Rolley Hole Marbles Championship Lets the Good Times Roll

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Marbles at the Rolley Hole Marbles Championship

The game of marbles is one of the most old-fashioned of pursuits, and I do mean old: It can be traced back well before the dawn of the Christian era.

They haven’t been playing quite that long in Clay County, but they’ve been playing long enough to become legends in the world of competitive marbles. The game known as Rolley Hole is king in this area, which includes Overton County and Monroe County, Kentucky, (that’s roll-ey, by the way, as in what you do to the marble). Marbles enthusiasts from all over the world gather each September for the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship at Standing Stone State Park in Hilham.

Despite what you may remember about playing marbles in your formative years, Rolley Hole ain’t kid stuff. In Clay County, they turn out some serious marbles players. Witness one Travis Cherry of Moss, a mean shooter who also coaches local high school students to compete in tournaments across the country.

“I’ve been playing since I was little,” Cherry says. “Most everybody around here has.”

Cherry, in fact, was one of a team of six Tennessee marbles players who competed in Britain’s national championship and the first international marbles championship in London in 1992. As for the outcome of the contests, er, let’s just say our hometown team won handily. So handily, actually, that their British hosts decided it was high time they traveled to Clay County to see what Tennessee Rolley Hole was all about.

Ever since, Cherry says, English and French contingents have made frequent appearances at the Standing Stone tournament, and the Tennessee players enjoy having them over. And beating them.

Rolley Hole Championship marble shooters

The Game of Marbles Begins

Rolley Hole players like to get down and dirty. Literally. The players squat in a 40-by 25-foot marble yard filled with soft clay dust that sends little puffs into the air each time two marbles crack against each other. The game is played with flint marbles, usually made by local craftsmen, and is actually quite similar to croquet, as you’ll see in a moment. By the time the game is over, everyone’s happily coated with grime.

For starters, form is very important. The marble is held tightly, pinned in place by the index finger, with the thumb under and behind the third finger. You aim, knuckles pressed into the dust, and flick sharply with the thumb to send the marble exactly where you want it to go – in theory, anyway.

Practically speaking, the movement can take some getting used to. When he’s teaching youngsters to play, Cherry sometimes has a hard time making his instructions stick.

“I mark the thumb with an ink pen,” Cherry says, “where the marble is supposed to go.”

Rolley Hole Championship marbles competitors

Fierce Competition at the Rolley Hole Tournament

The playing field is deceptively simple, consisting almost entirely of three marble-sized holes lined up north and south, with 10 feet between each. Two teams of two players compete at a time, each player with one marble. The object is to roll your marble into the holes going one way and then coming back a total of three times.

The game is won by whichever team’s two players accomplish this goal first.

But don’t be fooled, Cherry says. Get two teams of ace marble shooters out there and a single round can last for hours as players compete fiercely for those three little holes.

The hard part, of course, comes as players try to knock each other out of contention. Shooting someone else’s marble is an acquired skill; with the right spin (as Cherry says, “putting some English on it”), your opponent’s marble goes flying to Kalamazoo while yours stays put or even rolls obediently back to you. Expert Rolley Hole players routinely dispatch their opponents with shots of six feet or more.

“If you can’t hit from three feet,” Cherry says, “you won’t last long at the Rolley Hole tournament.”

Marbles: A Simple Pleasure

The marble yard at Standing Stone is covered with a pavilion and flanked by bleachers for spectators. The field itself is dedicated to late marble maker and blues musician Bud Garrett, whose marble-making techniques and improvised songs about Rolley Hole made him a local legend. (Garrett died in 1987 while playing marbles, according to the Tennessee Historical Society.)

The cash prizes and plaques awarded at Standing Stone total in the thousands of dollars, but players don’t come for the money. The prizes wouldn’t even make airfare for the European contenders. People come to the Rolley Hole championships because in an age of breakneck paces and high technology, this game of skill is a link to the simplicity and togetherness of times past.

They come just because they love it.

The annual Rolley Hole Marbles Festival takes place on September 19, 2015, at Standing Stone State Park. For more information, call (931) 823-6347.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with the date of this year’s event.

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