Slice 4

An Introduction to Eton Fives

fives courtThe Absolute Essentials

Eton Fives is a hand-ball game, played in a three-sided court. It is only played as "doubles" (i.e. by two teams of two players), there being no official "singles" version of the game. Players wear padded leather gloves, since the ball (which is slightly large than a golf-ball and made of rubber and cork) is quite hard. It is in the same sporting "family" as other hand ball games such as Rugby Fives, Winchester Fives, American Handball, Irish Handball, and the various Basque games, Pelota Vasca.

original courtThe Eton Fives Court
The Eton Fives court has only three sides, the back of the court being completely open. The inside of the court is quite complicated in design, being based on a bay formed by the buttresses at the base of the chapel steps at Eton College as shown in this photograph.

This is where the game originated. Whilst there is now an official standard court design, many courts in existence vary in terms of dimensions and detail, but all of them have the same, rather unusual, features. The court is divided into two parts, separated by a step, which is positioned about 1/3 of the length of the court from the front wall. The front part of the court is variously known as the front or upper (up) court, or top step (we will use the term 'front court'). Because of the step, the front court is a few inches higher than the rear part, which is known as the back, down or lower court (we will call it the 'back court'). The end of the back court is defined by another small step.

Whilst there are no actual rules about where the players must stand during a game - except during the service - it is usual for two players (one from each team) to be in the front court, whilst their partners play in the back court, although any player may play a shot in either court during the course of a game. 

The Walls
A sloping ledge runs around the three walls, about four-and-a-half feet above the floor. The lower angle of this ledge on the front wall is the "playline", on or above which the ball must be played to be "in". The walls in the front court have an additional "flat" ledge about 2 feet from the floor. The floor slopes slightly from the front to the rear of the court. The upper limit of the three walls is defined by the "coping" - the stone work at the top.

buttressThe Buttress
The most obvious feature of an Eton Fives court is the large projection on the left-hand side, called the buttress. The buttress is roughly L-shaped and is about shoulder high. It is located at the step and extends into both the front and back courts.

The buttress is very complex in shape, with many slopes and angles. Where the buttress meets the step it forms a small three-sided niche, called "the dead-man's hole" or just "the hole". This is a natural place to try to send the ball when playing, as it often results in an unreturnable shot. However, because it is very small, it requires great accuracy to successfully "kill" a ball in the hole.

Skill & Subtlety

As can be imagined, the design of the court, with its profusion of surfaces and angles, adds marvellous complexity to the game. Skilful players make great use of the features - especially the buttress - to confuse and deceive their opponents. Simple shots often become unpredictable ricochets. The front court is particularly difficult to play in, as the ball may easily change direction several times during its travel.

Eton Fives is an extremely fast game, but it is also a game of great skill: players practised in its subtleties and nuances will nearly always beat those who rely mainly on brute force and speed. Perhaps uniquely amongst ball games, the court's peculiarities of design are considered to give left-handed players an advantage over right-handed ones. The amibidextrous, naturally, have a huge advantage over both, since shots may be played with either hand.

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