A Brief Introduction to Eton Fives
The Absolute Essentials
Eton Fives is a hand-ball game, played in a three-sided court. It is only played as "doubles" (i.e. by two teams of two players), there being no official "singles" version of the game. Players wear padded leather gloves, since the ball (which is slightly large than a golf-ball and made of rubber and cork) is quite hard. It is in the same sporting "family" as other hand ball games such as Rugby Fives, American Handball, Irish handball, Winchester Fives and Basque Pelota Vasca.
The Eton Fives Court
The Eton Fives court has only three sides, the back of the court being completely open. The inside of the court is quite complicated in design, being based on a bay formed by the buttresses at the base of the chapel steps at Eton College as shown in this photograph.
This is where the game originated. Whilst there is now an official standard court design, most courts in existence vary quite a lot in terms of dimensions and detail, but all of them have the same, rather unusual, features. The court is divided into two parts, separated by a "step", which is positioned about 1/3 of the length of the court from the front wall. The front part of the court is variously known as the front or upper (up) court, or top step (we will use the term 'front court'). Because of the step, the front court is a few inches higher than the rear part, which is known as the back, down or lower court (we will call it the 'back court'). The end of the back court is defined by another small step,
Whilst there are no actual rules about where the players must stand during a game - except during the service - it is usual for two players (one from each team) to be in the front court, whilst their partners play in the back court, although any player may play a shot in either court during the course of a game, as the need dictates. A Fives court is quite small for four people (especially when they are running around a lot) and players have to be careful not to obstruct each other.
A sloping ledge runs around the three walls, about four-and-a-half feet above the floor. The lower angle of this ledge is the "playline", on or above which the ball must be played to be "in". The walls in the front court have an additional "square" ledge about 2 feet from the bottom. The front wall of the court is generally higher than the side walls, which themselves slope from the front to the rear of the court. The upper limit of the three walls is defined by the "coping" - the stone work at the top.
Probably the most obvious feature of an Eton Fives court is the large projection on the left-hand side - called the buttress. The buttress is roughly L-shaped and is about shoulder high. It is located at the step and extends into both the front and back courts. The buttress is very complex in shape, with many slopes and angles. Where the buttress meets the step it forms a small three-sided niche, called "the dead-man's hole" or just "the hole" or "the box" or the "pepperpot". This is a natural place to try to send the ball when playing, as it often results in an unreturnable shot. However, because it is very small, it requires great accuracy to successfully "kill" a ball in the hole.
Skill & Subtlety
As can be imagined, the design of the court, with its profusion of surfaces and angles, adds marvellous complexity to the game. Skillful players make great use the features - especially the buttress - to confuse and deceive their opponents. Simple shots often become unpredictable ricochets. The front court is particularly difficult to play in, as the ball may easily change direction several times during its travel.
Eton Fives is an extremely fast game, but it is also a game of great skill - players practiced in its subtleties and nuances will nearly always beat those who rely mainly on brute force and speed. Perhaps uniquely amongst ball games, the court's peculiarities of design are considered to give left-handed players an advantage over right-handed ones. The amibidextrous, naturally, have a huge advantage over both, since shots may be played with either hand.
The Laws of the Game of Eton Fives
Drawn up - October 1950
Revised - October 1965
Revised - October 1981
Rules of the Eton Fives Association
The court is enclosed on three sides and open at the back. The 'front wall' is the wall facing the player, and the 'right-hand' and 'left-hand' walls are the walls on his right hand and left hand respectively.
The 'step' is a shallow step dividing the court into two portions, an 'upper' or 'top' and a 'lower' or 'bottom' 'court' or 'step'. The vertical face of the 'step' is not reckoned as part of the floor of the court.
The 'pepper-box' is a buttress projecting from the left-hand wall. With the 'step', it encloses a small square portion of the floor called 'Dead Man's Hole'.
The 'line' is the lower angle of the ledge running across the front wall, at a height of 4 feet 6 inches.
A vertical line is marked on the front wall at a distance of 3 feet 8 inches from the right-hand wall.
Please refer to the diagram and photograph of the Eton Fives Court. There are official dimensions for a standard Fives court, but in practice there are slight variations between courts in different venues.
