Expat life is filled with those moments when you realize that something you thought to be universal is actually a mystery to everyone outside your home country. The most recent of these occurred when I brought up the ultimate childhood game of British autumns – Conkers – and was met by blank faces.
For those of you who are still confused, a conker is another name for a chestnut (or technically speaking, the seed of a horse chestnut tree). Given their abundance in Beijing it will not be long before streets and parks are filled with the ammunition required for this classic school ground contest.
At its simplest, the game involves tying a conker to string and trying to break your opponents’ before your own is shattered. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Preparing for Battle
The key to a winning conker all begins with the selection process. Choose one that is big, round and symmetrical to improve your chances from the start. Once you’ve got one, drill or bore a hole through the center. A neat hole will make it less likely to split when hit, so using a drill for rather than a screwdriver or sharp implement is preferable.
Feed a piece of string (or a shoelace) approximately 25 centimeters in length through the hole. Tie a knot in the end of the string so it doesn’t pull off, leaving the conker hanging at the bottom.
How to Play
The aim of this two-player game is to smash your opponents’ conker or simply knock it from its string.
Players face each other and choose who goes first, a quick game of rock, paper, scissors is my personal choice. Whoever loses must dangle their conker in front of them, completely still, as the victor takes their first shot.
To take your turn, hold the conker in one hand and the string in the other and swing it towards your opponent’s. If you hit it, you get another chance to swing. If you miss it’s time to change turn. Repeat until one conker is broken or knocked from the string.
There are some additional rules to add a bit of further excitement:
Strings – if the two strings become entangled after a shot the first person to shout "strings" takes the next swing.
Tips – If a player only brushes the edge of their opponent’s conker, they must shout "hit" before the defending player can shout "miss". The first to call takes the next turn.
Stampsies – A potentially controversial one here. If a conker flies from its string the other player can shout "stampsies" and legitimately crush it underfoot.
How to Score
Points are attributed to the conker not the player. So one that has achieved a single win is called a "one-er", two wins makes it a "two-er" and so on. But conkers can accumulate more points by destroying more experienced opponents.
So if a two-er beats a five-er it will become an eight-er by taking a point for the victory and stealing the additional five points.
The higher the conker’s score the greater its value. It may be exchanged for sweets or other playground currencies.
How to Win
The ethics of hardening conkers has been (and will remain) the subject of endless classroom debate. Now, I would never condone cheating but in my school it was considered “fair-game” to employ one of the following methods to improve your chances.
If your child’s friends are turning up to school with modified super-conkers then here are some ways to avoid a swift defeat, though the Campaign for Real Conkers (a genuine action group) may have something to say about these.
- Cover your conker a coat of clear nail varnish to harden the outer shell.
- Briefly bake your conker (or leave it on a radiator), as this is believed to make it stronger.
- Leave the conker in vinegar for a couple of minutes.
- Upon finding your first of the season say "Oddly oddly onker my first conker" and you will be blessed with good luck. Apparently.
But for those among you with a long-term game, the best (and most legitimate) method is to collect next year’s conkers today. Store them in a cool, dry place and by next autumn you could have a world-beater on your hands. Some will go moldy inside so play the numbers game – hold on to 20 and you should have at least one winner for next season.
Photos courtesy of David Davies (Flickr) and Kiteman (instructables)