Twosies and threesies were okay, but if you really wanted to be considered playground royalty, sixies and sevensies were almost always required. And if any of this makes sense to you, you probably have experience playing a modern version of an ancient game that’s come to be known as Jacks.
The origin of Jacks can be traced back to various ancient counting games. Through the course of history, it has gone by such fanciful names as Fivestones, Astragaloi, Dibs, Chuckstones and Knucklebones. The last one is particularly descriptive, since early games were played with Astragalus – the knuckle bones of a sheep. Thankfully, in modern times, metal and plastic Jacks have replaced the organic variety.
The game began captivating American kids around the turn of the twentieth century. The balls weren’t rubber back then, but the object was still the same: pour the spiky jacks (usually ten, twelve or fourteen of them) out onto the ground, toss the ball in the air, then pick up as many jacks as you can before the ball touches back down on terra firma. If you’re playing with a red rubber ball, you have until that devilish bouncing sphere touches down twice.
It wasn’t as easy as it sounds-especially since all of this is done with one hand. And that, asphalt allies, was just round one. After everyone in your circle of friends had a turn picking up the jacks one at a time, the next step was to pick them up two at a time, then three at a a time, and so on. Depending on how tough the kids in the circle were feeling, if a player skipped a number or touched a jack that they didn’t pick up, the turn was over. And when it was their turn again, they might just have to start back at the beginning, picking them up one at a time.
The rules varied, and in some games, it was necessary to yell the names of moves out mid-game, making Jacks not just a test of hand-eye coordination test, but of verbal skill as well. “Haystacks,” “Cart Before the Horse,” “Interference” and “Split Jack” were just some of the variations concocted over the years (or, in some cases, centuries).
When the game was over, you put your Jacks (or your Jumbo Jacks – extra big for easier handling) in their pouch or their can and called it a day. Hopefully, the imaginary playground crown was yours, at least until the next match.