Passport to the Pub

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Passport to the Pub:
A guide to British pub etiquette

8 Games Pubgoers Play

To foreign visitors, some British pubs may seem more like children’s playgrounds than adult drinking-places. As one incredulous American tourist remarked "Look at this place. You’ve got a dart board, a bar-billiards table, four different board-games and card-games and dominoes and some weird thing with a wooden box and a bunch of little sticks, and now you tell me this pub also has a football team and a cricket team and on Monday nights there is a quiz! You call this a bar? At home we’d call it a kindergarten!"

Fortunately for the researcher, this scornful visitor had only noticed about a dozen or so traditional pub games, and had not heard of pubs offering modern novelties such as bungee-running, inflatable sumo wrestling, bar flying and bouncy boxing - not to mention old-fashioned regional eccentricities such as Aunt Sally, wellie-throwing, shove ha’penny, marrow-dangling, conger-cuddling and Wetton Toe Wrestling.

Another baffled visitor asked "What is it with you British? Why do you have to play all these silly games? Why can’t you just go to a bar and have a drink and talk like the rest of the world?"

The answer is that the rest of the world is not as socially inhibited and inept as the British. We don’t find it easy to initiate friendly conversation with strangers, or to develop closer relationships with fellow pubgoers. We need help. We need props. We need excuses to make contact. We need toys and games that get us involved with each other. We need to throw balls and darts together and push little objects around on tables together and keep scores and exclaim over wins and grumble about losses and argue about the rules. OK?

The natives are unlikely to admit to these needs, of course. Instead, they may tell you that it is a historical tradition - that the pub has been the social centre where games have been played for hundreds of years. This is absolutely correct, and sounds much more rational.

Having overcome your bewilderment at the sheer number and variety of pub-games available, and, perhaps, your scorn at the natives’ addiction to such childish pursuits, you will probably start wanting to play yourself. To participate, you will need to know the basic etiquette of pub-games. Every pub-game has its rules - not just the rules of the game itself, which would require another whole book, but rules governing the comportment and social interactions of the players.

It would be impossible, or at least tedious, to attempt a comprehensive survey of the etiquettes of each and every pub-game from cribbage to wellie-throwing, with all their myriad regional and local variations. We will cover the basic behaviour-codes governing the most common games - darts, pool and dominoes - and allow you to enjoy discovering the etiquettes of the more obscure games, and regional variations, for yourself.

The pub-quiz is a very popular native pastime. If you go into a pub and see little groups of people huddled, muttering or giggling, over sheets of paper while a ‘quiz-master’ reads out a series of questions, you have stumbled on a pub-quiz. If you happen to know the answer to a question, don’t shout it out, as you will ruin the game (each team has to write down the answer, and their answer-sheets are then checked by a rival team). Ask at the bar if you can join in the next round.


You will find a dart-board in many pubs, as this is one of the most popular pub-games. If you don’t immediately see a dart-board, it may be worth looking a bit closer: sometimes the board will be hidden in a sort of cabinet on the wall. If you spot a small double-doored cupboard at about head-height, with a long mat on the floor beneath it and perhaps a chalk-board alongside, you have located the dart-board.

The darts themselves, when no-one is playing, are kept behind the bar, sometimes in a special box, but more often in an old, cracked beer mug. If the dart-board is not already in use, and you wish to play, you must ask at the bar for the darts. There is usually no charge for a game of darts, but in some pubs it is customary to put a few coins in the charity collection-box on the bar counter - and this gesture will always be appreciated.


If there is a game in progress, you must observe the correct etiquette, which is to offer to keep score for the current players. In the language of darts, keeping score is called ‘chalking’, and the correct form of introduction is to say "Can I chalk?" or "Can I chalk for you?". The players know that this is not an altruistic gesture, and that your object is to take your turn at the board. Only after you have ‘chalked’ for the current players will you be allowed to take your turn. If you are not familiar with the game being played, you will have to ask about the scoring procedure, but whatever the game, ‘chalking’ will require a reasonable level of competence in mental arithmetic.

