Marbles are played all over the known world, a truly international sport. Over the years I have been lucky enough to come in contact with many of these marble events, their participants and organisers.
In 1990 Barry Ray and Paddy Graham came with me to Tennessee to take part in the Rolley Hole marbles tournament. Both players were four times champions and after some intensive coaching played a game against two of the top Rolley Hole players, Russell and Ralph. The game is not only one of great skill, which our two players had but it is also a very tactical game. The Tennesseeions are brought up playing the game, whereas Barry and Paddy had only two days to learn.
The scoreboard at the end of our first game of Rolley Hole
Rolley Hole is the game of marbles played on the Tennessee-Kentucky State Line, Clay County, Tennessee and Monroe County, Kentucky. Marbles has always been played in and around this area, but it went into decline in the 1960s and by 1983 there was only one active marble yard in Tennessee. It was at this time Bobby Fulcher started the present championship. He had meet the doyen of Rolley Hole marbles Dumas Walker who had told him all about the game. He also met Bud Garrett the man who in the late 1940s made his own marble making machine and was the self proclaimed “best marble maker in Tennessee.”
The game itself is very old and is one of the two main types of marble games; the other is Ring Taw. The game of Three Holes was played in Ireland, Scotland and England. It was I suspect taken over to the Mountain regions of the Southern States in the late 17th or early 18th century by the Scot-Irish settlers. These people took their culture with them songs, customs and games. As late as the 1960s grown men played the game in Liverpool, 'There's Segs, Lass and Up for three holes - the competitive game old gaffers played till a few years ago.'
A Marble yard is 40 foot by 25 foot and made of hard-packed red clay. The three holes are equally spaced 10 feet apart.
A Rolley Hole Marble Yard
In a game of rolley hole there are two teams made up of two players, each using their own shooter (a home made flint marble). The idea of the game is for both players in a team to travel up and down the three-hole yard, three times, making each hole in turn. They must also stop the opponents from making each hole by shooting their marbles away. When both players on a team have made all 12 holes they win the game. Each hole is made in turn as follows
1. The first hole – middle hole
2. The second hole – top hole
3. Third hole or rover one – middle hole
4. Taylor or first round – bottom hole
5. First one up two’s – middle hole
6. Top hole two’s – top hole
7. Rover two’s – middle hole
8. Two rounds – bottom hole
9. First one up outs, or going up rover – middle hole
10. Top hole outs top hole
11. Rover hole, or rover out – middle hole
12. Out hole – bottom hole
A player makes a hole by rolling or spanning his marble into it. A span is measured by each player as the distance from his thumb to the end of his outstretched finger.
The marbles used are hand made of local ‘Flint’ which is a silica-based mineral like quartz and obsidian, is found in many colours, each shade has its special characteristics:
Yellow Flint - clearer yellow flint is the most highly prized by players and the toughest flint with the greatest density.
Red Flint – is the most highly prized for its beauty, but always too brittle for game use.
Brown Flint - is favoured by some players because it blends with the colour of the marble yard and is harder for opponents to see.
White Flint – is a lightweight flint, but favoured by some champions like Russell Collins because they can see it easily on the yard, or they just ‘like the looks of it’.
Grey & Black Flint – few play with marbles from this material, though it is fairly common and of a good density, but considered unattractive.
National Marbles Tournament USA
The game of marbles in the USA was purely a local affair until 1920’s. The first ever tournament was a promotion for Macys store in Philadelphia and was played by seven boys and one girl. Soon afterwards Scripps Howard Newspapers took over the sponsorship of the event and held elimination rounds, which took place all over the country. A. Harry Moore, Parks Commissioner for Atlantic City arranged for the 1st ever final of the ‘National Marbles Tournament’ to be held there. Some part of the New Jersey shore has hosted the final every year since. The final moved from Atlantic City to Ocean City onto Wildwood and Asbury Park, then in 1959 back to Wildwood where its been held ever since.
