It has come round again: the time when children gather under Horse Chestnut trees longing greedily for more and bigger and better conkers. If they do not come down voluntarily sticks and stones are thrown up into the branches to encourage them down.
Inside the spiky green outer casing lie the gorgeous, shiny, brown – almost iridescent fruit: then home to drill a hole through the middle, and depending on how virtuous one is, to allow them to dry naturally, soak them in vinegar first or paint them with colourless nail varnish.
Conker games are played at school most days where the practice still flourishes: we certainly did as a child. As an adult we keep the conkers to make indoor autumnal decorations or just to lie along window cills looking exotic.
A friend has an annual party towards the end of October to celebrate both Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes: as well as the fireworks, bonfire, toasted marshmallows, cinder toffee and baked potatoes, there is usually a chilli and some spicy lentil soup, and games. Especially conkers. These are all prepared beforehand and handed out on their strings while we square up to each other, working round the pairs until we have fivers, sixers, etc. to the eventual winner.
I can do no better than to post the following from Wikipedia:
“Conkers or conker is a game traditionally played mostly by children in Britain, Ireland and some former British colonies using the seeds of horse-chestnut trees – the name conker is also applied to the seed and to the tree itself.
The game is played by two players, each with a conker threaded onto a piece of string: they take turns striking each other’s conker until one breaks.
- A hole is drilled in a large, hard conker using a nail, gimlet, or small screwdriver. A piece of string is threaded through it about 25 cm (10 inches) long (often a shoelace is used). A large knot at one or both ends of the string secures the conker.
- The game is played between two people, each with a conker.
- They take turns hitting each other’s conker using their own. One player lets the conker dangle on the full length of the string while the other player swings their conker and hits.
- The conker eventually breaking the other’s conker gains a point. This may be either the attacking conker or (more often) the defending one.
- A new conker is a none-er meaning that it has conquered none yet.
- If a none-er breaks another none-er then it becomes a one-er, if it was a one-er then it becomes a two-er etc. In some areas of Scotland, conker victories are counted using the terms bully-one, bully-two, etc. In some areas of the United States, conker victories are counted using the terms one-kinger, two-kinger, etc.
- The winning conker assimilates the previous score of the losing conker, as well as gaining the score from that particular game. For example, if a two-er plays a three-er, the surviving conker will become a six-er (the sum of the two previous scores plus one for the current game).
- A player is allowed to keep taking shots at the opponent’s conkers until they miss. When the player misses, the roles swap. If a player just slices the opponent’s conker (i.e. does not get a clean hit, often because wind causes the opponent’s conker to sway), then both players quickly shout “tips” and the one who in the opinion of onlookers shouted it first, gets to take shots.
- The rules played at the World Conker Championships state that each player has three swings at the opponents conker before the roles are reversed.
- If a player should let go of the string when the hit occurs (which often results in the conker travelling quite some distance), whosoever gets to it first wins it (but not the lace).
- If a conker should come off the string, but is otherwise undamaged, the attacking player may shout “stampsies” and attempt to stamp on the defending player’s conker before they are able to retrieve it.
- In some areas, a rule is played whereby if a player takes his shot and the two laces become tangled, the first player who shouts “clinks”, “strings”, “snags” or “jinks” (depending on the region), gets to take shots. In the Midlands in the 1950s the cry was tingle-tangle five knocks which allowed the fouled player five free knocks and in Dublin and Liverpool“tanglies tanglies one-two-three” allowed the first to take three free shots.
The hardest conkers usually win. Hardening conkers is often done by keeping them for a year (aged conkers are called laggies in many areas or seasoners in Ireland and Liverpool), baking them briefly, soaking or boiling in vinegar, or painting with clear nail varnish. Such hardening is, however, usually regarded as cheating. At the British Junior Conkers Championships on the Isle of Wight in October 2005, contestants were banned from bringing their own conkers due to fears that they might harden them. The Campaign For Real Conkers claimed this was an example of over-regulation which was causing a drop in interest in the game. In the World Conker Championship contestants are also restricted to using the conkers provided.
One factor affecting the strength of a conker is the shape of the hole. A clean cylindrical hole is stronger, as it has no notches or chips that can begin a crack or split.
A similar Puerto Rican game (played with the smaller seed of the jatobá, Hymenaea courbaril) is called gallitos (meaning small roosters or cocks, as in cockfighting). The opponents face each other and the defending gallito is laid in the center of a circle drawn in the dirt. Not until the attacking player misses will the defending player take a turn. Upon missing, if the attacking player is quick enough, they will try to swing at the defending gallito before the defendant removes it from within the circle. If the defending gallito is struck it must remain in the circle until the attacker misses again. This move is called a “paso de paloma“.
History of Conkers
The first recorded game of Conkers using horse chestnuts was on the Isle of Wight in 1848 – the horse chestnut tree is not native to Britain, but was introduced from the Balkans in the late 16th century; it was not widely planted until the early 19th century. Previously, children played with snail shells or hazelnuts.
In 1965 the World Conker Championships were set up in Ashton (near Oundle) Northamptonshire, England, and still take place on the second Sunday of October every year. In 2004, an audience of 5,000 turned up to watch more than 500 competitors from all over the world.
1976 was the first time that a non-British contestant won the Men’s World Conker Championship. The Mexican Jorge Ramirez Carrillo took the place of a contestant that was unable to arrive on time at Ashton, and defeated the 1975 champion at the finals. The Men’s champion has been British in every other year except 1998 when Helmut Kern from Nauort, Germany, won.
In 1999 the Irish Conker Championships began in Freshford Co.Kilkenny.
2000 saw the first Ladies’ champion from outside the UK. Selma Becker, originally from Austria, to take the title. Again, the title of Queen of Conkers has remained in the UK, except in 2001 when Frenchwoman Celine Parachou won.
2001 Eamonn Dooley from Kilkenny, Ireland smashed the world record and broke an amazing 306 conkers in one hour.
In North America, the game currently has no official status or competitions. Its popularity has surely declined, but it is not thought to be an extinct game. It was played during the late 1940s and early 1950s in New York in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and in the 1950s and early 1960s in the Amalgamated section of the Bronx and a winning chestnut was referred to as a “killer”. It was also played in Queens, the upper West Side of Manhattan, in the Mohawk Valley area of upstate New York and in Westmount, Quebec and other English-speaking parts of Montreal into the 1970s. It was being played in the 1960s in Rhode Island and into the early 1980s in Smithfield, RI.
Origin of name
The name may come from the dialect word conker, meaning “hard” (perhaps related to French conque meaning a conch, as the game was originally played using snail shells. The name may also be influenced by the verb conquer, as the game has also been called conquerors, but this may be a back-formation. Another possibility is that it is onomatopoeia, representing the sound made by a horse chestnut as it hits another hard object, such as a skull (another children’s “game”, also called conkers, consists of simply throwing the seeds at one another over a fence or wall). Conkers are also known regionally as obblyonkers, cheggies or cheesers.“
Finding ourselves right in the middle of the season I thought I would pass on a fact which I tell my students on a Woodland course I teach.
During the First World War Britain ran out of chordite. It was a desperate time. It was used in standard rifle cartridges and large weapons such as tank guns, artillery and naval guns.
A chemist and lecturer at Manchester University, Chaim Weizmann, offered to help the UK Government to make the necessary cordite. Weizmann was born in the small village of Motol (Motyli, now Motal) near Pinsk in Belarus (at that time part of the Russian Empire) and became a British subject in 1910. He helped to develop a new experimental form of cordite but still needed acetone and cellulose.
He used the proximity of a large gin factory to produce the acetone and children all over Britain were encouraged to gather their conkers as usual, but instead of playing with them, to send them to the cordite factories where they were used as a rich cellulose source. The Prime Minister was so impressed that he offered Weizmann a medal or some other form of recognition: but Weizmann said all he wanted was the assurance that Britain would support the idea of forming a Jewish homeland This led directly to the Balfour declaration of 1917.
- “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The declaration was made in a letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Baron Rothschild a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, a Zionist organization. The letter reflected the position of the British Cabinet, as agreed upon in a meeting on 31 October 1917. It further stated that the declaration is a sign of “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations.”
The anniversary of the declaration, 2 November, is widely commemorated in Israel and among Jews in the Jewish diaspora as Balfour Day. This day is also observed as a day of mourning in Arab countries still today.”
So few, if any, games of conkers were played during that time in Britain in World War I but the conker collecting continued.
I still have a small collection that I picked up outside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in the 1980s: painted with nail varnish they look lovely and are a vivid reminder of the trees, the smells, the heat, the day, and the holiday.
Old habits die hard.