Almost everyone will, at some point in their childhood, have been given a compendium of games which included a little plastic pot, probably with a cardboard target around it, and some small plastic discs to be flicked at it. Although the modern game of tiddlywinks evolved from such small beginnings, it bears as much resemblance to them as Cape Canaveral does to Kitty Hawk.
Like so many sports and games, tiddlywinks was transformed from child's play to competition by the British Establishment - in this case, at Cambridge University in the 1950s. The key elements in adding depth to the game were the standardisation of the pieces and playing surface, the development of a points scoring system, and giving the game a defensive element. The resulting game has been compared to a cross between chess and pool, with a 3-D element thrown in.
The game enjoyed great popularity in the '60s, culminating in a famous game between Cambridge and the Goons. However, the game lost ground in the seventies until there were only a handful of clubs in the UK, mostly centred around universities, and only a handful of players in the USA. More recently there has been a small resurgence, with new clubs starting up, and it is still very friendly and welcoming, and beginners to the game can still find themselves playing top players after only a few months' practice - though it will probably take a few years before they start winning.
The playing surface for the game is a rectangular mat of felt (normally white or pale grey), two metres by one. In the early days of the game this was placed on the floor, with the players wearing knee-pads, but nowadays a stout table is normally used - in those days they also wore dinner suits, another tradition which has passed into history.
The pot is 38mm high, with a diameter of 38mm at the base and 48mm at the top. The sides should be slightly concave. This pot is placed in the centre of the mat.
The playing pieces are small plastic discs called winks. These come in four colours: blue, green, red and yellow; and two sizes: each colour has two large (22mm diameter) and four small (16mm diameter) winks. Twenty years ago these were slightly curved, and could be turned over by the player to improve his chance of making a shot: nowadays they are flat.
The winks are flicked with a larger disc called a squidger, which must be round, and between 25mm and 51mm in diameter. Squidgers can be made of any material which does not scratch the winks - plastic is usual, with Teflon being popular because of its non-stick properties. Some players have a wooden squidger, but this is mostly for show. Players may use as many different squidgers as they like in the course of a game (though only one per shot!), and some carry specialised ones for particular types of shot - but others use only one.
The colours play as teams - blue with red, green with yellow. In pairs play, each player has one colour; in singles, a player controls both colours of a team. Each colour has a corner, going round clockwise in alphabetical order, and this is also the order of play.
The first colour to play is determined by the 'squidge-off'. Each colour plays one wink towards the pot: the colour which comes closest plays the first shot of the game. In the event of a tie, the tied players squidge off again. The squidged-off winks are returned to their corners for the start of the game proper.
Thereafter each colour plays in turn. A player can earn an extra turn by playing one of his winks into a pot ('potting' it). If a player plays his own wink so that it leaves the mat, he forfeits his next turn. There is no penalty for playing a shot which causes a wink of the three other colours to leave the mat. Winks leaving the mat are replaced at the point where they crossed the edge.
When it is a player's turn, they may choose to pass (play no shot), or to play any of their winks - one already in play, or one in his corner which has not yet been played. However, if any part of a wink is covered by another, it is said to be 'squopped' and cannot be played. Winks which have been potted remain in the pot for the rest of the game and cannot be played. When no winks of one colour exist, that colour is said to be 'squopped up', and he must pass.
When both colours of one team are squopped up, the other team have a certain number of shots, after which they must free at least one wink of the squopped up team. The number of shots is decided by the number of 'free winks' on the mat - that is, winks which are neither squopped themselves nor squopping another wink. The freed wink must stay free long enough to be played.
The game lasts until the agreed time limit (normally 20 or 25 minutes) have passed, or all of the winks of one colour have been potted (a 'pot-out'). If the time limit comes into effect, then after its passing each player has five shots, then play continues until the player who won the squidge-off plays (so that he has one more shot than anyone else), then play ends.
In the event of a pot-out, all squopped winks are uncovered by moving them (or the winks squopping them), keeping them the same distance from the pot. All players try to pot out as quickly as possible (still playing in turn), and any winks squopped after the pot-out are freed as before.
At the end of the game, table points or 'tiddlies' are scored as follows:
Winks in a pot are worth three tiddlies.
Those on the mat and not squopped score one tiddly.
Squopped winks score no tiddlies.
