An interview with Steve Ferg about the Petanque Libre project

Suppose that you meet a petanque player that has never heard of the Petanque Libre project (PL). How would you describe it to him or her?

Well, I would describe Petanque Libre as a project to develop a new set of rules for the game of petanque that is “open” in the sense that international “open standards” are open, i.e. not proprietary to any one company. Right now the international rules of petanque are basically proprietary; the FIPJP owns them, they are the private property of the FIPJP. Petanque Libre is a project to develop a set of the rules that is not owned by the FIPJP. I chose the name “Petanque Libre” because the French word “libre” (open, free) also means “independent”.

The second thing I would say is that the PL rules are designed specifically for use in games where there are no umpires. The FIPJP rules are designed for use in organized, umpired competitions. They are quite badly written, especially the parts that cover illegal actions. But the FIPJP gets away with it because if there is a question about the rules in an FIPJP-organized competition, there is always an FIPJP-certified umpire available to render a final (if perhaps arbitrary) decision. The FIPJP also gets away with it because participants in organized, umpired competitions tend to be experienced players that are not likely to violate the rules. In contrast, the PL rules are designed for use by grass-roots players in friendly games without umpires. Less-experienced players often make mistakes or accidentally do something illegal, and they need a set of rules that is explicit and clear enough that they can understand the rules, and apply the rules themselves without an umpire. That’s the need that the rules of Petanque Libre are designed to meet.

So, to put it in a nutshell, Petanque Libre is a new set of rules for the game of petanque. The PL rules are owned by the players, not by the FIPJP. The PL rules are designed by and for players, not by and for umpires. They are designed to be usable by grass-roots players during friendly, non-umpired games.

Is it important for there to be another version of the rules? What’s wrong with the FIPJP rules?

For one thing, the FIPJP rules are just plain badly-written. The FIPJP has had over 50 years in which to write a good set of rules and it is clear by now that that just isn’t going to happen. The other thing is that the FIPJP rules aren’t really rules for the game of petanque. They are a combination of rules of the game, guidelines for umpires, and rules about how FIPJP competitions should be run. Article 4, for instance, specifies that in order to register for a competition a player must present his/her membership card in an FIPJP national federation. That kind of stuff is not about how you play the game of petanque! One of the goals of the PL project is to strip out all of the extraneous stuff and to write down, as clearly as possible, the rules of the game. JUST the rules of the game. The rules of the game and NOTHING BUT the rules of the game.

How would you describe the differences between the FIPJP rules and the PL rules?

The most important difference is in how the two sets of rules handle illegal events. Here is an example. Suppose a player accidentally picks up one of the opposing team’s boules before all boules have been thrown. The location of the boule is not marked. If an FIPJP umpire is called, he will probably apply a strict interpretation of Article 27 and declare the boule dead, despite the fact that the boule belonged to the opposing team. (The offending player may be given a warning, a yellow card.) In contrast, the PL rules call for the teams to reach a decision that they consider to be fair and mutually agreeable. They will probably agree simply to put the boule back (in a location that both teams agree is pretty close to its original location). And then they will carry on with the game as if nothing happened. They will, in effect, un-do the illegal event. In contrast, an FIPJP umpire (without a marked location, which hardly ever exists) can’t undo an illegal action.

Another important difference is that the PL rules are much more clearly written than the FIPJP rules. They have to be. They have to be clear enough that ordinary players can understand and apply them, because there are no umpires around to do that job for them. I put a lot of effort into trying to make the rules clear and explicit. For example, the PL rules contain a lot of definitions. I don’t think that there are any definitions in the FIPJP rules. The most notorious example, of course, is the word “obstacle”. It is an important word in the FIPJP rules, but it is never defined. By comparison, the stand-alone word “obstacle” never occurs in the PL rules, but two specific terms— “throwing obstacle” and “pointing obstacle”— do, and both are explicitly defined.

Could the players agree to put an illegally-moved boule or jack back, even if its original location wasn’t marked?

Yes, certainly. If they are playing by the PL rules.

When an umpire is called in to make a decision, FIPJP rules forbid the umpire from making a decision based on the (possibly conflicting) stories provided by the competing teams. The FIPJP rules require an umpire to base his decisions only on marks that he can see on the ground. That’s why the FIPJP rules are obsessed with marks on the ground. But there is no reason for the rules of Petanque Libre to be obsessed with marks on the ground. Marks on the ground hardly appear in the rules of Petanque Libre. If the original location of the boule was marked, then of course those marks will help the teams to restore the boule to its original location. But the teams can do that even if there are no marks on the ground.

How big is the project? The editorial committee or whatever you call it… how many members does it have?

Right now there is only me. I started the project and right now I am the only member of the working committee. Whenever somebody starts an open standards project, it’s a gamble. You never know whether the project is going to attract the support of a lot of other like-minded people or whether no one is going to be interested. Right now the PL project is at the stage where it has run the flag up the flag pole and we’re waiting to see if anybody salutes it. We just have to wait and see what happens.

