Bowling was for many years (and may still be) America's most popular participant sport. Almost everyone has taken a whack at the game at one time or another. Friday night pin leagues have been a fixture for many families growing up. It's also a game associated with the working classes, probably because companies used to sponsor leagues and teams in America's rust belt. It's less expensive than golf and characters from Fred Flintstone to The Big Lebowski's gun-toting Walter bowled.

Bowling is an easy game to try. All you have to do is visit the local bowling alley, rent bowling shoes in your size, pick out a ball that sorta kinda fits your hand and isn't too heavy, go out and wail away. You'll knock down some pins. But while bowling is easy to sample, bowling at higher levels is a subtle and demanding game. Nothing is ever quite the same. Even the bowling lane itself changes as the game goes on. This writeup will try to explain how to bowl well, realizing that the quest to bowl well may occupy a lifetime.

The basic bowling lane is simple: It's sixty feet (about 18 meters) and 41.5 inches (105cm) wide, and bordered by two gutters that trap all balls foolish enough to enter.

At the end ten pins are arranged in a triangle as shown:

 7     8      9      10
    4      5      6
       2      3

The most basic object of the game is to knock down all ten pins. If you do this with one ball, that is called a strike. If you don't get them all with the first ball, but finish them off with the second it's called a spare. Bowlers get only two shots, because two shots constitute a frame. A game consists of ten frames, with the tenth frame giving the opportunity to finish up what the frame starts. Strikes are best, because a strike gives credit for the ten pins you knocked down, plus the next two balls thrown. Which means you can score up to thirty pins per frame, and with ten frames in a game the maximum possible game scores 300 pins. Of course striking isn't so easy. It is not possible to knock down all the pins with the ball alone. In fact, the ball usually gets only four by itself. The pins the ball does hit must finish the job and take down all the other pins, in a chain reactions. The pins have to fall all the way down, moving them is not enough. So, if needed you get one more shot to finish the pins off. If you succeed you have scored a spare, which counts the ten pins you knocked down plus the next ball you throw for a maximum possible score of twenty. If you make nothing but spares for all ten frames the maximum possible score is 189. Scoring well requires throwing strikes.

The problem is a perfectly straight ball does not hit the pins at a good angle. Strikes require absolute perfection, which is rare among humans. So the best a straight ball bowler can really hope for is about a 170 game. Not bad, but such an average won't make you eligible for the PBA, and you won't be invited to bowl on good teams. To get the right angle you have to throw a hook, where the ball curves at the end of its run. Bowling balls (which weighs between eight and sixteen pounds (3.4 to 7 kilos) almost always come equipped with three holes, two for the middle fingers, one for the thumb. When a bowler hooks when the ball is released the fingers and thumb are more or less (depending on technique) perpendicular to the line described by the arm swing. The thumb releases first and the the fingers continue upward, putting spin on the ball. A right-handed bowler will throw a ball that spins in a counter-clockwise direction, and will hook to the left. (reverse everything if you're a southpaw) Sometimes a right handed bowler with throw a ball that hooks to the right. That's known as a back-up ball, and they come when the ball comes off the palm of the hand. Yes it's a hook, but the angle is wrong and the spin cannot be very powerful. So far as I know, no pros throw a back-up ball.

A hooking ball rolls in a circle whose circumference is smaller than the maximum diameter of the ball. That circle defines your balls track. If a bowler uses the same ball consistently, the ball will wear along that circle and the track will become visible, no matter how often the ball is polished.

The amount of hook varies quite a bit. Variables include the type of release, the type of ball and how it is drilled. But for most bowlers the biggest variable are alley conditions, and the biggest variable is the amount of oil on the lanes. Oil makes the ball slide, so adding oil cuts down on the hook. On a dry alley, I have thown more than 36 boards of hook. That's a yard or a meter, and no matter what measuring system you use, that's a lot on an nineteen meter lane. On oily alleys my hook may diminish to around five boards. Fifteen is about typical for me, and probably for most experienced bowlers.

