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Bocce Ball: Its History and Rules


A History of Bocce Ball

Games similar to what we now know as bocce ball have been played for millennia. In Egypt carvings exist dating back to 5200 BCE showing players playing a primitive form of bocce ball. It is widely believed that the Egyptians were the first to play this game. Although bearing many differences from bocce ball today, this early game shared the same basis: attempting to throw a rock (or ball) as close to a fixed target as possible.

From Egypt bocce ball spread into Israel and Asia Minor, eventually making its way to the ancient Greeks, sometime around 800 BCE. Hippocrates, father of medicine, spoke highly of the game and claimed playing the game was beneficial to your health.

Greek colonists brought bocce ball to Italy. Now the game was picked up by the Romans. Roman influence looms large over the history of bocce ball. The name itself “bocce” is a direct descendant of the Latin word bottia, meaning boss.

Although the Egyptians had used rocks to play bocce ball, the early Roman players used coconuts. Later on they began to carve balls out of olive wood to play bocce ball. The game attracted many notable players in ancient Rome, including no less a man than the Emperor Augustus himself.

As Roman dominance spread over the majority of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East so did the game of bocce ball, in some cases returning to the lands that had originally spawned the game. In Europe although the Roman Empire declined and fell the game of bocce ball lasted, at least for a time.

During the Middle Ages many leaders began to take a negative view of the game, for various reasons. Some found bocce ball simply a disruptive activity. Others thought that bocce ball led to gambling. In 1319 bocce ball was outlawed by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. He felt the game took away from the martial arts such as archery and horsemanship. King Carlos of Spain made similar edicts. The Republic of Venice outlawed bocce ball in 1576. It was eventually banned among the clergy by the Catholic Church.

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Perhaps the most famous story of bocce ball from the Medieval and Renaissance periods is that of Sir Francis Drake. When informed that Spain and her invincible armada were on their way to England, Drake was playing a game of bocce ball. Legend tells us that Drake said he would finish the game first, then he would go to fight the armada.

Much of the modern resurgence of the sport comes due to Italian soldier Guiseppe Garibaldi an avid player of the game who did much to popularize the sport in the 19th century and saw it as a hallmark of Italian culture. In 1896 the game was included at the first Olympiad in Athens, Greece.

Although the game has made little impact in the United States, it is said that George Washington himself played bocce ball and even had a bocce court set up at his Mount Vernon estate. It was not until the 1970’s that the game first began to be played in any large numbers in the United States thanks to an influx of Italian immigrants. The United States Bocce Federation (USBF) was formed in 1976.

How to Play Bocce Ball

The Bocce Court

In order to play bocce ball one must first have a bocce court. Any flat surface is acceptable to serve as the playing field. Generally speaking a bocce court is between 76 and 90 feet long (USBF regulations are for an 87.6 ft. long court) and between 10 and 13 feet wide. One side of the court is the throwing side, from which players throw the balls towards the opposite side.

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The last 16 feet of the throwing side of the court is called the inbound area of play. 16 feet from the back end of the throwing side of the court is the pitch line. When throwing or rolling balls players must stand behind the pitch line.

Some players also include volo lines in their courts. Volo is a lobbed pitch of the ball, throwing it up to the air and then having it land inside the court. If you are playing with volo rules the volo line is generally an additional 8 feet beyond the pitch line.

Bocce Ball Equipment

Once you have your playing field you need your equipment. All that is needed for the playing of bocce ball are 9 balls. One of these balls is smaller than the other and is called the pallino ball. The other eight balls are all the same size and are the bocce balls. Generally these balls are separated into groups of different colors to allow players to know which balls belong to which team.

Bocce Ball Teams

Bocce ball is always played between two teams. Teams can consist of 1, 2 or 4 players each. Each team is given four bocce balls which are split up evenly among the team members.

Playing Bocce Ball

One team is the starting team. The first must throw the pallino ball across the court. It does not matter where the pallino ball lands as long as it is tossed more than halfway down the court. The starting team also throws the first bocce ball.

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Once the starting team throws the first bocce ball it is time for the opposing team to throw. The object of the game is to get your bocce ball as close to the pallino ball as possible. The opposing team throws their bocce balls until they either get a ball closer to the pallino ball than the starting team’s first ball or until they run of out balls.

When the opposing team has gotten a bocce ball closer to the pallino ball than the starting team’s ball or have run out of balls then the starting team returns to play. They throw until they can get a ball closer to the other team’s closest ball or until they too run out of balls. Play continues in this way until both teams are out of balls.

Now that both teams are out of bocce balls it is time for scoring. Only one team scores in any given frame. The team with the bocce ball closest to the pallino ball scores 1 point for each bocce ball they have closer to the pallino ball than the closest bocce ball of the opposing team. In the case of a tie no points are scored. Whichever team takes the point starts off the next frame. Play continues until one team scores 16 points.