Tenpin Bowling Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Tenpin Bowling

2 Conversations

A neon sign promoting a bowling alley.

Tenpin bowling is a game similar to skittles. It is played in special centres where you can rent or freely obtain all of the accoutrements required to play. Players take it in turns to bowl a special ball at a set of ten pins1 positioned into an equilateral triangle with the apex pointing towards the player, as shown below. 7 8 9 10 4 5 6 2 3 1 Bowling balls are large objects (with a circumference of up to 27 inches) weighing up to 16lb with finger-holes in them so that the player can grip the large ball. Players need to wear special shoes to prevent them from damaging the highly polished wooden floor on which the game is played.

A Brief History

Tenpin bowling has had its ups and downs over the years. Descended from a long line of bowling games that go back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians, it is more recently descended from Kegal, a nine-skittle German game which spread across Europe and into America.

In an era when gatherings of people often meant bad news for the powers-that-be, ninepin bowling was banned. As you may imagine, with concerted effort and great mathematical insight, a loophole was found in the law and an extra pin was added to the original nine. Thus the diamond of the nine pins became the triangle of the ten.

1946 was a big year for bowling in America with AMF2 producing the first automatic pin-spotter3. In 1960 the newly-mechanised tenpin bowling was introduced to the UK.

Bowling has a complicated scoring system which has put off many people over the years, but with the advent of computerised technology players can now enter their names into the computer and their scores as they occur and the machine takes the pain out of the scoring.

Talking of pain, the main frustration of the new bowler is seeing your ball slowly make its way across the lane4 and tumble into the gutter which runs down each side. This means you have missed and another 0 (zero) is put on the score sheet. This became such an issue for new bowlers that lanes were fitted with devices to block the gutters, so that new players would at least score something. League bowling does not make use of such devices.


The bowler can have up to two attempts at knocking down a set of ten pins. Any that are knocked down at the first attempt are removed and the bowler tries to knock down the remainder. Knocking all of the pins down with the first ball is called a 'strike', and knocking down all the remaining pins on the second go is called a 'spare'.

A game of bowling consists of ten frames, and the maximum you can score is 300 points. Let us imagine we have two bowlers, Adam and Betty. Adam bowls and knocks all of the pins down with his first ball. This is a strike, and an 'X' is marked in the Frame 1 box on the score card, but the total is left blank as Adam may score bonus points with his next two balls. Adam does not get a second ball in this frame as there is nothing left to knock over. Betty steps up to take her turn. Betty knocks over 9 pins with her first ball. A 9 is written in the Frame 1 box for Betty. With her second ball she knocks over the last pin. She has 'picked up a spare' and a '/' is written next to the 9. No total is put in as a spare means that you can score bonus points with your next ball.

Adam bowls his second ball and knocks down eight pins, leaving the 7 and 10 pins standing. This is known as a 'split' because these pins are separated from each other, and getting a 'spare' from this is very difficult. With his second ball he knocks down the 7 pin. In Frame 2 of the scorecard he writes the 8 and then puts a 1 next to it. He goes back to Frame 1 where there is no total and can now fill it in. He scored 10 from his first ball in Frame 1 and can add on what he scored from the next two balls (8 and 1) so the total in Frame 1 is 19. As he did not get a spare in Frame 2 there are no bonuses due, so he adds the 9 to the 19 and writes down 28 in Frame 2.

Betty bowls the first ball of Frame 2 and gets a strike. She is delighted. She puts an 'X' in the box for Frame 2 and can now fill in the total for Frame 1. Her 9 + 1 in Frame 1 added to the next ball, which was a strike, now add up to 20 so this is the total in Frame 1. She cannot put in the total for Frame 2 yet, because she is allowed to add in the value of the next two balls following her strike.

Frames 1 to 9 are identical in their scoring, and then you come to the tenth and final frame. On a paper scorecard this looks different from the others, as it has an extra space to fill in. This is to allow the bonuses to be put in if the player scores a strike or a spare in this frame. If you get a strike with your first ball in the tenth frame, you are allowed two more balls. You could get three strikes in the tenth. You could get a spare in your first two balls; this then means you are allowed one extra ball to get the bonus points for your spare. Of course you may not knock all of the pins down with the first two balls and you get no further bonus goes and your game is finished.

A strike in every frame and two extra strikes in the tenth scores as follows: 30, 60, 90, 120, 150, 180, 210, 240, 270 and 300 giving the maximum score. Strangely enough a strike alternating with a spare throughout the game gives a score of 200.