In the unlikely event that the ball strikes the face of the step first and then the floor it will only count as one bounce.
Where the context so permits a reference to the masculine shall be taken to include a reference to the feminine. A reference to the singular shall be taken as a reference to the plural.
The ball must in every case be hit up; i.e. it must be returned against the front wall on or above the line. Any ball which drops on the top of any of the walls or coping, or which hits any part of the roof or the sides of the court above the coping, or which touches the ground first outside the court, before the first bounce, except in the case of a Blackguard (see Law VI (b)) other than at Game Ball (see Law XI), or touches any person or object outside the court is out of court and counts against the striker. The sides and lower face of the coping shall be in.
The line is defined as "the lower angle of the ledge running across the front wall". If the ball catches that angle it is up. If in doubt play a let. Some courts have slightly different rules as to what is in or out. If you are playing on an unfamiliar court, check with the home team for any local rules.
The ball must be fairly hit with a single blow of the hand or wrist, and must not touch any other part of the striker's person under penalty of losing the stroke. It must not be caught, carried, or held in any way, except to serve or to stop a ball as provided for in Law VI. A ball taken with both hands or with a cupped hand may often be technically held, in which case the striker should declare a hold and allow the point to go against him.
In most cases a player will know whether he has held, caught, or carried the ball, or hit it twice. It is crucial to the fairness and good spirit of the game that in these cases you own up. So recognise those shots that are almost impossible to play cleanly and avoid playing them.
Be vigilant when the ball has struck the buttress and is dying close to the front wall. It is very difficult to get your glove under the ball and hit it cleanly without lifting. People are often unaware of this. You must often accept that you have left it too late and the shot has beaten you.
Sometimes when the ball has hit the front ledge, it travels vertically up the front wall. Be careful not to smother the ball against the front wall and then play a let on the grounds that it hit you after it hit the front wall. If you do not play the ball cleanly, you lose the point.
Two-handed shots are fraught with danger. The risk of the ball hitting both hands or being caught momentarily between them is great.
Position of the Players
The game is played by four persons, two against two. Thus, if A and B (with first service) play C and D, A, the server, should stand in the upper court and his side is said to be up. C should stand in the lower court to return the service, and his side is said to be down. B and D also stand in the lower court, B having choice of position.
Normally the server's partner B will stand near the back of the court to the right and the cutter's partner D will stand behind the cutter C. But in wet weather B might want to stand near the left bricks, close to where D would normally stand. This may also apply when a left-hander is cutting. Although B has a choice of position, he cannot insist on the cutter's partner standing out of court to give him more room. The cutter's partner needs to stand in court to catch the ball should the cut be flying out.
Choice of First Service
The choice of first service shall be decided by one of the home side tossing a coin or placing the ball behind his back in one of his hands and one of the opposing side calling. The first server in each game also cuts first (see Law VI for definition of, and rules for, the first cut) for his side after he and his partner have been sent down; thereafter the player who has the second hand of a service cuts first. If in the first game A serves first and C cuts, then in the second game C serves first and A cuts; in the third game B serves first and D cuts; in the fourth game D serves first and B cuts; and in the fifth game A again serves first and C cuts.
Beginners should note the different order of serving and cutting at the start of each game.
The ball when served must hit first the front wall above the line and then the right-hand wall, and must fall in the lower court. The player who is cutting need not return the first or any service until he gets one to his mind, and if he fails to return the service above the line no stroke is counted. A service which goes out of court carries no penalty and may be taken by the player making the first cut.
The cutter sometimes asks for the service to land in one place if the server is receiving the cut under the front wall and in another if the server is receiving the cut by the buttress. In this situation, the cutter can choose where the ball bounces but he cannot choose where the server stands to return the ball. The cutter cannot complain if the server moves after the cutter has committed himself to his stroke.
The First Cut
(a) Only the player who is cutting may return the service, and he may do so only between the first and second bounce. This return is called the 'First Cut'. He must return it so that it should hit either (1) first the right-hand wall and subsequently the front wall above the line; or (2) first the front wall above the line between the right-hand wall and the vertical line marked on the front wall. In both cases the ball may afterwards hit any wall or walls and may fall anywhere in the upper or lower court.
