Monday, February 12, 2024

A Game Worthy of the Ancients – Jacks

By Kathy Kovach

Did you ever play Jacks as a kid? That’s the quirky little game where metal or plastic stars are cast to the ground, and one must pick them up in the toss of a ball. I played so much one summer, I scraped the flesh off the side of my hand . . . and kept playing.

Little did I know back then that I was enjoying an eons-old game dating back to approximately 5000 BCE. The name is derived from the word chackstones, which is a term for “stones to be thrown”. The originator is long forgotten, but nods go out to everyone from the Greek playwright Sophlacles to the Egyptian god Thoth. Other theories include ancient China or France as the originators.

Carchemish orthostat at the Gaziantep Archaeology Museum
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dick Osseman. 8th century BC.

In days of old, it was called Knucklebones, along with many other names: Snobs, Dibs, Fivestones, Jackstones, and Tali (Latin), among many others. Another term from the Greek was Astragaloi, referring to a game of chance through divination.

The sport was often utilized with real bones, such as those from a sheep’s or goat’s toes. In some cultures, seeds, seashells, beans, or rocks were used. In China, they played it with small bags of rice, sand, or other grainy materials.

Archeological evidence has been unearthed in all corners of the world. Game pieces have been found in caves unearthed in Kiev, Ukraine. A collection of small animal bones was located in Maresha, a town in Judah, dating to the time of the first Jewish temple. Also in Israel, a recent find happened in Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park, tracing back to the Hellenistic period, roughly 2,300 years ago. Numerous collections of what they assumed were game bones have been discovered in Turkey, ranging from the Bronze Age to the medieval period.

Game play can be broken down into two types. The first was achieved without a ball, no doubt played before the invention of rubber. The player would throw the objects in the air and catch as many as they could on the back of their hand. The other is probably the most acceptable and became popular among European and American children. A small ball is tossed into the air, and one must pick up the jacks before it bounces twice. The first round only requires a single jack to be picked up at a time. The second round is pairs, the third is trios, and so on until all ten pieces are snatched up in the bounce of the ball.

Greek statue, 330-300 BCE
I had no idea as I gleefully played Jacks with my friends, that the game had been solidly entrenched in human society, even to the point where it was mentioned in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s been included in archaic paintings, carvings, and statues dating before the birth of Christ. All I cared about was honing my skill of bouncing that ball and swiping up the jacks to beat all of my competitors.
Picture attributed to the Library of Congress
Oh, and my hand eventually healed.

A secret. A key. Much was buried on the Titanic, but now it's time for resurrection.

Follow two intertwining stories a century apart. 1912 - Matriarch Olive Stanford protects a secret after boarding the Titanic that must go to her grave. 2012 - Portland real estate agent Ember Keaton-Jones receives the key that will unlock the mystery of her past... and her distrusting heart.
To buy: Amazon

Kathleen E. Kovach is a Christian romance author published traditionally through Barbour Publishing, Inc. as well as indie. Kathleen and her husband, Jim, raised two sons while living the nomadic lifestyle for over twenty years in the Air Force. Now planted in northeast Colorado, she's a grandmother and a great-grandmother—though much too young for either. Kathleen has been a longstanding member of American Christian Fiction Writers. An award-winning author, she presents spiritual truths with a giggle, proving herself as one of God's peculiar people.


  1. Thanks for posting today. I enjoyed a few games of jacks as a kid too. I'm glad your hand healed :)

  2. The Stanford story,from the Titanic always amazed me. As did Molly Brown. We lived in Sacramento for many years. The Leland Stanford was amazing.