Is your goal to replace the FIPJP rules with the Petanque Libre rules?

Absolutely not. Only the FIPJP can set the rules of play for its own competitions. The rules of Petanque Libre are designed to be used outside of FIPJP-sanctioned competitions, or more specifically, outside of umpired competitions.

You say that the PL rules are designed to be used in non-umpired games. Still… would it be possible to use them in an umpired competition?

Yes, I think so. I don’t think it would be difficult. The last PL rule is the Consensus Rule, which says that any of the other rules may be changed, waived, supplemented, or over-ridden by agreement of the teams. In an organized, umpired competition you’d want to replace that with a rule that says that in a problematic situation where the two teams cannot reach a mutually agreeable resolution, an umpire will be called in to render a decision.

Along with umpires, of course, would come all of the machinery of the penalty system: colored cards, warnings, penalties, disqualified boules, etc. Ideally that machinery would be described in a separate document, and the competition rules would specify that the competition would be conducted using a combination of the PL rules and the rules in that document.

The FIPJP really should write such a document. You can find pieces of the penalty system in the FIPJP rules, but they are fragmentary and described very badly. They really need to be pulled out into a document of their own. And improved, of course.

Would the PL project ever consider trying to develop such a document: an open umpire’s guide?

No, we’d never try to do that. The certification of umpires, the development of guidelines for umpires, and the running of umpired competitions— these are all different things from the pure rules of the game. Right now they are de facto the concerns of the FIPJP and the national federations, and PL has no desire to compete with FIPJP in that area. Only the FIPJP has the authority to develop an umpire’s guide for its own umpires, to tell them how to do their jobs.

In the last few years FPUSA and Petanque New Zealand have made a good start on developing umpire’s guides for their respective national federations. The Netherlands and Germany have had rules-interpretations documents for a number of years. I’d love to see an international effort, with the national umpires committees of the USA, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, etc. working together to develop a trans-national English-language umpire’s guide. If that happened, it would be useful in and of itself. But it could also be a model for an international umpire’s guide. But right now that’s just my fantasy. I don’t know of anyone else who is thinking along those lines.

Earlier you said that at the beginning of an open standards project there is no way to tell whether it will flourish or flounder. Suppose the PL project did flourish. What would it do? Where would it go next?

My view is that petanque should be viewed as a traditional activity with a traditional set of rules, like (say) of chess. The FIPJP rules are a modified form of that traditional game: the FIPJP version of the game has been modified and adapted to the conditions of large organized competitions. It is hardly surprising, then, that every few years the FIPJP tweaks and changes its rules to meet the changing needs of large organized competitions. In contrast, I see the rules of petanque as almost timeless: a traditional activity that we have inherited. If we can get the traditional rules written down properly, then they should be stable and (ideally) there would be no reason to change them. That’s the goal of the Petanque Libre project.

Of course in the first year of the project there have been three or four revisions to the PL rules. But that is a normal process of shaking out the bugs at the beginning of a project— you can’t get everything right on your first try. So I expect the pace of revisions to slow down and eventually to come to a halt, or nearly to a halt. The goals of the project are inherently limited in scope. I do NOT see a future of endlessly revising and issuing new versions of the PL rules. Actually, right now I think we’re very close to having a stable, final version of the rules of Petanque Libre. We’ll see…

If the project really were to flourish, there are a couple of things that I can see happening. The first, which could be done once the rules have stabilized, is for the rules of Petanque Libre to be translated into French. Right now the project is being carried out in English, and the canonical version of the rules of Petanque Libre is the English-language text available on the Petanque Libre web site, petanquelibre.wordpress.com. But petanque is a French game, and a really flourishing PL project would mean making the PL rules available to French-speaking players. And then, perhaps, to Spanish, German, Thai, who knows?

Also, if PL really begins to flourish, I think players will generate new questions about the rules. The rules of PL are designed to be clear and explicit, so (at least in theory) they should generate fewer questions and confusions than the FIPJP rules do. But it is impossible to write rules all of which are always absolutely clear to everybody. Players will certainly come up with new questions about the implications and interpretations of the rules. It is questions like those that the notes attached to the PL rules are designed to address. So even if the rules themselves remain stable, it is likely that the notes attached to the rules will need to be updated more frequently than the rules themselves.

But the bottom line is that, even if PL explodes in popularity, the plans for future project activity are quite modest.

Finally, let me ask about the Petanque Libre logo. Is there some symbolism there?

Well, it is based on the old Chinese yin-yang symbol. I didn’t have any symbolism in mind while I was designing it, but now when I look at it I see two teams playing a game of petanque. They are competing, yet they are playing harmoniously in a single self-contained whole, a game, without any need for a third party (an umpire).


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