You need balls of steel to play this game, but don’t let that stop you.
Pétanque (pronounced pay-tonk) is played by millions of people around the world, especially in France where it’s a national pastime. Ask Christophe Descarpentries, owner/chef of P’tit Louis Bistro and rabid pétanque enthusiast. He and team partner Todd Haagenstad met over a backyard game on Derby Day in Kentucky. Descarpentries learned to play as a child in France and quickly imparted his obsession to Haagenstad.
The two began recruiting other players in New Mexico nearly three years ago—Descarpentries through P’tit Louis Bistro, and Haagenstad though his family and Los Alamos network. The sport grows on folks that way. Haagenstad and crew have been known to forge through winter games whetted by frozen tankards of brew—it’s that compelling.
At one tournament in Santa Fe, Descarpentries hung a banner proclaiming, “All you need is dirt, balls and a pig!” The balls, called boules, are made of metal and weigh between 650 to 800 grams. They come in various finishes and markings to distinguish one set of three boules from another. In addition to the boules, players need a wooden cochonnet (pronounced ko-show-nay) or piglet, a little smaller than a ping-pong ball, to use as a target. Beyond that, you need a patch of ground—dirt or gravel—about 13 by 40 feet. Onlookers note the similarity to the Italian game of bocce ball, which also derives from ancient Greek and Roman variations.
I learned the game from Descarpentries at Bullhead Park during softball season’s winter lull. The loose ground worked well enough for the lob, roll and marksmanship typical of pétanque action. I was looking for a way to escape my couch, and pétanque is well suited to our mild year-round weather.
The game is simple. Two players or teams take turns throwing boules. The aim is to land closer to the cochonnet than your opponent. At the end of a round, you add up points for the team whose boules are closest to the cochonnet. You play as many rounds as it takes for one team to reach 13—the winning point.
Descarpentries and Haagenstad founded La Mesa Pétanque Club, now a registered affiliate of Federation Pétanque America USA. During the past two years, La Mesa has held over a half-dozen tournaments in venues including the Estrella del Norte Vineyard, the Santa Fe Rail Yards, Il Vicino Canteen and Brewery and the Downtown pétanque courts. Participants have come from as far away as Denver and from the Flaming Balls Pétanque Club in Capitan, NM. Competition for trophies and medals is intense, and friendly trash-talk runs rampant.
The seven courts in the Downtown Community Garden on 1st Street across from the train station are the brainchild of Descarpentries and Rick Rennie of the Downtown Action Team. Rennie built the courts to Descarpentries’ specifications, confident they would attract players eager to learn a game that crosses age, gender and skill levels. Unlike many competitive sports, pétanque is kind to beginners. Descarpentries is working toward building leagues for kids and developing pétanque statewide. The courts are just the beginning.
In November 2011, Descarpentries played at a tournament at Amelia Island, Florida, where he made friends with 7-time La Marseillaise champion Marco Foyot who gave him a set of boules stamped with the Foyot moniker. The Marseillaise is the most prestigious pétanque competition in the world, drawing nearly thirteen thousand participants from twenty-five countries annually.
And Descarpentries’ enthusiasm is contagious enough that The Rio Rancho Oktoberfest is framing this year’s festivities around the La Mesa Pétanque Club’s tournament on September 28–29, 2013. Oktoberfest founders Dana Koller and Rachel Dollens look forward to hosting the event, which will feature a 40,000 sq. ft. field for as many as 200 players. There are plans for a Friday pétanque clinic with none other than Marco Foyot. And early this morning, Descarpentries received confirmation from Buenos Aires that the Argentine team is ready to play. Excitement is building.
So the next time you see a clutch of people staring at a nest of silver balls on the ground—check it out. You might find yourself training to play with champions.