Informal bowling sessions among friends may lack proper bowling etiquette, with people climbing over one another or using one another's bowling balls willy-nilly, and with several people crowded on the 'approach'5 at the same time.

There is a right and wrong way to bowl, and league bowling would expect players to behave appropriately. Lanes are usually seen as being grouped in pairs, with play alternating between the lanes with each frame (team A bowls lane 1 in Frame 1 while Team B bowls in lane 2, and then they swap for Frame 2). Eating and drinking is not allowed on the approach. Spilled food or liquid could cause a serious accident for someone carrying a 16lb bowling ball travelling at speed. Only one person at a time should be on the approach. Give way to a bowler who is already positioned and ready to bowl. Do not distract them. And never use another player's ball.

General good manners helps!

Bowling Technique

You will notice lots of dots and arrows marking the floor, with dots on the approach and arrows on the lane. These are to help you position yourself as you bowl. Before you start, walk up to the black line, called the 'Foul Line', that marks the beginning of the lane. Turn your back to the pins and take three reasonable paces. Now look down at your feet and note how you are positioned in relation to the dots on the floor. Use this as a guide for where to start your bowling approach.

Turn the ball over if you cannot see the holes6. Your correctly-sized ball should be measured up like this: put your thumb in the biggest hole and place the rest of your hand flat on the ball. The thumb hole should be neither too loose nor too tight. The other two holes should line up with the middle knuckles of your middle two fingers (not the index finger). Place your thumb and fingers in the ball while it is firmly placed on the stand. Always pick up the ball with two hands from the stand and take more of the weight in your left hand7. Stand at the position you paced out for yourself earlier on and bring the ball up to your chin so that you are looking at the pins over the top of the ball. Your thumb should be closest to your face if you have the ball the right way round. When you are ready you will push the ball away from yourself in a big arc (don't let go yet) while you take your first step with your left foot. As you move forward in your three-step approach the ball swings behind you, you begin to slightly crouch. Let the ball come back in the same arc and let go as you and the ball arrive at the 'Foul Line' simultaneously. Your left foot (the one opposite to the hand you bowl with) should be in front of you. The ball should not bounce but glide smoothly down the lane, and if your aim is true hit the 'pocket', which is the space between the 1 and 3 pins8.

Improving Your Aim

Consistency is massively important in bowling — that's why there are so many dots and arrows. When a bowler finds the right position in terms of getting their stride right, and the correct position in relation to the arrows on the lane and which arrow they can send their ball over, then they are able to perform better for longer.

As a rule of thumb, if your ball tends to roll more to one side — say to the right — it is wise to move your body slightly in that direction before you begin your approach. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it works as your brain will compensate and send the ball slightly farther away from the gutter that it thinks the ball may end up in.

Accessibility Issues

It used to be that you needed to be reasonably fit and able-bodied to bowl. This is no longer so, and many bowling centres can provide frames to help people with disabilities to bowl. So long as you can push the ball a short distance, you can use the frame to aim the ball and gravity does the rest.

Health and Safety Issues

Bowling balls are heavy and so should be handled with care. Always use two hands to pick up a ball or you may strain a muscle or worse. Many bowlers take hand towels with them so that they can wipe any sweat or other moisture from their hands. This helps keep the ball from accidentally slipping off your fingers, which can be extremely dangerous if you are in the middle of your backswing when it happens.

Check to make sure the approach has no spills on it. Bowling shoes have very little grip so that you can slide your feet on the wooden surface. Hitting a wet patch brings you to a stop with a jerk and can be dangerous if you are carrying the ball.

Enjoy It

Anyone can play and competing can be fun. Some leagues allow handicapping, which means poorer players are given extra points as a bonus to make the games against better players more even. Bowling as recreation is great for people who won't do anything too strenuous, and the chance to sit and chat with friends between goes has its own attraction. Most bowling centres have eating and drinking facilities so you can make a whole evening or day of it if you want.

More from the Edited Guide

  • Search the Guide to find out about games that other Researchers are playing.

1Skittles made of wood or resin.2A manufacturer and marketer of bowling products.3A device for clearing away fallen pins and leaving the untouched pins in place, a job which had been done by hand up until that point.4The runway that you send the ball down before it reaches the pins.5Where you pick up your ball and bowl it.6They always have holes in them — you may not have turned it round enough!7Assuming you are right-handed — please reverse these instructions if you are not.8The 1 and 2 pins if you are left-handed.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:


h2g2 Entries

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more