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Ten-Pin Bowling Rules: Game Overview

Along with bowling rules, we’ll review the equipment, explain how scoring works, and talk about common shots and terminology.

Bowling, in one form or another, has been a popular pastime for just about as long as people have had enough free time to engage in leisure activities. There have been hundreds of variations of the game throughout history.

Even today, you can find a variety of bowling games, including duckpin, nine-pin, candlestick, and five-pin, that are still popular in different regions around the country.

This article describes the rules of ten-pin bowling as it is played under the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA). The PBA is the major sanctioning body for professional ten-pin bowling in the US.

A Brief History of the Sport of Ten-Pin Bowling

Ten-pin bowling was first introduced in the mid-1800’s to get around laws against playing nine-pin bowling.

At the time, betting on nine-pin was a favorite gambling activity in the US. Local governments made attempts to stamp out such unsavory behavior by banning nine-pin bowling alleys.

By adding a pin, and changing the rules slightly, bowling alleys could legally continue to operate by offering the new game of ten-pin bowling.

Ten-pin bowling slowly gained popularity, and by the 1950s, it became a national obsession. Bowling alleys and leagues sprung up in even the tiniest towns coast to coast.

Although the heyday of ten-pin bowling didn’t last long, it continues to be one of the most played sports in the US. Over 67 million Americans play at least once a year

The Equipment

Before we get into bowling rules, scoring and fouls, let’s review the basic equipment.

One of the largest draws of ten-pin is that it is a game that caters to casual players. There is very little equipment necessary to play, and all of it is available at the bowling alley.

The only musts when it comes to equipment is a bowling ball and a pair of bowling shoes. You can rent shoes for a few bucks, and bowling balls are usually provided to use for free. 

The Bowling Ball

Brunswick TZone Indigo Swirl Bowling Ball (14-Pounds)
Brunswick Indigo Swirl Bowling Ball, available on Amazon (affiliate link)

PGA bowling rules call for a solid ball of no more than 27 inches around and weighing no more than 16 pounds.

PGA-approved balls can have two or three finger holes but must be balanced within 3 ounces on all sides. Of course, bowling balls for use in casual play may vary in their weight and hole number to suit the player. In fact, choosing the right ball and ball size is key learning more advanced shots like the hook and curve ball (reviewed below).


KR Strikeforce Bowling Shoes Mens Flyer Bowling Shoes- M US, Black/Orange, 10
Strikeforce Bowling Shoes, available on Amazon (affiliate link)

Most bowling alleys won’t allow bowlers to play in street shoes or socks but are more than willing to rent bowling shoes. Casual players may also bring in their own bowling shoes for use on the lanes if they want.

Professional bowlers and those who take the game seriously often choose to purchase bowling shoes with two different types of soles: one designed for sliding, and the other one for braking.

Right-hand bowlers wear bowling shoes with a sliding sole on their left foot and a braking heel on their right foot. This helps them control the way they deliver the ball.

The PBA has a list of acceptable shoe manufacturers

Wrist Support

Wrist supports help bowlers maintain the proper hand and wrist position, and approved brands are widely worn by professional PBA bowlers. They are less popular for those who bowl just for fun and are not considered necessary equipment.

Wrist supports are generally not available to rent and must be purchased

Bowling Rules


A Basic Overview and Goal of Ten-Pin Bowling

The goal of ten-pin bowling is simple: knock down as many pins as possible by rolling a ball down an alley with ten pins arranged in the form of a triangle at the end. The highest possible score is 300.

A score of 300 is called a perfect game. To score a perfect game, a bowler needs to knock down all the pins 12 times in a row. The bowler who scores the highest at the end of the game wins. 

A good professional bowler will average above 200 points a game. The difference between a good and a top-tier professional bowler’s average is often less than 15 points. 

The Progression of the Game

A single game of bowling is divided into ten turns or frames. In each of the first nine frames, the player has the opportunity to roll the ball up to two times. In the last frame, the player may roll the bowl up to three times, depending on how many pins are knocked down.

Once a bowler completes one frame, the next bowler has a chance to roll. All bowlers must bowl in order, and out of order play is not allowed. 

General Scoring and Recording Points

For each new frame, all ten pins are set upright. The bowler then rolls his ball at the pins.

Any player who knocks down all the pins on the first roll of a frame scores a strike. This is indicated by drawing an ‘X’ in the small box in the top right corner of the larger scoring box for that frame.

A bowler who scores a strike will then end his turn unless it is the final frame of the game. In the case of rolling a strike in the final, see below. 

The total amount of points earned for a strike is based on 10 plus the total number of points earned on the bowler’s next two rolls. 

For example, if a player makes a strike in the first frame and then scores 7 on his first roll of the second frame and a two on the second roll of that frame, he will score 19 (10 + 7 + 2) for the first frame. He will then earn the 9 points for the second frame. This brings his total score at the end of the second frame to 27.