All things being equal, the more hook you throw the harder the ball will hit. But a lot of hook is also harder to control. Which is why professional bowlers may travel with 20 or more balls and have new balls drilled specifically for a tournament. My father, a top amateur, has nine, and may carry five to a tournament. Plus oil has another characteristic, it moves. After you have thrown a few balls you will notice a line of oil running across your ball. Your ball has picked up this oil and shoved other oil aside. The most modern type of ball is called a reactive resin ball. Reactive resin balls actually absorb the oil, if you were to saw one in half after long use oil would leak out. But the thing about absorbing/moving oil is that once you have located the best line for a strike, you will re-use it. Unfortunately using the same shot moves/removes the oil, making the ball want to hook out of your preferred line. Good bowlers are always having to adjust their game as the alley changes. That's one reason 300 games are so rare in houses (a in term for a bowling alley) prepared to ABC standards, is the alley is always changing, and it's hard for even skilled bowlers to anticipate the needed adjustments and perform them properly.

So at this point you know that you must hit four pins arranged sixty feet away in such a way that those four take out the rest and do so with a ball that may move a great deal from side to side on a surface that is constantly changing. Doesn't sound so simple any more, does it? Fortunately the bowling alley itself does some things to help you aim. First there are a set of five arrows located about a third of the way down the lane. They are arranged in an arrowhead shape like this:

                   |           |
             |                       |

The center arrow is located at the center of the lane. Each arrow is located exactly five boards apart, and in the U.S. a board is exactly one inch wide. Now look down at the approach area, an area as wide as the land and approximately 6 meters long. Ten and fifteen feet back from the foul line (which no bowler may cross) are a series of dots arranged like this:

             *     *     *     *     *

The dots on the approach area occupy the exact same board as the arrows on the alley itself. The thing is, in bowling you don't aim the ball or the arm, you aim your body! A good bowler has a mark, a defined spot where the ball is supposed to cross at the point down lane where the arrows are. For right-handed me, that is often the second arrow from the right (henceforth known as second arrow). Of course any point may be selected, including some outside the area defined by the arrows so long as it does not include either gutter. Top level bowlers sometimes choose to shoot just outside one gutter if they think it will give them better pin carry, despite the obvious risk. Where is not too important. The thing to remember is that if you want to bowl well you must choose a mark! The reason for that will be made clear later.

Start in the approach area where the dots live. I usually start at the farthest back set of dots (kids and small women might prefer the closer set) and locate my left toe one or two boards to the right of the center dot. That is about eight inches to the left of my mark. The idea in bowling is to allow your arm to act like a pendulum. If your delivery is correct, the swing of the arm is exactly parallel with your approach and perpendicular to a line defined by your shoulders . So I walk in a line aimed slightly toward the gutters, designed to throw the ball directly over my second arrow mark. If I do this right, the ball will continue to bear right for a bit and at the end hook left and into the pocket. Pins fall down.

Here's why having a mark matters. Let's say I do all of the above perfectly and nail my mark, but have slightly underestimated the amount of hook. So while I hit the pocket, my ball deflects slightly right and I leave the two and four pins, a very common spare. First of all, I have learned two things. I need to get my ball to hit a bit to the left to get a strike. Say around two inches. So I simply locate my left toe exactly one board to the right of where I threw the first shot. A one board foot move usually leads to two boards of movement in the opposite direction when you get to the pins. By moving your starting point left and right it is easy to to adjust your shot for conditions. Extreme conditions my require moving both spot and mark.

But the second reason to use a mark and spot is that once you have discovered the right line for this alley, you now can use the same adjustment system to make your spares. The Two-Four I left now looks like this:

  -    -    -    -
     4    -    -  
        2    -     

Obviously, hitting the pocket will not help me make this split. I need to get my ball to the left where the pins are. So I take my strike starting point, move my left toe seven boards to the right. My ball now hits the pins 14 inches (350mm) to the left of the pocket. If I throw the ball correctly my ball with strike both the two and four and drive them straight back and down. I have made my spare.

