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Why Eton Fives is a civilised - and civilising - game

In this newly published article, multiple Kinnaird winner John Reynolds explains his take on the unique moral dimensions of the sport of Eton Fives.

 

 Eton fives is a civilised – and civilising – game.

Playing Eton fives civilises people - it makes them more honest and generous. That's what I reckon, based on my experience over 40 seasons. Of course, I'm no paragon but I am probably more civilised than I would have been if the game hadn’t worked its magic on me.

 

Life without a referee

The most important feature of the game is that there is no referee, even at the highest level. From a practical point of view, it would be an impossible game to referee. There are frequently events which require adjudication but only the players can tell if, say, the ball has bounced twice, if they have hit the ball cleanly, if they have been significantly baulked by another player or if they would have returned the ball if they hadn't been.

 

My suspicion is that as soon as you are responsible for your own conduct in this way - and you have any moral inclination - you behave as well as you can. You learn to respond to your conscience. You learn be honest. On an Eton fives court, because players are asked their opinion so frequently – they have to apply their judgement every time they hit the ball or see it bounce in or out – they learn to be honest to themselves and to others. The alternative is to be frequent liar and expose themselves to the contempt of their partners and opposition.

 

The criterion for making decisions is not self-interest: it's truth and justice.

 

In many disciplines – journalism, politics, law, advertising, business – there is a requirement to be single minded, to promote your case regardless of the virtues of the opposing view. To do so in fives – when voting – would run against the very heart of the game.

 

Players learn to vote against themselves, to declare carries and to refuse lets. They learn to disagree with their partners when they have a different view of the ball or let in question. Players even learn to argue in the interests of their opponents. This sounds unlikely, but it is a common occurrence on a fives court to hear players persuading their opposition to accept a let. It's the spirit of the game, not the letter of the law, that counts. It follows that – even if the rules don’t permit a let in certain circumstances (or are silent on the issue) – players can still offer lets. If a player pulls a shot to avoid hitting somebody in the face but the ball still goes up and that player loses the point as a result, a let can still be offered.

 

It is in the spirit of the game that players admit their own sins and that they offer lets instead of waiting to be asked for them. In choosing whether to accept an offer, players learn to be hard on themselves – they offer generously and accept meanly. A beginner might think that as soon as the ball hits an opponent, then it's a let automatically. But experienced players know that, if they are to accept a let, they would have had to have had a good chance – not just a slim chance – of returning the ball if they hadn’t been baulked.

 

Players learn that the standard to be applied when deciding whether or not to accept a let is the standard of their own play. They have no right to claim a let just because it is conceivable that the best players they have ever seen might perhaps have got it up when at the top of their form. More than this, players must apply the standard of their game at that particular moment – perhaps when fit or at the beginning of a game they might be justified in taking the let but not at the point it was offered. Players also learn to give the opposition the benefit of the doubt – instead of asking for it themselves.

 

Eton fives players learn that they have a responsibility to learn the etiquette if they are not to disfigure the game. It's tempting to think that civilised people should be able to stroll on court and immediately be able to play the game fairly. What could be more straightforward than being honest and well-intentioned? Well, unless you are aware of the rules and the code – that the ball must be hit with a single clean stroke, for instance, or that you shouldn’t take every let that’s offered – it’s easy to commit solecisms.

 

Four judges

Instead of a single third-party referee, there are four judges on court, each with a vote and the responsibility to be honest and to see that justice is done.

Whenever there is doubt about whether a ball was up or down or in or out, there is a free vote and the majority vote carries the day. It is not enough for somebody to think a ball up for it to be counted so. If there’s an equal split of votes, then the status quo holds and the point is replayed.

 

Players learn that it is no disloyalty to vote against their partner. They are merely doing their job as a disinterested judge. When a player hits the ball down or out, or seems to hit the ball uncleanly, or if he is about to accept a dubious let, then it is their partner’s duty to vote against him. Players’ responsibility to the spirit of the game is constant – it doesn’t just apply when players are asked for a judgement. So, if a ball hits a player’s clothing and his partner spots this, it’s not acceptable to keep his opinion to himself in the hope that the infringement will go unnoticed and that his partner will get away with it. This approach can help to defuse tension. If there’s a doubt over a double bounce or a let, then it is better that a partner raises the issue rather than leave it unasked or for the opposition to have to ask it.

 

Sometimes a player thinks he deserves a let but it's obvious to everybody else on court that he wasn't in a position to play the ball. In those circumstances, his partner really should step in. Not to do so lacks moral courage. It is a dereliction of duty – it is allowing his partner to make a mistake and it is letting his opponents suffer from that mistake.