By ‘chalking’, you merely gain access to the dart-board when the current game is over. You do not ‘join’ the game, and if you have no partner you may need to find one. Once your offer to ‘chalk’ has been accepted, there is no harm in asking the current players if they would like another game, but do not be offended by a refusal.


Darts is a popular game with both male and female pubgoers. Serious playing - league matches and the like - is always segregated, with separate men’s and ladies’ teams, but men and women (particularly the younger generation) may often be seen playing casually together.

As a rule-of-thumb, do not attempt to intrude on a single-sex group of darts players if you are of the opposite sex. In some pubs, for example, one evening of the week may be designated ‘Ladies’ Darts Night’, which provides the female regulars with an opportunity to indulge in female-bonding rituals.

Males and females also tend to behave differently during the game. Native males generally try to adopt a strong, manly approach, both as players and as spectators. They do not jump about and exclaim over their own or each other’s luck or skill. Swearing at one’s mistakes, and making mildly sarcastic comments on those of one’s companions, is allowed; clapping one’s hands in glee upon scoring a double-twenty, and excessive laughter on failing to hit the board at all, is considered ‘girly’.

This is perhaps not an unreasonable view, as females - with the exception of serious league players - are indeed given to more spontaneous and expressive reactions, and often have difficulty in maintaining the degree of solemnity required by male players. Whatever the sex of the players, it is customary for the loser to buy the winner a drink.

Pool and bar-billiards

The dart-board is a more common sight in pubs than the pool table, but this has more to do with the amount of space required for the two games than with their relative popularity. The bar-billiards table is smaller than the pool table, and may often be found in less spacious pubs.

Some purist native pubgoers will object to the lack of proper distinction between pool and bar-billiards in this section. From the average tourist’s point of view, however, both games are essentially about hitting balls around a table with long sticks, and there are few differences in the etiquette involved.

The "Is it . ?" ritual

Pool and bar-billiards are the easiest pub-games for the lone tourist to join in. The etiquette of introduction is simple, albeit conducted entirely in coded language. All you have to do is to approach one of the players at an opportune moment and ask "Is it winner stays on?". This is understood as an offer to play the winner of the current game. The reply may be "Yes, names on the board" or "Yes, coins down". This means that, yes, you may play the winner, and in order to secure your turn you must write your name on the chalk-board near the table or place your coins on the edge of the table. Pool and bar-billiard tables are coin-operated, and it is assumed that you, as the newcomer/challenger, will pay for the game. If the reply to your initial question is simply "Yes", you should ask "Is it coins down?" or "Is it names on the board?".

Having secured your match, you can loiter near the table and make further enquiries about the rules of the game - which is advisable as these vary from region to region, and even from pub to pub.

If your knowledge of the game is so limited that you would not even know what questions to ask, try to ascertain the level of skill and/or seriousness (the two are not necessarily related) of the players before attempting to join in. If the players seem very light-hearted in their approach to the game, particularly if their lack of concern is matched by lack of eye-hand co-ordination, you may safely confess your ignorance and ask their advice. Serious, macho players, however inept, may resent the intrusion. As a general rule, bar-billiards players tend to be less serious than pool players.


Once you have been accepted as a player, you may make appropriate comments on the game in progress. Well, to be honest, there is only one entirely safe and appropriate comment you can make: this is to say "Shot" when a player makes a particularly good shot. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of vocabulary, this one word is pronounced in a drawn-out fashion, as though it had at least two syllables: "Sho-ot". Other players may tease and taunt each other over bad shots, but you would be wise to avoid making any derogatory remarks until you are better acquainted.

Q. Everyone’s seen pool being played, at least in the movies, but most of us tourists have never even heard of bar-billiards: what do I need to know to avoid looking silly at my first game?

A. All you really need to know to avoid ridicule is that the object of bar-billiards is to make the balls go down the holes without knocking over the mushroom-shaped objects (called ‘pegs’), and that bar-billiards is played entirely from one end of the table. (A group of Scandinavian tourists caused great mirth in a local pub by attempting to take shots from all around the table as though they were playing pool.)