It is possible to make any spare by simply moving your starting point right or left as needed. All you do is move your chosen toe in the opposite direction of where you want the ball to strike. Move the correct amount and hit your mark. Bang, pins fall down! Anyone who can make their spares consistently is a decent bowler, accepted on all but the best bowling teams. Anyone who can't hit their spares consistently won't be asked to bowl with good bowlers. It's that simple. It is often helpful to have a spare conversion chart, you can find one here that works for both right and left handed bowlers.


One of the dirty secrets of bowling is that your shot is usually decided by the time you begin your second step. I use a five step delivery because I started that way, a four step delivery is more common. This describes a typical four step delivery. At the very instant you move your right foot foward push your right arm (holding the ball) foward. During the seconds step the ball is falling backward as you move your right foot. During the third step (right foot) the ball will reach the peak of its backswing, and begin falling forward. The fourth step is taken during the left foot, the right foot is back and as your foot begins to slide the ball reaches the bottom of the swing and your thumb releases. The arm continues upward, imparting the spin (some bowlers, known as "crankers" actively spin their hand). If all has been done properly your ball continues onward to blast the pins.

But doing that properly is not easy. There are lots of ways to screw up. Let's start with where you held the ball when the approach began. First of all bowling balls are heavy, so it's only natural to hold it with two hands close to your breast. Comfortable yes, but your body comes equipped with hips and your arm must not strike them. In fact, nature conspires to make it very hard to throw the ball into your leg. If you hold the ball close to your chest your arm swing will naturally come across rather than perpendicular to your shoulders. The ball will miss your mark left. Congratulations, you just knocked down the seven pin with your first ball! You only have to get the other nine to pick up your spare. And if you hold it close to your breast again, you'll miss left again. Hold it outside the arc of your hips. Feel the weight ---- if the ball isn't heavy you're holding it too close.

Of course there are other ways to screw up. Your shoulders should be perpendicular to your approach, and level. Many bowlers extend their other arm to help balance. If you drop your right shoulder your ball will miss to the right. You just got the six, nine and ten pins leaving only seven for your second shot. If you muscle your shoulder up you'll miss left. Oops. If you're lucky, you'll get a brooklyn, a type of strike where the ball slides down the opposite side of the pocket. No one ever turns down a brooklyn, but it's not the preferred method. If you're not, the left gutter beckons seductively.

The easiest way to screw up is to try and muscle the ball. Bowling balls are best powered by gravity and the forward momentum of your walking body. Believe me, the combination offers enough striking power to make the pins fly. Strive for a natural, easy arm swing. But that brings up the biggest single problem in bowling: timing.

Ideally the bowler's arm swing is such as to have the thumb come out with the ball at the bottom of the swing, just as the bowler enters his slide. If the ball is dropped too late it won't get there in time. The bowler will naturally try to hurry the shot, and muscle it. Or they will begin to stand upright, altering the position of the shoulders. Often the mark is missed, or the fingers come out at the wrong time. Aim and hook are both affected, and one hopes the spare is not a spiit, a term used in bowling when one or more pins are missing between two standing pins. Splits are very hard to make. If one starts too early the ball may be released too early, driving it into the lane and stripping it of its power.

Really, bowling well involves doing a mental checklist. Check starting position. Ball being held properly. Site on mark. Start delivery, remembering to push the ball forward. Shoulders up and level, but not forced up. Keep your eye on the pins. Bang ya got 'em!

Good bowlers do the above very consistently, but to bowl at a high level you must be very consistent. If you leave one pin in the middle of a game, make the spare and strike every other time you will score a 279. One tiny miss costs 21 pins. And there a misses that are very hard to make, notably the seven-ten split which seems makeable only on youtube.


