A line of pickup trucks and an oasis of light glimmering through the darkened trees told Bobby Fulcher that he had found the last surviving marbles yard in Tennessee. Making his way closer, Fulcher heard the murmur of voices and saw men young and old ringing a rectangular patch of dirt upon which two two-man teams were shooting marbles, handmade from local flint, with deadly accuracy and consummate strategy. The game of rolley hole was alive, but just barely.
Fulcher, an interpretive specialist with the Tennessee Bureau of State Parks, is someone whose job revolves around local culture and folk art. That spring evening in 1983, he stood mesmerized by an indigenous pastime that represents living history, 'it appeals to your romantic vision of the world," he says, "that there would be a place where families would have a game they can play together." A few months later Fulcher rounded up a bit of prize money and organized the first annual National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship, at Standing Stone State Park, near Celina, Tenn., and pumped new life into the dying game.
On both sides of the Tennessee-Kentucky border, in Clay County to the south and in Monroe County to the north, tobacco is hung to dry in barns, and hay is harvested in elephant-sized rolls. Here more than a dozen not-so-clean but well-lit marbles yards once again echo with the sharp, resounding clack of flint on flint. Anyone looking for the best marbles shooters in the world might start right here. Three years ago a six-man team of local born-again rolley-holers competed in England's historic Tinsley Green ring-marbles tournament and won the British and world championships.
That hardly surprised the folks back home. "Rolley hole is to ring games as chess is to checkers," says Lincoln Wilkerson of Moss, Tenn., a semiretired marbles player and a fully retired lecturer in molecular biology at Vanderbilt. "There's an inordinate amount of skill in rolley hole. The mental demands are comparable to those of golf." People explaining the game might also allude to billiards and croquet, to which rolley hole bears many similarities.
In seeking to preserve the game, whose origins are British, the Standing Stone tournament had to standardize it: The championship's rolley-hole yard is 40 by 25 feet, with an invisible center line marked by three tiny holes 10 feet apart. Even the game's name was standardized. "We could have called it rolley holey, or holes, or three holes," says Fulcher. "Many people would just call it marbles."
Those watching their first game of rolley hole might call it incomprehensible, though the object and basic rules of play are simple enough. A game consists of three rounds. In each round a player must make four holes, in this order: middle hole, top hole, middle hole, bottom hole. The first team to make all 12 holes with both its marbles wins the game. You get an extra shot for rolling into the next hole in your rotation, and another for hitting an opponent.
That's about all there is to it, except that in tournament play the holes bear different names depending on the round. A marble completes the course this way: first hole, second hole, rover one, first round; first one up twos, top hole twos, rover twos, two rounds; first one up outs, top hole outs, rover out, out hole. Tradition permits a player to "span" into a hole. Thus a marble rolled to within a player's best thumb-to-middle-finger extension can be placed in the hole he is "for"—as his next shot.
A good turn might go something like this: From six feet away, you take aim at an opponent's marble that is within span of rover one, which both of you are for. As in billiards, you put reverse English on your marble and make a perfect "settling shot," one that blasts your opponent away and settles you in his place. With your extra turn for hitting the opponent, you span into the hole. Using your extra turn for making the hole, you span out—and deftly roll within span of the first-round hole. Thus on your next turn you can simply span into the hole—provided one of your opponents hasn't sent you to the far end of the yard.
Tenacious defense often decides rolley-hole games, and hole-guarding strategies are legion. Although shots generally come quickly (as many as eight or nine per minute), it's not uncommon for five or 10 minutes to pass without any holes being made—and longer still at game's end, when the territorial jousting at the out hole is fierce. While skilled shooters wrap up most ring-marbles games in minutes, a single game of rolley hole often lasts an hour and a half.
With 34 teams entered in last fall's 11th annual national rolley-hole tournament, preliminary matches in the single-elimination ladder were staged on Friday night, Sept. 17, at three venues: Standing Stone State Park; two of the three marble yards at Hevi-Duty, a manufacturer of transformers in Celina whose employees sharpen their games during lunch breaks; and a yard in a vacant lot behind Dovie's Cafe in Tompkinsville, Ky., where the wire providing juice to the low-slung fluorescent lights comes from a nearby barbershop. By night's end there were 14 teams remaining.
The all-day finals began on Saturday morning at Standing Stone. Well shaded by hickory and beech trees, the park's yard was flanked by bleachers that accommodated part of a crowd of about 100, including rolley-hole lovers like 79-year-old Theron Denton, who recalls playing marbles as a boy at night by the light of bonfires. No doubt about it, he said, today's shooters are better.
The dirt is the same, though. About the color of butterscotch and as fine as sifted flour, it's dug up near riverbeds, rolled as hard as a clay tennis court and periodically dragged smooth with the traditional grooming tool: a tire rim. After a couple of games the all-important top layer of dust is often dragged with a push broom. This dust acts like the felt on a pool table or the grass on a golf green: It absorbs the backspin put on a settling shot and cushions a marble lofted like a spinning top near a hole in the hope that the marble will spin right in and stay there. Dancing the marble, this is called. Dust is also essential as an omnipresent rosin bag. Junior B. Strong, a member of the local team that won in England, brought over his own dirt in tied-off sections of pantyhose. Says Fulcher, "Those Tennessee farmers, they look at dirt the way other people look at fine wine."
Strong, who operates construction vehicles, was hard to miss. He was easily the dirtiest player on the marble yard. Like Pig Pen in the Peanuts comic strip, he was covered in dust, from his slip-on sneakers to the brim of his blue cap. Folks say his is the most powerful thumb in the state.
Strong and his partner, Junior Rhoten, who edges lumber at a local sawmill, had won the tournament the previous year, and at 11 o'clock on Saturday night they were one game away from repeating as champs. Their opponents were two cousins, 11-year-old Nathan Thompson and 15-year-old Wesley Thompson, who would have had to face their fathers in the finals had the elder Thompsons beaten Strong and Rhoten in an earlier round.
Experience prevailed early, as the kids fell behind and valiantly played catch-up. About 50 minutes into the game, Strong and Rhoten each needed only the bottom hole to win. Nathan needed four holes to go out; Wesley needed three. The kids hung tough, though. Waiting for the proper opening while defending the out hole, they took turns darting off to catch up on the holes they still needed. At about midnight Fulcher announced, "They're all for outs."
A few shots later the kids had maneuvered both their marbles close enough to go out. Rhoten blasted away one marble, then the other. Momentum changed hands. Soon Rhoten and Strong lay within span, about four inches apart. The match was on the line. Wesley, who was about eight feet away, had to hit one of those marbles. Nathan, having been sent to the perimeter, some 20 feet away, was too distant to try for anything but a miracle saving shot on his turn.
Wesley kneeled, pressed his palm in the dust and, as allowed, spanned a handprint closer to his target. He knuckled down and shot. His marble passed between Strong's and Rhoten's. He hung his head. Rhoten spanned in. Nathan failed with his Hail Mary shot at Strong, who then spanned in too, sealing the successful defense of the national rolley-hole championship.
"The kids played tough," said Rhoten afterward, acknowledging what perhaps pleases Fulcher most: With young players like the Thompsons mastering its ways, rolley hole should be in good hands for years to come.
John Grossmann lives in Jamison, Pa., and has written several stories for Sports Illustrated.