italy section of Don DeLillo's novel Underworld
- It is mentioned in Daniel Keyes's novel Flowers for Algernon when Charlie remembers a playground scene
- it is mentioned as coco-levio in the book "brown girl dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson in the poem called "game over"
- It is mentioned in the novel Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan as Ringolevio
- It is mentioned in the New Yorker essay Not Becoming My Father by Michael Chabon
- It is mentioned in Roddy Doyle's Booker prize-winning novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
- It is mentioned in Bill O'Reilly's book A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity
- French singer Little Bob called his 1987 album and the title track "Ringolevio".
- The rapper Notorious B.I.G. mentions the game, calling it "coco-levo", in the song "Things Done Changed" on his album Ready to Die (1994). He notes that the game is no longer played and this is a symptom of social decline in inner city ghettos.
- Ring-a-levio is mentioned in rapper 2pac's song "Old School".
- Lyricist Robert Hunter mentions "On the bank where children play 'ring a levio'" in his song, Tiger Rose, 1975
- Relievio is mentioned in Boston-based band Damone's song "On My Mind"
- The song "Ringolevio" on the album Snowmads (2019) by hip hop group Onyx
- A game of ringolevio figures prominently in the Twilight Zone episode "The Incredible World of Horace Ford."
- The Simpsons features a scene where Lisa is hiding and the kids give up looking for her so she cries out Ollie Ollie Oxen free two times.
Notes and references
- Before the first World War, one of the greatest games kids played was Ringolevio. In front of the Grace Church on East 92nd Street and Church Lane, each weeknight we formed a circle of 10 or 12 of us in two teams. The ones who went to hide would then try to sneak back without being caught by one of the guardians of the circle. If a boy managed to get in without being caught, he would yell, "Ringolevio!" and free everyone that had previously been caught. This went on until about 9 p.m. when we had to go home. Denton, John (2006-11-23). "Playing Ringolevio In Front Of Grace Church". Canarsie Courier. Brooklyn, New York.
- The variations of rules of Ringolevio, and other children's games, are difficult to document, as they were rarely written, but passed down by word of mouth in each neighborhood.
- I do not know, however, when my mother and father began their long, dispiriting war against each other. Most of their skirmishes were like games of ringolevio, with the souls of their children serving as the ruined captured flags in their campaigns of attrition.
- "ring-a-levio entry in Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary". Retrieved September 20, 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- See this journal article, published in 1891: Stewart Culin. "Street Games of Boys in Brooklyn, N. Y.". The Journal of American Folklore. 4 (14): 221–237. JSTOR 534007.
- "The hi-spy class includes, among many others, ringalevio (Brooklyn name)" Dunn, Robert (June 1904), "Games of the City Street", The Outing, 44 (3): 275–276
- "Ring-a-Levio is a sophisticated cross between Tag and Hide-and-Seek." Albert, David H. Dismantling the Inner School. Retrieved September 30, 2014. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- "Childhood in New York: Fab 5 Freddy, Graffiti Artist, b. 1959". New York Magazine. March 31, 2013.
- Grogan, Emmett. Google Books preview of novel by Emmett Grogan. Retrieved September 20, 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- Grogan, Ringolevio, 3.
- "The Traditional Children's Games of England Scotland & Ireland In Dictionary Form - volume 1". Retrieved August 9, 2013. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- "Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society". Retrieved August 9, 2013. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- Sunday 8th June 1806. the 2 men returned from the villages. a number of the natives visited us and gave Frazer a fine young horse a number of the natives joined and got out our canoe which was Sank. our party exercised themselves running and playing games called base in the evening danced after the fiddle as the Indians were anxious to See them. "The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition". Retrieved 14 May 2016. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- "The Forgotten Games of the Corps of Discovery". February 16, 2012.
- "Ringoleavio: A Streetplay.com Rule Sheet". Retrieved March 17, 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- In some neighborhoods, the name changed over time. Pryor, Thomas R. (April 29, 2013). ""Ringalario, One, Two, Three"".
- "RINGOLEVIO: FASHION TOYS FOR YUPPIES". Chicago Tribune. 15 May 1985.
- Hector Elizondo (Narrator); Matt Levy (Director). New York Street Games (Motion picture). New York City. Retrieved November 14, 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- Carlin, George; Hendra, Tony (2009). Last Words. Simon & Schuster. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-4391-7295-7. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- Conroy, Pat (1986). Prince of Tides. Houghton Mifflin. p. 3. ISBN 0-395-35300-9.
- Roddy Doyle (1995). Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Penguin. p. 117. ISBN 1440673721.
- Bill O'Reilly (2008). A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity. Broadway Books. p. 121. ISBN 0-7679-2882-2.
- "The Notorious B.I.G. - Things Done Changed". Retrieved January 24, 2014. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
In the 1950s–1960s, in the Bronx, many times we would sneak away to have lunch and then re-enter the game w/o anyone knowing. Hiding places were an important part of the game as was who were the very fastest runners.(Once, hiding under a bread truck it drove off and I was almost caught, almost). Also important, the ability to hold onto someone while saying ringelivio 1-2-3 3X or the ability to break away. Never saw a fight, just tugging. Once we had almost fifty on each side, summer days in Clason Point. Also, try tricking the other side into thinking you're actually on their side, never worked, because usually when searching for the other team we'd try to go out in pairs and one of us would know who was on the other team. Great all day game.