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Play Conkers

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by Kat Parr Mackintosh (subscribe)
Young and coffee in varying degrees, Kat also says stuff @ThoroughlyMode
Published September 28th 2010
Some people love autumn for the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, or the snap, crackle and pop of a newly lit fire. But there's another sound that will quicken the hearts of the young, or young at heart, and that's the sound of two polished and tempered horse chestnuts cracking into each other. This sound, if you haven't heard it before denotes the playing of the age old game of Conkers.

To be a Conker Champion you need both brawn and brains, and like a great boxing team, the brawn is needed by the fighter and the brains by the trainer. And, also like boxing, Conkers is a game played mano a mano, one nut vs. another.

If you've never seen it done let's forgo the dramatic metaphor for a moment and describe it on match day terms:
A person sorts amongst the dropped pods of the horse chestnut tree for a likely looking champion nut. Then punches a hole in it using a nail or small screwdriver and threads a piece of string though it about 25cms long (OK, it's often a shoelace), securing it either at the bottom, or to the thread at the top. Once prepared, a challenger will go and look for another such person and their pre-prepared conker. And issue a challenge. Both people then take turns hitting the nut of the other one of them letting their conker dangle still, the other using his nut to thwack it. Eventually it could be much sooner or much later - one of the conkers will smash and the other is declared the winner.
A conker with no victories under its figurative belt is called a none-er, one with one victory is called a one-er etc. The winning conker absorbs the score of the losing conker, so for example, if a two-er plays a three-er, the surviving conker will become a six-er - the sum of the both previous victories plus one for the current bout.

As with all games, there are ways to 'fix' a bout of Conkers in your favour. Obviously the toughest nut usually wins, and over the years serious players have developed ways to temper their nuts. A nut might be prepared for battle for up to a year: baked briefly, soaked or boiled in vinegar, or even painted with clear varnish. But bear in mind the organisation behind the World Conker Championships, est. 1965, frown on this practice they disqualified Michael Palin from a tournament in 1993 for baking his conker and soaking it in vinegar. If you're going to compete in an official Conkers Championship you're most likely going to be limited to using the nuts provided.

As with many games there are also local variations which should be established before you go into a bout. In some places challengers are allowed to keep hitting the hanging conker until they miss it, then they swap. In some places you're allowed three hits at the hanging conker before you change roles. And in some places there are particular rules in place for nuts becoming free of their strings, or flying out of their owners hands. Rules that usually involve players having to say the right thing and be the first to say it.

Tip: A legal way to improve your none-er for battle is to take care when administering its hole a clean, cylindrical hole with no nicks or chips in it will prove least likely to crack.

Check out this footage of the World Conker Championships for more tips on technique.
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Why? Because winning is everything
When: Autumn
Where: Outdoors - when they shatter they can make a mess
Cost: Free!
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