Alley balls and shoes are fine if you bowl twice a year after drinking. But shoes rent for a bout a buck and a half in Ohio, so it doesn't take long to pay for them. Most large sporting goods stores offer them, and generally they're a lot cheaper there than a pro shop. A good entry level pair of shoes costs about $50. The best cost around US$200. The most important thing in all of this is fit. If they don't fit right, the whole experience is diminished. Therefore make sure they fit.

But the thing you really want to fit you is the ball. First of all is the weight. Bowling balls weigh between eight to a legal maximum of sixteen pounds. Eight pounds is normal for pre-teen children. Teenage boys and adult women generally roll around a twelve pound ball. Men usually prefer a ball betwen fourteen and just under sixteen pounds. The heavier the ball the harder it hits, but the ball must be light enough not to tire the bowler.

Next thing to worry about is the type of grip. A conventional grip is drilled so that the two middle fingers fit into the finger holes up to the second knuckle. A semi-fingertip leaves the first joint inside the hole. A fingertip leaves only the tips of fingers in the ball. All alley balls are drilled as conventionals, as that grip is the easiest to hold, particularly for children. Fingertip grips are preferred by experienced bowlers as the thumb leaves the ball earlier allowing for maximum lift (spin) on the ball. A semi is preferred for kids who bowl regularly but aren't yet near adult strength. The most important thing to remember is that every ball is drilled for a single individual. Here you MUST go to a good pro shop, because the skill of the person measuring and driling your ball makes all the difference in the world. First of all, your hand just stops getting tired. That may seem impossible until you experience a really fine drill. Any ball drilled specifically for you will feel light years better than any alley ball. The second thing to notice is that there will be some type of tripod, or triangle shape, or maybe even a dot on the ball. That marks the center of the ball's weight block. Weighting is something to ignore for the first couple years, but suffice to say hook may be added, taken away, and its onset changed depending on how the ball is weighted. Weighting is changed during the drilling process, simply by moving where the finger and thumb holes are centered (Remember, drilling removes material) Once again, the skill of the pro is paramount. A good one who knows your game can really help.

Bowling balls were originally made of wood. In the late 1940s hard black rubber was the most common material. In the 1970s manufacturers began making balls out of plastic. The idea was to make the balls prettier and perhaps increase bowling's appeal among women. Then some pros discovered that plastic balls were softer than hard rubber. Softness gave the ball more grip on oil, and thus more striking power. Bowlers began soaking their balls in chemicals in order to make them softer until this practice was banned by the PBA. Softness was limited and measured with an instrument known as a durometer. Plastic balls had taught manufacturers the monetary value of striking power so they started researching materials. The next revolution came in the 1980s with the Urethane ball which passed the durometer test but acted like a soaker. The most recent type of ball is made from reactive resin, and hooks like mad.

This does not mean other types of balls have gone a way. For a right-handed bowler who throws a lot of hook the ten pin can prove very difficult, as the margin between sliding into the gutter and hooking past the pin can be very thin. Older types are often preferred as spare balls which don't move as much and are thus more predictable when pin-carry is less important than accuracy.

New bowling balls cost between $150 to US$500, and that generally includes drilling at the place of purchase. For my money a used ball is the way to go when starting out. They can be purchased for between $50 and $100 drilled and good balls are readily obtainable. Bowlers can be very picky, and often change balls the way well-off golfers experiment with clubs. I myself once owned a ball pre-owned by Tommy Hudson, at that time one of the top touring pros. Today he's in the PBA Hall of Fame. With a bit of patience, and knowledge, you can get a top ball for small bills. This is your most important purchase.

Once you have a ball and shoes, you will want a bag to carry everything in, a towel to keep the ball clean, some artificial skin, should you tear any and there are inserts to help get the thumb out cleanly. Ball, shoes, bag and towel are the basics. Everything else is gravy. But with a good ball, comfortable shoes, good form and practice almost anyone can become a good bowler. See you at the lanes!