Thumb war

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A thumb war

A thumb war (also called thumb wrestling, pea-knuckle or pea-knuckle war in New Zealand) is a game played by two players in which the thumbs are used to simulate fighting.[1] The objective of the game is to pin the opponent's thumb, often to a count of three.[2][3] The San Francisco Chronicle called the game "the miniature golf of martial sports."[2]

The players face each other and each holds out their left hand or right hand in a "thumbs up",[4] and they link hands such that each player's fingers curl around the other player's fingers. Players may not use any of the fingers except the thumb to pin down their opponent's thumb. Gameplay has several tactics such as "playing possum", aiming for the knuckle rather than the nail for a pin,[3] going for a quick strike, and waiting for one's opponent to tire.[5] Variations include making the thumbs "bow", "kiss", or both before warring, and to war with both hands at once; or sneak attacks, which involve using your pointer finger to take over the opponent.[6] Players may also engage in the Rabbit Hole maneuver, or ducking their thumb down into their own palm, to escape imminent defeat. These additions are optional and do not need to be included into the rules of play.

The game is typically initiated with both the players uttering the rhyme "One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war", passing their thumbs over each other in time with this rhyme.[7] The rhyme is sometimes extended with "Five, six, seven, eight, try to keep your thumb straight." or "Five, six, seven, eight. Open up your thumb gate."[8] A regional variation in Boston is “five, six, seven, eight, open up the battle gate.” In South America, the starting song is "ésta es la pulseada china", as in France, "un, deux, trois, bras de fer chinois" ("this is the Chinese arm wrestling"), with the same thumb dance as in English.

U.S. Marine playing thumb war with a local boy in Afghanistan

Competitive matches on thumb wrestling have been held on Long Island[9] and at Lowestoft.[10] The 826 Valencia Foundation holds an annual thumb-wrestling competition, which has been won three times by San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon.[11] There is no leaning nor tilting when thumb wrestling.


Norman Mailer was passionate about thumb wrestling.[12] Author and humorist Paul Davidson claims that his grandfather Bernard Davidson invented the thumb war in the 1940s.[13] American copywriter Julian Koenig claimed to have invented thumb wrestling in 1936 as a boy at Camp Greylock.[14]

Thumb wrestling ring

A thumb wrestling ring is a toy used for thumb wrestling.[15] The players insert their thumbs in opposite sides and proceed with the thumb war.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dieleman, Hans; Huisingh, Don (2006). "The Potentials of Games in Learning and Teaching About Sustainable Development" (PDF). Journal of Cleaner Production: 18. ISSN 0959-6526.
  2. ^ a b Villalon, Oscar (8 December 2003). "1, 2, 3, 4, I declare a thumb war". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-10-19.
  3. ^ a b Villalon, Oscar (3 December 2006). "THE SEMI-SWEET SCIENCE One, two, three, four. I declare ..." San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-10-19.
  4. ^ Beard, Polly (27 June 2009). "Games to play in your tent on rainy days". The Times. Retrieved 2009-10-19.
  5. ^ Orr, Elizabeth (22 November 2006). "THUMBS UP!". Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved 2009-10-19.
  6. ^ Collard, Mark (2005). No props: great games with no equipment. Project Adventure, Inc. p. 218. ISBN 0-934387-05-2.
  7. ^ Gunter, Veronika Alice; Meyer, Clay (2005). The Ultimate Indoor Games Book: The 200 Best Boredom Busters Ever!. Lark Books. p. 128. ISBN 1-57990-625-7.
  8. ^ Haslam, Nick (2004). Relational models theory: a contemporary overview. Routledge. p. 374. ISBN 0-8058-5356-1.
  9. ^ Ketcham, Diane (29 November 1987). "LONG ISLAND JOURNAL". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-20.
  10. ^ "Thumb wars descend on Lowestoft". The Lowestoft Journal. 31 July 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-20.
  11. ^ Mankiewicz, Josh (26 March 2007). "A real thumbs up for helping kids write well". NBC News. Retrieved 2009-10-20.
  12. ^ "A Letter From The Publisher". TIME. 16 July 1973. Archived from the original on December 14, 2008. Retrieved 2009-10-20.
  13. ^ "Who Invented The Game Thumb War". Words for my enjoyment. 18 May 2007. Retrieved 2009-10-20.
  14. ^ "This American Life: Origin Story". June 9, 2009.
  15. ^ Tweney, Dylan (30 September 2009). "Pocket Players: 13 Great Portable Games". Retrieved 2009-10-20.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]