 

Any interference from outside, from the spectators, however well meant, upsets the equation. Players learn not to ask spectators their opinions – and spectators must not offer them.

 

Learning self-awareness

This system of a free vote among all players has another effect: it teaches players that their vision and decision-making are often influenced by self-interest. We will often see things that we want to see.

 

In sport, the process of visualization – where to envisage an outcome helps players to realize it – means that you will see your own shots up and your opponents’ shots down, for instance.

 

Partners, however, have not gone through quite the same process and so can see more clearly what has happened. The most determined competitors – unless they are very stupid or psychopathic – eventually learn to modify their convictions if they find they are always calling 50-50 judgements in their own favour, despite the view of all three other players on court. 

 

The importance of empathy in the offering of lets

It is often felt that to ask for a let before it is offered is against the spirit of the game and certainly players would rather be offered a let than have to ask for one – it is after all a little ungenerous to suggest that your opponents' victory was not properly won. For this to be possible, however, players have to use their imagination about how their opposition was placed, they have to see things from their opponents’ point of view to realise that they might have felt impeded.

 

Delayed judgement

Sometimes players need time to make up their minds about a shot they’ve made. In these cases they might declare it retrospectively. There is after all no absolute dividing line between a carry and a clean hit. Sometimes enthusiasm for the rally will encourage players to continue playing after a foul shot; sometimes players are in a bad mood; sometimes they have performed almost superhumanly to return the ball above the line even if it was a foul shot.

 

For whatever reason, it’s often only after replaying a shot in their mind that players can come to a good decision, by which time the rally has probably moved on. It is not, however, too late to declare a foul shot.

 

Learning to modify behaviour

Players realise that if they’ve gone through an entire set or even match without declaring a single carry that their standards are probably not high enough. It is, after all, highly improbable that they have hit cleanly every shot, every cut return, every retrieval and every parry.

 

The decision-making process depends to a degree those of opponents. If it turns out that a player’s opponents are declaring carries which they would not have done, it takes a hard-hearted player not to modify his own decision-making. The deal-with-as-you-would-be-done-by culture encourages players to share their opponents’ values.

 

Opportunities to be big

My heart always warms to players whenever they declare a carry or refuse a let. Imagine: in the middle of a fierce rally, a player has perhaps just parried a smash and his shot might look like a fine return but then he holds up his hand and concedes the point. He explains that that he'd not hit the ball quite cleanly enough – perhaps he thought it was in the glove too long or that he had clipped the ball twice.

 

Also imagine a player being baulked as he is moving to play a shot. He is offered a let – it might seem obvious that he should accept the offer to play the rally again – but he declines the offer. He might explain that his weight had been on the wrong foot and – despite any appearances to the contrary – he had had no chance to return the ball even if he hadn’t been baulked. In both cases the player alone knew the truth about what had happened. He could have carried on playing or accepted the let and nobody would have thought less of him. But he knew – and he recognised it and was self-aware enough not to justify a morally corrupt or intellectually incoherent action.

 

Whenever I see somebody involved in a close game declare a carry or refuse a let I am delighted because I've just witnessed acts of honesty, generosity and impartiality from somebody determined to win but equally determined not to take unfair advantage to do so. 

 

Just as there's no such thing as courage when you're not under pressure, it’s easy to be honest when there's no pressure to be dishonest, when the self-interest motive is weak. It's easy to declare a carry or to offer a let when you're winning 10-2. Not so easy to declare one or offer one when you're 14-all in the fifth.

 

How character is revealed

If you play fives with anybody, you get to know them. Fives gives people choices which reveal their character. Players are frequently given the chance to be honest or dishonest, generous or mean-spirited, big people or small.

 

Most players learn to apply the spirit of the game – especially if they have been taught at school by a master who places an emphasis on the spirit of the game or if they belong to a club led by players who do so.

 

However, if you give people a choice – to behave well or less well – sometimes we will take the less edifying option. 

 

Conclusion

There are lots of reasons to love Eton fives. Maybe it's the nerve endings in your hand that enjoy the direct contact with the ball; maybe it's the fact that it's still an amateur game; maybe it’s the ledges that make it seem like a kind of human pinball in which the aim is to keep the ball in play for as long as possible despite the improbable bounces and ricochets that the hazards of the court encourage.

 

Eton fives also gives players opportunities to be generous. It is surely this that is the most compelling reason to agree with Jock Burnet, the founder of the Jesters Club, when he said that Eton fives was the best game in the world.

 

JPR, New year’s Day, 2013

 

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