The colour with the most tiddlies, or who potted out first, gets four game points. The second colour gets two game points and the third gets one game point. In the event of a tie, points are shared, so for example:
Blue has two winks in the pot and one uncovered, seven tiddlies.
Green has one wink in the pot and one uncovered, four tiddlies.
Red has four uncovered winks, four tiddlies.
Yellow has three uncovered winks, three tiddlies.
So, Blue wins and gets four points. Green and Red are tied and get one and a half points each. Yellow gets no points. Game score 5.5-1.5 to Blue & Red.
If there is a pot-out, one point is added to the winner's score and deducted from his opponents'. For example:
- Yellow pots out first.
- Green is next to pot all his winks.
- Blue is third.
- Red is fourth.
Yellow wins and gets four game points, plus one bonus. Green gets two points. Blue gets one point and Red none, but they are the losing team so they have one point deducted. Game score 7-0 to Green & Yellow.
A shot must be a smooth and continuous motion of the squidger. The player must play an uncovered wink of the correct colour first, but in the course of the shot his squidger may also touch any wink directly below that wink.
There are two basic shots played on a single wink:
The pot shot is played with a flicking motion which causes the wink to leap into the air.
The squop shot has more of a sliding motion and provides more control.
Some of the compound shots have names:
The Bristol shot (named after the university whose teams first employed it on a regular basis) is played with a vertical squidger and moves a wink and the one below it together.
The Boondock leaves the player's own wink hardly moved, but sends an opponent's from underneath to a great distance.
The John Lennon is a Boondock where the player's own wink also achieves a squop on a third wink.
A Gromp has the same result as a Bristol but is played with a squop-type action.
It is not usually a good idea to start potting until all of the winks of one colour are in good position to do so. A player who tries to pot out and fail will often find that colour squopped up, and be at a tactical disadvantage for the rest of the match as that team effectively only has one turn to its opponents' two. However, out-and-out attack from the beginning (a 'Blitz') can be an effective way for a weaker player to try to upset a stronger one.
As winks get squopped and their team-mates go in to try to rescue them, complex piles develop. These are the real source of the game's interest, and pile-play is often the difference between a good player and a champion. Sadly, piles also result in lots of illegal shots, and independent umpires are often called in to guarantee that all of the rules are followed, and to re-build the pile when an illegal shot has to be taken back.
In order to have a head-start when the pile play commences, experienced players will usually try to bring their winks from the corner to near their previous winks, even if this is not very close to the pot. A 'strong area' means that when a wink is attacked, its team-mates are close at hand to repel the move.
A player attempting a squop and missing lays himself open to being squopped himself by the wink he just played for, and the judgement of when to attack and when to hold back is another key tactical decision in match play.
Winkers, as they like to be known, are overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) male, which is why the male pronoun has been used throughout the previous discussion. They tend to be fat and odd, or thin and completely mad. Either type will quite frequently display facial hair, though a lack of testosterone often means that the results are disappointing. Facial hair amongst the female players is also not unknown.
The consumption of beer is a large part of tiddlywinks tradition, and games immediately after lunch are often given an extra dimension by the advanced inebriation of one or both players. In fact, it has been proposed that blood testing should be introduced to guarantee a minimum blood alcohol level amongst participants.
The most horrifying consequence of a combination of winkers and beer, especially after a successful match, is singing of a standard which even Stars in their Eyes would look down its nose at. The most popular refrain is the Tiddlywinks Anthem, sung to the tune of Men of Harlech and composed by Reverend EA Willis for the Goons match:
Other nations are before us
With their Sputniks and Explorers
What can confidence restore us?
Naught but tiddlywinks.
On the fields of Eton,
Former foes were beaten.
But today all patriots play
This sport which needs such grit and concentration.
Through this game of skill and power
England knows her finest hour,
And her stronghold, shield and tower
Must be tiddlywinks.
Good places to find more information about winks, including the full rules and contact details for those who might be interested in taking up the game, include:
- The Scottish Tiddlywinks Association, based at St. Andrew's University.
Some of the factual information in this entry was confirmed from this site; but all opinions, and responsibility for all errors, are the researcher's.
These all contain further links to other places of interest.
Gratuitous Literary Reference
As Humbert Humbert, the narrator in Nabokov's Lolita thinks, whilst dreaming of his child love:
I'm just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup