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How to Play Jacks (Basic Rules and Gameplay)

As a game that some experts say dates back as far as 5,000 BC (yes, BC), people have been learning how to play Jacks for thousands of years and now, today, it’s your turn.

In today’s guide, we’ll talk you step by step through the process of setting up, playing, and ultimately winning this classic game of skill and dexterity in which your goal is to become the first player to make it all the way from onesies to tensies.

En route, you’ll be picking up those jacks (originally known as knucklebones) as you pit your wits against your opponents in a classic all-ages game that proves to be just as much fun in the pub as it does on the playground.

Here’s how it’s played:

How to Play Jacks: Getting Started

how to play jacks

What You’ll Need: 

One of the great things about learning how to play Jacks is that you don’t need much to get started, just a set of jacks, a ball, and a couple of friends.

Many best-selling Jacks sets will include two sets of jacks and multiple balls, making it easier to get a multiplayer game underway. Still, if you can’t find anyone to play with you, that’s OK too because the other great thing about Jacks is that it’s just as much fun as a solo pursuit.

The Jacks 

Jacks are the small, star-like tokens that give the game its name. The best quality ones are always made from metal, usually with one silver set and one gold set. That said, it’s not uncommon to find plastic jacks marketed to children. 

Of course, if you’re looking to set up an impromptu game and don’t have time to run out and buy an actual set of jacks, any small objects will do as long as they’re the same size and you have at least 10 of them.

The Ball 

Technically, any ball will do as long as it bounces, but the ones that come included with a game set tend to be better as they not only ensure a quality bounce but are also perfectly the right size to be caught one-handed. 

Deciding Who Goes First 

how to play jacks

While a good, old fashioned coin toss can always be used, Jacks is more fun if you use the traditional method for deciding which player goes first.

That method involves throwing all of the jacks in the air at the same time. Whoever successfully catches the most jacks gets to take the first turn.

Setting Up Your Game 

As with most things to do with Jacks, getting started couldn’t be more straightforward. Simply scatter the jacks on the ground or table in front of you and make sure that the jacks are neither too far apart nor too close together.

With that, it’s time to play.

Jacks Rules and Gameplay

how to play jacks

The basic objective of jacks is to pick up a pre-set number of jacks on each round, with the number of the round itself being used to determine the number of jacks to be picked up.

So in Round 1, players must pick up one jack in each turn. In Round 2, players must pick up two jacks per turn, all the way to up to Round 10. 

Of course, we’ve called them Round 1, Round 2, etc. here, but Jacks livens things up by giving each round a much more playful name such as onesies, twosies, threesies, and so on.

Onesies (Round 1)

In onesies, the first player throws the ball in the air and lets it bounce once and once only. After that one bounce, the player has to pick up one jack and then catch the ball before it bounces a second time.

If they’re successful, they continue to do this with all 9 remaining jacks before progressing to twosies. If that player fouls, however, their turn is over and the next player takes their turn.

Twosies (Round 2) and Onwards 

In twosies, the same rules apply, only this time, players must pick up the jacks 2 at a time.

In threesies, it’s 3 at a time, making for 3 sets of 3 before picking up the remaining single jack in the last round. 

The next round requires 4 sets of 4 and a 2, and well, you get the idea. Here’s a breakdown of the structure of each round:

Round:Sets to pick up:

The first player who makes it all the way from onesies to tensies wins the game.

How Fouls Work in Jacks 

A foul is considered to be any instance when:

  • A player fails to catch the ball
  • A player picks up the wrong number of jacks
  • A player touches a jack but doesn’t pick it up
  • The ball bounces more than once
  • The ball hits a jack.

When a foul occurs, that player’s turn is over. When it is their turn again, they start from the beginning of whatever round they were on. 

So, for example, if you were playing the foursies round and picked up one set of 4 jacks on your first turn but then fouled on your second turn, those 4 jacks are canceled out by the foul. In other words, when the game gets back to you, you once again have to pick up the original 4 jacks, plus the additional 6.

Frequently Asked Questions About How to play Jacks

how to play jacks

Can I Use Different Hands to Throw the Ball and Pick up Jacks?

No. Though that would make things easier, part of the challenge of this game is that players must use the same hand to throw the ball, pick up their jacks, and catch the ball again. If you use a different hand during the same turn that is considered a foul and play is transferred to the next player.

One thing we should mention is that you can alternate hands between turns if that’s what works for you. So, for example, on one turn you could use your right hand to throw the ball, catch it and pick up the jacks in between.

On the next turn, you could use your left hand exclusively, but you couldn’t throw the ball and catch it with your right hand and pick up the jacks with your left.

Can You Play Jacks With More Than Two People?

Absolutely. Like marbles and other classic schoolyard games, the more players the merrier. Keep in mind, however, that the more people you have in your game, the longer that game is going to take. So, if there’s a large group of you, it may be wise to pair up into teams or come up with a knockout tournament format.

Popular Alternatives to Traditional Jacks 

By now, you’ve learned everything you need to know to play this ancient past time, but if you’re finding it either too easy or too difficult, there’s no need to abandon it in favor of games that are much more suited to your skill level like bagatelle or Go.

Instead, you can simply minimize or maximize the challenge involved by adopting one of these popular variations on the classic Jacks format.

No Bouncies

Ready to really take your game to the next level? Simply apply this rule which is exactly what it sounds like:

Throw the ball in the air and pick up the jacks without letting the ball bounce.

Double Bouncies

Need to make things easier? Play the Double Bouncies version in which you throw the ball and pick up the jacks, then catch the ball once it has bounced twice.

Around the World

A little different from the ‘Around the World’ rules you might be familiar with from darts, this one insists that you draw a circle in the air around the ball before each bounce. Though it might seem like a silly addition to the game at first, it can do a lot to make the game both more fun, and more challenging all at the same time.

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