(b) If the first cut is hit in such a way that the ball will probably fall out of court, the side which is down may, without interference, touch the ball so that it falls within the court, or catch it, provided that the player touching or catching the ball has one or both feet on the floor of the court, or, if he jumps for the purpose, alights on the floor of the court with the foot which first touches the ground. The player may make only one attempt to touch or catch the ball. If the ball is caught, no stroke is counted; if only touched, one of the side which is up may, if he pleases, return the ball and neither of the opposing side may interfere with his shot; if he fails to return the ball up, no stroke is counted.
(c) If the first cut hits the front wall above the line but on or to the left of the vertical line marked on the front wall and without first touching the right hand wall, this shot is called a 'Blackguard'. It may be returned before the second bounce by either the server or his partner at their option, but if it is not returned above the line, no stroke is counted. The last sentence does not apply at Game Ball (see Law XI).
(a) The cut which is played onto the left-hand wall and then onto the front wall to the right of the vertical line is illegal and dangerous. The cutter may hit the right-hand wall below the ledge as long as the ball then goes up on the front wall. If the cut strikes the vertical line it is a blackguard. A cut hit straight out of court without going up on the front wall does not count as out, as the ball has never been in play.
(b) If the cutter's partner catches or hits the ball when he is in the air, then his first foot to land must be in court. A player may make just one attempt to stop a cut going out. If he fails to catch it cleanly, he is not allowed to touch or catch it again. This law is designed to give the serving side a proper chance to play any rebound. If the cutting side do try again to catch it, this is poor sportsmanship. The cutting side, however, do not lose the point but a let is played. The side which is down may 'without interference' catch the cut going out. They may claim a let if they are impeded in stopping the ball going out of court.
(c) The serving side has a free stroke on a blackguard cut. If they hit the ball down or directly out of court, without it going up first, then they are not penalised. If they hit the ball up and then out it does count against them. A blackguard cut which goes out of court is not in play. It therefore does not count as out and the cutting side does not lose the point. At game ball there is no such thing as a blackguard, so this rule does not apply.
After the service and the first cut the ball is returned alternately by either side. It may be returned by either of the partners before the first or second bounce, and may or may not hit the side walls. A rally is lost to his side by the player who fails to return the ball above the line or hits it out of court.
(a) A let may be requested when a player is in any way prevented from returning or impeded in his attempt to return the ball by one of the opposite side, if he considers he could otherwise have returned it. A let may not be requested when a player is impeded by bystanders.
(b) A ball which would have hit the front wall above the line, but is prevented from doing so by one of the opposite side, counts as a let, unless it first strikes one of the opposite side, and thereafter the front wall above the line, in which caseit counts as up; but if it first strikes one of the same side, it does not count as up, whether it goes up or not. A ball that was going to hit below the front line but first hits an opponent and then goes above the line shall be deemed to be up.
(c) If a ball after going up from a return by A or B strikes A or B before the second bounce, it shall count as a let if C or D consider that they could have returned it, if it had not hit A or B, except that if the ball clearly would have fallen out of court it shall count against A and B (subject to the provisions of Law VI relating to a first cut). C or D may, however, elect to return the ball and continue the rally. If not returned up, it counts as a let. If returned above the line, a let may not be requested, unless it falls out of court.
(d) Where a ball becomes lodged on any ledge within the court before the second bounce, it shall count as a let.
(e) A let may be requested when a player is in some way impeded in his attempt to return the ball by one of the opposite side, and after he has returned it up, the ball then falls out of court.
(f) If the first cut is hit in such a way that it will probably fall out of court and the side which is down tries to catch the ball or touch it so that it falls within the court, a let may be requested if the person touching or catching the ball is prevented from so doing or impeded in his attempt so to do by one of the opposite side and the ball falls out.
NB If there is no umpire, a request for a let is generally allowed, except where this Law expressly provides that no let can be claimed.
Nowhere does the adherence to the spirit of the game become more important than in the requesting and granting of lets. If in doubt play a let. Lets should be offered if a player is impeded in any way but they need not always be accepted. Offer more lets than you accept. Lets should only be accepted if a player feels he would probably have returned the ball. He is not entitled to a let just because he was impeded.
