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Droll Scandal of the Boules Hustlers
Paul Evan Ress
May 11, 1964
The police made a raid—and all Gaul was united in amused pride to learn that a simple bowling game could inspire so ingenious a swindle, such refinements of corruption
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May 11, 1964

Droll Scandal Of The Boules Hustlers

The police made a raid—and all Gaul was united in amused pride to learn that a simple bowling game could inspire so ingenious a swindle, such refinements of corruption

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The French newspapers called it the scandal of the Gang de la P�tanque, meaning the Boules Hustlers. A nice couple of francs changed hands before the victims hollered "flic" and arrests were made. The cases were disposed of in the criminal courts eventually, but outside the bistros, where p�tanque is played for rounds of drinks and sometimes for money, they still wonder if there might not be more scandals where that one came from.

P�tanque is supposed to have originated in Marseille, and like bouillabaisse, another Marseille creation, it often has a pleasant fishiness about it. It is the favorite game of the French, though you would never guess this from their novels, a simple kind of outdoor bowling played in one variation or another—like the Italian boccie—all over Europe and in many of its cultural outposts, such as Bleecker Street in New York City. In France some five million people play it. The F�d�ration Fran�aise de P�tanque et Jeu Proven�al, the licensing agency for tournament play and the awarding of championships, has a paid-up membership of 200,000. Only cycling and soccer rival it in popularity. It is played by 5-year-olds and by octogenarians. It can be played on any terrain, and games go by the hour on quays in Cannes, Bordeaux streets, village squares and elegant city parks like the Bois de Boulogne.

The players, two or three to a team, try to get the metal balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball. The metal balls, slightly larger than a baseball, are called boules. The wooden ball, two inches in diameter, is called the bouchon, probably because it used to be made of cork, and sometimes the cochonnet, which means little pig and has some obscure folklorish origin. The bouchon is placed between 20 and 32 feet from the players, who must stand inside a circle traced on the ground with feet joined when they toss, throw or roll the ball. This position is known in the Proven�al language as peds tanquas, or "feet joined together," hence the name, p�tanque. Points are scored by the nearness of the boules to the bouchon, and half the fun is in measuring. This is done by ruler, tape, trouser belt or tree branch, and a great volume of rhetoric, with most players convinced they are being robbed.

It was this dislike of being robbed, in a more literal sense, that broke the scandal of the Gang de la P�tanque. It all began, naturally, in Marseille, a permanent cradle of liberties of one sort or another. One morning a few summers ago the newspapers told of the arrest of a 15-man gang. They were accused of bilking scores of businessmen from Marseille to Nice on the Riviera of $140,000 in games of p�tanque. For some time, so the papers said, Marseille police officials had been registering complaints from store owners, proprietors of building-trade companies and small businessmen claiming they had been victimized by hotshot p�tanque players using loaded balls.

When the flics (police) made a dawn raid on the gang, they confiscated p�tanque balls in their apartments and automobiles and tested them. When rolled on rails toward a bumper, an honest p�tanque ball comes back to the starting point. A tampered ball, generally weighted with metallic filings, stops on the way. The confiscated balls passed the test. One suspected ball was sawed in half but turned out to be legitimate.

The investigating magistrate put together the scenario the gang had organized for suckers. One member of the gang would contact, say, the owner of a masonry firm and offer to put him in touch with an eccentric old millionaire who was interested in building a villa along the Mediterranean coast. Or a Proven�al poultry farmer would be told of an eccentric old millionaire interested in creating a chain of chicken farms in Corsica. The businessman, hooked, was then taken to some country inn where he found a rich old man playing p�tanque with a gang crony. Because he was 75 years old, had poor eyesight and suffered from arthritis, the millionaire's opponent had made some concessions. The bouchon, or cochonnet, was thrown only six feet from the players instead of the regulation 20 to 32 feet. The elderly millionaire had four balls to toss, against three for his adversary. He had a four-point handicap in a game of 10 or 11 points, and friends picked up the balls from the ground so he wouldn't have to bend down. Despite all this, the old man lost every game, and his "secretary" took wads of 100-franc notes from a briefcase to pay the winner.

After losing half a dozen times the old man hurled the p�tanque balls away, saying he would not play against the winner anymore. Sometimes the old man would then invite the victim (called a "pigeon") to play; sometimes the eager-beaver businessman himself suggested a game with the angry old man. The gang was too clever to urge the pigeon to bet, but asked whether he minded if they bet on him to beat the old man. The businessman naturally gave his aged opponent the same handicap of an extra ball and four points at a distance of six feet. The old man lost game after game before he quit. The bettors made fun of him, saying "You're not a man, vous �tes une patate [literally, you're a potato]." Enraged, the old man said: "Afraid, am I? Well, I'll tell you what. I'll bet you everything in my secretary's briefcase against you!" And he put up anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000. Bettors said they did not have that much money in their pockets but would go home or to their bank to get it. Often the pigeon drove them there.

A big money game then began, and soon the pigeon was ahead eight points to four (the handicap) with only two to go to win. At this point the old man would say, "By the way, I've shown you my money, let's see yours." And it turned out the bettors lacked $1,000 or $2,000. Usually the delighted pigeon offered to supply the missing amount on the spot. Occasionally he required a little persuasion along these lines: "You want to get the old man to let you build his villa, don't you? Well, don't get him angry. Put in a couple of thousand dollars. You're way ahead," et cetera. Naturally, the old man suddenly began to play well—very well—and the pigeon found himself beaten 10-8 or 10-9. Incredulous, the pigeon often insisted on a return match and was, of course, plumed a second time. Some victims came back for third and even fourth games of p�tanque. Such was a typical gang plot as revealed by the magistrate.

Now, the Frenchman who does not play p�tanque watches it, and players and spectators ate up the front-page press accounts of how the p�tanque gang operated. Everyone waited impatiently for the Marseille trial to begin. In the annals of French court trials few if any have been as hilarious as that of the p�tanque gang. It went on for three days in the small courtroom in the Marseille Palais de Justice. French court reporters said it was superpagnol, referring to Writer Marcel Pagnol's colorful trilogy about Marseille. For Americans, the trial resembled Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin.

Justice with garlic

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