If, as has been suggested, the name of this sport originates from the French conque (meaning conch, as in the sea snail) rather than the more trational conquer, the roots of conkers may lie in the smashing together of snail-shells, rather than hardened horse-chestnut seeds, and may even be French. In any case, since the horse-chestnut tree was only brought into the British Isles in the late 16th Century, the game (including many regional variations in rules and nomenclature) must have been widespread before the adoption of the present means.
Whether shells or hazelnuts were the anticedents, something akin to the modern game of conkers has been played by children in the British Isles since antiquity, spreading to British colonies and other countries in more recent times.
Every Autumn, horse-chestnut trees drop seeds that are large and covered in green, spiked flesh. Once peeled, the conker itself is brown, hard and tough – easily collectable and perfect for its role, as well as being (in contrast to other chestnuts) inedible. Boring a hole with a skewer – or, even better, a gimlet – and threading string or a shoelace is all the preparation required.
In 1965, a group of regulars at a pub in Ashton, Northamptonshire, had their fishing trip rained off. Looking for another way to make their gathering worthwhile, they saw that Ashton village green’s conker trees were ripe. A competition was organised with a prize for the winner, and a competitor with a visually-impaired relative took up a collection from those present for the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Both of the competition and the collection have continued, with, as of the 2009 competition, over £350,000 raised.
The World Conker Championships is held annually on the second Sunday in October. What was originally a local event has now outgrown the village green, its traditional venue, and the move to New Lodge Fields (between Ashton and Polebrook) accommodates crowds of over 5000, alongside stalls, sideshows and refreshments tents. The event is open for anyone to enter (with a £6 fee), though limited to 256 in the men’s section and 64 in the women’s, and is a straight knockout tournament.
Ashton Conker Club are the hosts and proprietors of the World Championships. It is they who collect, drill and string the conkers, who officiate the matches, and who dictate the tournament rules. Due to the nature of the sport, where advantages can be gained through seemingly minor actions, the rules are necessarily strict.
Players’ Rules of Engagement for the Noble Game of Conkers at the Ashton Conker Club World Conker Championships:
i. All Conkers and Laces are supplied by Ashton Conker Club. Laces must not be knotted further or tampered with. Each player is given a new conker and lace at the start of each game. Players may not re-use conkers from earlier games.
ii. The game will commence with a toss of a coin, the winner of the toss may elect to strike or receive.
iii. A distance of no less than 8 inches or 20cm of lace must be between knuckle and nut.
iv. Each player then takes three alternate strikes at the opponent’s conker.
v. Each attempted strike must be clearly aimed at the nut, no deliberate miss hits.
vi. The game will be decided once one of the conkers is smashed.
vii. A small piece of nut or skin remaining shall be judged out, it must be enough to mount an attack.
viii. If both nuts smash at the same time then the match shall be replayed.
ix. Any nut being knocked from the lace but not smashing may be re threaded and the game continued.
x. A player causing a knotting of the laces (a snag) will be noted, three snags will lead to disqualification.
xi. If a game lasts for more than five minutes then play will halt and the ‘5 minute rule’ will come into effect. Each player will be allowed up to nine further strikes at their opponents nut, again alternating three strikes each. If neither conker has been smashed at the end of the nine strikes then the player who strikes the nut the most times during this period will be judged the winner.
Since its inception, the World Conker Championship has twice been won by foreigners: in 1976 by a Mexican, Robert Ramirez; and in 1998 by a German, Helmut Kern.
The game of conkers is decentralised and has no standardised rules. Due the requirements of the championship format, the Ashton Conker Club have instituted their own, but in non-event contexts many differences will emerge. For example:
- Strikes may be alternate (one at a time) or continue until a miss.
- A dropped conker, or one which comes off its string, may be trampled.
- Scoring system: a winning conker may assimilate the previous score of the losing conker. In this scheme, a new conker has no value – it is a noner – yet by breaking another noner it becomes a one-er. If it beats a one-er it becomes a two-er (one for the victory, one for the score of the opposing conker) and so on. In some parts of Scotland, the scoring system uses the terms bully-one, bully-two etc.