Eton Fives is the form of the handball game Fives played at Eton. It differs in several respects
from Winchester Fives and Rugby Fives (see The Game of Fives for more on those). Fives is played by
pretty much all every Etonian at some point during their time there, and although most boys don't play
competitively once they are allowed to stop, the school's plentiful courts are usually bustling with
activity, in the form of Inter School competitions, House matches, or just friendly games. The game's
popularity isn't restricted to Eton, or British Public Schools, however, with courts currently available
in Argentina, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Switzerland, not to mention a host of ruined and former
courts in many former British colonies.
A Brief History of Fives
Games that require players to hit a ball against a wall with their hands have been played in most of
the world's cultures and civilizations. Eton Fives is part of that tradition, and has its
origins in games played against church walls throughout Britain.
At Eton one day, a group of bored pupils started playing a game of handball against the Walls of Eton
College Chapel. The game they played was probably very similar to the version created by the formalised
rules of Eton Fives in 1877, officially revised in the 1930s.
Modern Eton Fives courts are a faithful recreation of the part of the chapel used all those
years ago. Unlike other variants of fives, the game is played in a three-walled court, with no back wall.
The part of the court nearest the end wall is raised, on a step. Just behind the step, on the left-side
of the court, a buttress sticks out of the wall, known as the pepper-box. There is a
small gap between the foot of the pepper-box, which is on the lower level, and the step. The small square
space this creates is known as Dead Man's Hole, presumably because when the ball is hit
into this space it's pretty much unplayable.
A vertical line is marked on the front wall at a distance of 3 feet 8 inches from the right-hand wall.
This line is known as the Blackguard Line.
About halfway up each side wall is a gently sloping shelf, set at around 30 degrees. This
can require some tricky judgement when the ball looks like it might hit the wall on the shelf. Needless
to say, the shelf affects the ball's rebound significantly. The lower angle of this shelf is called the
line. On the right wall, the line shifts up at the steps, and continues round along the
front and left wall until it reaches the pepper-pot. You'll find an excellent diagram of the court at
Eton Fives is played exclusively as a doubles game, although for practice and coaching beginners,
it is sometimes useful to play a shortened version of the game using only the top step. Positioning and
shot selection on the top step are crucial, making this a very valuable exercise.
Everyone I've ever seen play Fives has been sensible enough to wear gloves to play the game,
although this is not specifically mentioned in the rules of the game. You could play in bare hands if
you're crazy, and potentially no type or size of glove is ruled out.
The rules are also available at www.etonfives.co.uk, and are predictably complex. I'll provide a brief
overview here, but check the official rules if you want to know the real intricacies.
In Eton Fives, you can only score points while you are 'up' (serving). However, the receiver's
compensation is that he can opt to reject a perfectly legal service if he doesn't like the
look of it and ask the server to serve again. The server stands on the step ('up'), and throws the ball
up and against the front wall above the line, off the right wall, to bounce on the lower step. If the
receiver likes the look of the serve, he will return it. This shot is known as 'the cut'. Luckily, even
if he cocks up his cut and returns it below the line (shots must always hit the front wall above the
line) he can try again.
Assuming the cut is made properly, a rally begins. Each side take alternate shots, until a player
fails to hit the ball 'up' (above the line on the front wall), or hits the ball out of court. If the side
that is 'up' wins the rally they are awarded a point and another rally is played. If the receiving side
wins the point, the second player on the 'up' side serves. When he has lost a point, the sides swap so
that the side that was receiving becomes the 'up' side and can start scoring points.
If the player who is cutting loses two points, he swaps with his partner, who takes over cutting
duties, and takes his partner's place at the back of the court so he can sulk and get over it for a
As with Squash and Racquets, the let is commonplace in Eton Fives. With four players pounding
round a relatively small court, this isn't surprising. A let can be awarded if a player is impeded while
returning or attempting to return a shot, or even if a ball flies across from an adjacent court. The laws
of the game say this on the subject:
"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."
Simple, isn't it. It's all beginning to remind me of the explanation of the rules of
cricket that talks about the side being in being out and the side that was out going in until they are
all out and so on, but this is Eton after all, where nothing is simple if it can be made complex.
Apart from the risk of damaging your hands hitting the side walls (you learn
pretty quickly in Fives to play carefully and with soft hands anywhere near the walls), and the
occasional dispute over the award of a let, Fives is a great game to play. If, like me, you're
rubbish at Squash, you might find it more fun, since even good squash players won't necessarily be any
cop at Fives. Fitness aside, I reckon I could give Peter Nicol a decent game...