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Jack Hicks: Figuring Out The Game Of Rolley Hole


Cincinnati Post

September 20, 2007



When folks around Monroe County lose their marbles, they go see Paul Davis.

Davis isn't a psychiatrist, and the mental health of residents of South-Central Kentucky is probably as good or better than anywhere.

What Davis provides aren't diagnoses but marbles - marbles made by hand, and utilized in "rolley hole," one of the most unusual games this side of British cricket.

"They have to be soft enough to take a hit and hard enough not to chip," he says of the flint marbles he produces.

When action gets going at the "Super Dome" in Tompkinsville, and at numerous other "marble yards" on both sides of the Kentucky-Tennessee line, it's likely that at least some of the shooters were turned out by Davis.

"I just got to thinking I could do this better," the 43-year-old wire cable company supervisor said of making marbles.

Even old-timers aren't sure how rolley hole got started - some say before the Civil War - and how the rather complicated rules came together.

"Rondell Biggerstaff is in his 70s, and he has been playing since he was a youngster," Davis said. "He still plays every day."

Rolley hole is a little bit like pool without cues, a little like croquet without mallets, but most of all it's a knuckles-down tight marble game, pretty exclusive to about six counties in rural Kentucky and Tennessee.

A rolley hole match has two teams of two players each. The 20-by-40-foot course has three holes, each the size of a marble, and players must sink their marble, via thumb power, in each, in a prescribed order, to total 12 points and win.

It may not be complicated to old-timers, but to the uninformed, it seems a puzzle.

Terms tossed around include top hole, middle hole and bottom hole, taylor round and rover. Then there is "spanning," in which a player spans the distance from his thumb to the end of his farthest outstretched finger before making a shot.

Players not only try to sink their own marbles in the holes, but also to knock their opponents' marbles away from scoring, something in the manner of croquet. And like pool, players put spin or "English" on their shots to deflect opponents' marbles.

"Teammates must use cohesive strategy to be successful. Usually one member is recognized as the 'manager,' and will direct his partner's shots through brief conferences or gestures. In this way older players tutor younger ones in the art of the game," relates an outline of the rules.

At any rate, the game has its devotees, so much so that at times it's difficult for younger players to get their chance on the marble yard.

Early on, Davis found himself watching more than playing, and it gave birth to the idea of making marbles. He gathers flint along a creek bed and, with the aid of a diamond saw and a grinding wheel, produces round marbles.

His marbles are within 3,000th of an inch of being perfectly round, he maintains. On a hardness scale, with mud being zero and diamonds 10, his marbles are 6.5, he said.

It takes him about one hour each to produce a marble, Davis said, although they become too hot to touch from the process, so he skips back and forth between several pieces of flint, which are in the process of becoming marbles.

Most of his marbles are the natural color of flint, but he turns out some that are red or yellow. He charges $20 per marble, but has gotten as high as $75 for desirable yellow marbles.

While rolley hole doesn't begin to rival basketball in the Commonwealth, play is featured in an annual festival in Tompkinsville, and marble fanciers come from throughout the United States. Crowds of up to 10,000 have watched championship marble matches, Davis said.

The Super Bowl is a lighted indoor site, on the county fairgrounds and supported in part by local businesses. Other marble yards are on farms throughout the area.

Rolley hole enthusiasts have tried to have the game taught in local schools, Davis said, and have been successful in getting the Boy Scouts to establish a merit badge for marble expertise.

The Kentucky General Assembly has designated Monroe County as Kentucky's Marble Capital, he said.

Davis said he doesn't know of any wagering, except maybe for a soft drink or dinner.

Rolley hole has its therapeutic aspects, Davis pointed out. Players get down on their haunches or knees perhaps 100 times, and then straighten up, during a match.

Many of these players are in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s and 80s. "It's a lot of good exercise," Davis said.


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