If any player is distracted by a fives ball coming into the court from a nearby court, a let is often offered. In many cases where this is common, a let is automatically given as soon as the ball comes into the court. A player is entitled to a let if he is impeded and plays the ball up but out. The cutter's partner is entitled to a let if he is impeded when trying to catch a cut that is flying out of court.
A game is won by the side which first obtains twelve points, except as provided in Law XII. Matches generally consist of the best of five games. Only the side which is up may score points. When A is put out B takes his place. When B is out, the side is out and their opponents go up, the player who has been cutting being the first hand to go up, except as provided in Law X. The result of each rally, except in the case of a let, is either to add one to the score of the side which is up, or to put one of them out, as the case may be.
If C loses one point to the opposite side when he is cutting, he is said to be one down. If he loses a second point, he is said to be two down, and D takes his place: if D in turn loses two points, he is two down and C cuts again, and so on until both A and B are put out; provided that he who was two down first is then the first to go up; but if through inadvertence or otherwise, he does not do so, the error cannot be corrected after the service has been returned. All balls which fall in the upper court belong to the player who is cutting. Failure to return a ball out of Dead Man's Hole does not count as one down against the player who is cutting. The player who is cutting cannot be two down at Game Ball.
The cutter has to be replaced if he has lost two points; there is no option to allow him to continue cutting. There is no requirement on the cutting side to inform the serving side that they are changing cutters, but it is normally good etiquette to do so.
The sentence which says 'All balls which fall in the upper court belong to the player who is cutting' is for use when there is doubt as to who lost the point. Clearly, if for instance the cutter's partner comes up onto the front step and loses the point there personally, it counts against him and not the cutter. Similarly it counts against the cutter's partner if he fails to return a shot which happened to bounce up court but clearly became the back-court player's responsibility.
For the 'Dead Man's Hole ' exception to operate, the ball must have died there.
When the side which is serving requires one point for game, this is called Game Ball, and the following rules must be observed:
(a) The player serving must stand with at least one foot in the lower court, and he may not place both feet on the top step until the player who is cutting has hit the ball. If he forgets to stand thus, and serves the ball with both feet on the top step, the player who is cutting or his partner may try to catch the ball before it bounces. If they succeed in this, the side serving is out. If, however, they do not succeed in catching the ball, or if the player serving or his partner manage to touch the ball first, or if it hits the ground before being touched, it counts neither way. A player may remind his partner of this Law. Where the server places both feet on the top step after the first bounce but before the player who is cutting has hit the ball a let may be claimed by the side cutting.
(b) When the ball is properly served, the player who is cutting may return the first cut against any part of the front wall above the line, with or without hitting the side walls.
(c) The side which is down may not touch or catch a game ball cut which is going out of court (see Law VI (b)).
Please note that there is no requirement for the cutter's partner to stand out of court until the cutter has hit the ball. The almost universal practice of the cutter's partner standing out of court for the game-ball cut is etiquette only. But it is to be encouraged because it minimises the chance of conceding a let at this crucial stage in the game.
If the score is at 10 all, the game may, at the option of the side which is cutting, be set to 5 or 3, or not at all; if it is 11 all, to 3 or not at all. If the game is set, Law XI shall apply at 4 or 2 respectively. At 14 all or 12 all in the first case, or at 13 all in the second case, or at 11 all if the game is not set, the game shall be decided by "sudden death", Law XI being observed on either side.
Do we need an Umpire?
Umpires should not be necessary. Most disputes arise over questions such as whether the ball went up, whether a let was justified, whether the ball was carried, or because the score has been forgotten. With good will these matters can be sorted out. But if the game is becoming full of disputes, there is nothing wrong with agreeing to have an umpire.
What about asking bystanders?
If there is a disagreement, some players ask bystanders their opinion. This is a bad idea. Bystanders are often not paying attention. Nor can they be counted on to offer an unbiased opinion. Players on court should take responsibility for resolving disagreements.
No particular type of glove is specified in the laws. It is quite permissible to play in bare hands.
The Laws End Here
Constructed by Mike Fenn - 7th December 2000