Quirks and variations

Pool is a more male-dominated game than darts, and you are less likely to find all-female groups of pool-players, although mixed-sex groups are fairly common. As with most pub-games, males tend to take the game more seriously than females and to be less effusive in their reactions. Bar-billiards is more often played purely for fun by both sexes - although males are likely to be more competitive. Some of the more macho type of pool-players do not regard bar-billiards as a serious game at all, and young male natives may treat it as an old-fashioned eccentricity.

You are unlikely to find pool tables in the pretty-postcard tourist- oriented pubs, in specialist ‘family’ pubs or in the more trendy circuit pubs. Search out the back-street locals, student pubs or estate pubs - almost all estate pubs have a pool table. (See Chapter 2 for details on which games are to be found in which pubs, and how to find the type of pub you want.)



The origins of this game are obscure and disputed, some claiming that it was originally imported to Britain from France, others insisting on a Spanish source, and still others claiming that it came from China, via Italy. (If you get bored with the game itself, which is quite likely, you could always start an argument about its birthplace.)

How to join in

The dominoes set is usually kept behind the bar or at the end of the bar counter, so if there is no game already in progress you will have to ask for it. If you don’t know the game, and the bar staff are not busy, this could also be a good opportunity to ask how it is played - although you may find it more amusing to watch the natives playing and work out the rules for yourself. Either way, the basic game is quite easy to learn. To play it well is a different matter, which any aficionado will tell you requires speedy mental arithmetic and great powers of concentration.

It will be difficult for you to ‘muscle in’ on a game of dominoes, as the winner-stays-on rule does not apply. If you can, try to drift into casual conversation with a friendly group of native domino-players - perhaps when they come up to the bar to buy drinks - and express a keen interest in the game. Dominoes is generally played between friends, so be prepared to take the time to ‘make friends’ with one or two of the domino-players before attempting to participate. Finding an opportunity to buy a round of drinks for your new acquaintances will help, but do not force yourself on anyone who seems unwilling. (See Chapter 3: Making Contact, for further advice.)

If you are lucky enough to be invited to join in a native game of dominoes, and have never played before, you would be wise to watch a few games first, asking one of the players to explain what is happening. The rules are not complicated, but natives tend to play very fast, and you can miss an entire game just by sneezing at the wrong moment. Otherwise, all you need to know is the coded language and the rules of behaviour.


Dominoes, like all pub games and most other pub-based activities, has its own special vocabulary. To start with, there are different names for the dominoes themselves, which vary from region to region and from pub to pub. The pieces may be called ‘tiles’, ‘stones’, ‘bones’, ‘doms’ or, confusingly, ‘cards’. The dots on the dominoes are called ‘spots’. When you do not have the right dominoes in your ‘hand’ to fit on either end of the ‘line’, you do not say so, but rather you signal your inability to take your turn by rapping sharply on the table, once, either with your knuckles or, more commonly, with a domino - this is called ‘knocking’.

The game goes on until one player (or, sometimes, two partners) has got rid of all his dominoes. This is called ‘chipping out’, but the player will just call out, triumphantly or languidly depending on his nature, "out". At the beginning of each new game, as with cards, the dominoes must be shuffled. This must be done by stirring the dominoes around on the table with the flat of your hand, and is, thankfully, called ‘shuffling’.


The vast majority of domino-players are male. This information will immediately tell you much of what you need to know about the expected behaviour. You will be expected to pay attention to the game and not get distracted into idle chit-chat - and you should make your moves without fussing, dithering or otherwise wasting time. Swearing in a manly fashion at your bad luck, or, if you are reasonably well-acquainted, at other players’ devious moves, is acceptable; whining is not. Getting angry ("You bastard!") is OK; getting upset ("It’s not fair!") is effeminate.

The best players tend to appear very calm and relaxed: in fact, they are too busy counting the spots on the dominoes and working out what everyone else has in their ‘hand’ to indulge in any histrionics.

Casual domino-playing is usually very good humoured, and each group of players will have its own little rituals, nicknames and private codes. Among one group in a local pub, the players’ habit of bemoaning their dreadful ‘hands’ is parodied in a ritual whereby each player automatically cries "Oh no!" in exaggerated mock-horror, as he picks up each of his first ‘hand’ of dominoes.

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