In 1922 the first of many legends was borne, when Bud McQuade made his now famous ‘half marble shoot’. In the final game of the match his agate shooter split in half one of the target in the ring. One half flew out of the ring but the other half stayed inside. The officials ruled that he would have to knock the other half out as well with his next shot or lose point. Bud in true hero style, hit it low and hard and the half marble shot out of the ring to order, and he went on to become the first ever winner of the National Tournament.
The 1937 winner was Bill Kloss from Canton, Ohio. The Marbles Editor of the Canton Repository Mr. R Smith wrote, “Two national figures named William have lived in Canton, Ohio – William McKinley, who was President of the U.S., and William Kloss. To the children of Canton, most of whom are fanatic about playing marbles, there is little doubt as to which is the great William. It is William Kloss, best marble player in America, winner last June of the National Marbles Tournament and recipient of Canton’s gold medal for civic achievement.
Micky Rooney and Father Flanagan on the set of the Flim 'Boys Town' 1938
Bill is the best marble player who ever lived. Bill 13, learned marbles from his father, an expert before the days of tournaments. A poor player in his early years, Bill practised hard, was eliminated from the national tournament finals twice before he won. He hits a marble eight feet away nine times out of ten.”
Benjamin Sklar won the crown in 1947, Life Magazine said “The annual National Marbles Tournament at Wildwood-by-the-Sea, NJ, which is a curious carnival of juvenile heartbreak. The 40 regional marbles champion from all over the U.S. knuckle down with their favourite shooters to knock marbles out of 10-foot rings. When they are defeated they weep openly.
The best marksman on the beach proved to be Pittsburgh’s Benjamin Sklar, a poker-faced 12 year-old who never smiled. He survived five sun-baked days of match play to become national mibs champion. With the title went a gold and red-velvet crown, a watch and a bicycle. Then, finally, his serious young face was wrinkled by a shy grin.”
The runner-up was Ralph Brunty of Ranger, West Virginia who last year came third. Ralph, who is a farm boy, said “Next best to shooting marbles I guess I like to hoe corn.”
Ophelia Graham of Cleveland was one of the three girl contestants. None of who reached the final round.
In 1948 there was a separate girl’s championship created, as so many girls were now playing. The boy’s event is the best out of 21 games and the girl’s is the best of 11 games.
The traditional kiss for Amanda Burns winner in 1993
1993 was the 70th anniversary of the championship and the National Marbles Hall of Fame was opened at Wildwood. Thirty former champions were honoured with a plaque. Hank Altyn champion of 1935 was there with the first ever-female winner Jean Smedly champion in 1948. Jean played a match with Debra Stanly champion in 1973. Also on hand was 1952 winner Russell Gwalthney, who had brought along Charlie Turner his adult escort from 40 years before.
Marbles in Norway
‘Mablis’ as marbles are call in Norwegian was played in the 'sardine capital' Stavanger in Norway at the turn of the century. The main reason that the children of Stavanger played marbles was the world trade in sardines. This can be explained quite easily when you know that marbles are used in the production of Lithographic stones, which in turn were used to print the labels for the 20,000 different brands names on sardine tins.
The marbles were used to polish the stones used in printing the labels, after a period of use, these marbles became worn and were no longer of use to the printers and were discarded. This is when they found their way in to the hands of the local children for use in their games
The games were played on gravel roads, courtyards or the best surface on the hard packed earth. A hole was made and the ground prepared so that the marbles could roll freely. The rules varied and were sometimes quite complexes.
The game began from a base line, drawn some distance from the hole. The marbles were rolling or shot at the hole and the owner of one nearest, could try and knock their rivals marble in to the hole, if this was achieved an agreed number of sardine tin labels were forfeited by the looser.
The game of marbles is still played by children today; the marbles are of glass rather than stone. The payment in sardine tin labels has disappeared and the marbles themselves are now the prizes.