But if a player rolls two more strikes in the next two frames, he will earn 30 points for the first frame. The bowler then must wait for the end of the fourth frame to score the second frame, and the end of the fifth frame to score the third. 

If fewer than 10 pins fall, the scorekeeper will write the number of downed pins just to the left of the smaller box. The automatic pinsetter will sweep away all pins that fell for the next roll. 

The same bowler will then have another opportunity to try to knock the remaining pins down. Bowlers who can down all the remaining pins on the second roll earns a spare.

A spare is marked with a diagonal line (/) from the lower-left corner to the upper-right corner of the small box. Otherwise, the number of pins that were knocked over are totaled and added to any previous score. The combined amount is written in the bottom half of the large box. 

A spare is worth 10 points plus the number of pins knocked down on the next throw. Therefore, if a player bowls a spare on the first frame and knocks down 7 on the first throw of the next frame, she will earn a 17 (10 + 7) for the first frame.

If a bowler rolls a spare in the final frame, he receives one more roll. The total of the three rolls is added to his previous score to calculate the final score for the game. 

A bowler who is unlucky enough not to knock down any pins on a roll will score a zero. A zero is indicated by drawing a dash (-) in the appropriate area on the scoring sheet. 

How to Score a Strike in the Tenth Frame

You score a strike in the last frame is a bit differently than for other frames. Any player who scores a strike in the tenth frame will immediately roll two more times.

The total number of pins knocked down for those three rolls will be added to the bowler’s previous score to come up with the final score for the game. The maximum number of points for the last frame is 30. 

Bowling Rules: Fouls

It is illegal for either of a bowler’s feet to cross over the foul line; the marked line at the beginning of the lane. If a foot passes the line at any point, during or after releasing the ball, it is a foul, and no points are scored. Any pins that are knocked down are reset, and the bowler forfeits that roll.

A player who fouls on the first roll of a frame will be able to roll a second time. Mark a foul as an ‘F’ in the appropriate space on the score sheet. 

Keeping score when bowling is pretty intimidating for new players. Luckily most modern bowling alleys have automatic scoring.

Still, you should eventually learn how to score on your own since there are sometimes errors with the scoring system. 

Also check out: Lawn Bowling

Basic Shots Used in Bowling

There are four main types of shots used in the game of bowling:

Straight Ball: The technique of rolling the ball straight down the alley at your intended target. Typically, you’ll line up and find the angle on the lane that aligns with the target pin.

Keeping your hips and shoulders square to the pins when bowling, you bowl straight at the pin, slightly off-center. Here’s a demonstration.

You’ll want to eye your target before you approach the foul line, and keep that line during approach and delivery. 

Hook Ball: The hook ball is a very effective shot that involves releasing your thumb from the ball and lifting with your fingers upon delivery, while using a counter-clockwise hand and wrist rotation (or clockwise for left-handed bowlers) to hook the ball from right to left towards the back-end of the lane.

Although it looks like the ball is just spinning, there’s a bit more to it, including using the right sized ball and finger placement.

Check out this resource to learn more.

Curve Ball: This advanced shot is similar to the hook shot, but involves holding the ball (which needs to be the right size) in a handshake position and nailing the rotation and skid distance before it curves to hit your intended pocket.

This one’s hard to master, but check out this video for some guidance.

Backup Ball: A backup ball shot is the exact opposite of the hook. For example, if you’re right handed, instead of hooking from right to left with a counter-clockwise wrist rotation, you hook from left to right using a clockwise rotation. This shot is awkward and harder to control, and therefore less common than a hook.

Bowling Slang You Should Know

Like any other sport, bowling has a unique language of its own. If you hang around bowling alleys long enough, you will probably hear people use a few unique phrases.

In addition to the bowling rules and shots we just covered, here is a shortlist of bowling terms you might want to know:

  • The Approach is the first few steps bowlers take before releasing the ball. 
  • Dead Wood are pins that were knocked down by a previous roll, but not cleared by the sweeper. Call a bowling attendant to remove any dead wood before continuing to bowl. 
  • Five-Bagger is five consecutive strikes in a row.
  • Four-Bagger is four consecutive strikes in a row. 
  • The Gutter is the space on either side of the alley.
  • Handicap is the number of pins added to the score of a less-skilled bowler to make a game more competitive. 
  • The Head Pin is the pin closest to you at the start of a frame. 
  • An Open Frame is one in which the bowler did not get a strike or spare.
  • Split is when after the first roll, only two pins remain standing, and there is a wide gap between them. 
  • Turkey is three strikes in a row.

Your Turn

Bowling, like other retro games (i.e. Skee-Ball), is making a comeback. Along with traditional bowling alleys, which may be a little less popular these days, you’ll now find bar-arcades, boutique bowling alleys, and venues like Punch Bowl Social popping up in cities across the country.

So, now that you have a better understanding of the rules and scoring of bowling get out there and play a few games. You might just fall in love with the game like so many others!

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