A selection of fresh conkers from a horse-chestnut tree.

Conkers is a traditional English children's game played using the seeds of horse-chestnut trees – the name 'conker' is also applied to the seed and to the tree itself. The game is played by two players, each with a conker threaded onto a piece of string: they take turns striking each other's conker until one breaks.


Origin of name

The name may come from the dialect word conker, meaning "hardnut" (perhaps related to French conque meaning a conch, as the game was originally played using snail shells and small bits of string, you used to put the conkers in vinegar and in oven to toughen them up.[1][2]) The name may also be influenced by the verb conquer, as the game has also been called conquerors, but this may be a back-formation. Another possibility is that it is onomatopoeia, representing the sound made by a horse chestnut as it hits another hard object, such as a skull (another children's "game", also called conkers, consists of simply throwing the seeds at one another over a fence or wall). Conkers are also known regionally as obblyonkers, cheggies* or cheesers. Although a "cheeser" is a conker with one or more flat sides, this comes about due to it sharing its pod with other conkers (twins or triplets). (*Cheggies were the edible variety of chesnut).

The game

  • A hole is drilled in a large, hard conker using a nail, gimlet, or small screwdriver. An electric drill such as a "Dremel" using increasing drill-bit diameters at intermittent intervals, produces less internal damage to the nut's core and is highly effective during the hardening period / process. Once ready for action, a piece of string is threaded through it about 25 cm (10 inches) long (often a shoelace is used). A large knot at one or both ends of the string secures the conker.
  • The game is played between two people, each with a conker.
  • They take turns hitting each other's conker using their own. One player lets the conker dangle on the full length of the string while the other player swings their conker and hits!


  • The conker eventually breaking the other's conker gains a point. This may be either the attacking conker or (more often) the defending one.
  • A new conker is a none-er meaning that it has conquered none yet.
  • If a none-er breaks another none-er then it becomes a one-er, if it was a one-er then it becomes a two-er etc. In some areas of Scotland, conker victories are counted using the terms bully-one, bully-two, etc. In some areas of the United States and Canada, conker victories are counted using the terms one-kinger, two-kinger, etc.
  • The winning conker assimilates the previous score of the losing conker, as well as gaining the score from that particular game. For example, if a two-er plays a three-er, the surviving conker will become a six-er (the sum of the two previous scores plus one for the current game).

Hardening conkers

The hardest conkers usually win. Hardening conkers is often done by keeping them for a year (aged conkers are called laggies in many areas or seasoners in Ireland and Liverpool), baking them briefly, soaking or boiling in vinegar, or painting with clear nail varnish. Such hardening is, however, usually regarded as cheating. At the British Junior Conkers Championships on the Isle of Wight in October 2005, contestants were banned from bringing their own conkers due to fears that they might harden them. The Campaign For Real Conkers claimed this was an example of over-regulation which was causing a drop in interest in the game. In the World Conker Championship contestants are also restricted to using the conkers provided.

One factor affecting the strength of a conker is the shape of the hole. A clean cylindrical hole is stronger, as it has no notches or chips that can begin a crack or split.

Similar game

A similar Puerto Rican game (played with the smaller seed of the jatobá, Hymenaea courbaril) is called gallitos (meaning small roosters or cocks, as in cockfighting). The opponents face each other and the defending gallito is laid in the center of a circle drawn in the dirt. Not until the attacking player misses will the defending player take a turn. Upon missing, if the attacking player is quick enough, they will try to swing at the defending gallito before the defendant removes it from within the circle. If the defending gallito is struck it must remain in the circle until the attacker misses again. This move is called a "paso de paloma".[3]

History of conkers

The first recorded game of Conkers using horse chestnuts was on the Isle of Wight in 1848.[4] The horse chestnut tree is not native to Britain, but was introduced from the Balkans in the late 16th century; it was not widely planted until the early 19th century. Previously, children played with snail shells or hazelnuts.[2][4]

In 1965 the World Conker Championships were set up in Ashton (near Oundle) Northamptonshire, England, and still take place on the second Sunday of October every year. In 2004, an audience of 5,000 turned up to watch more than 500 competitors from all over the world.

1976 was the first time that a non-British contestant won the Men's World Conker Championship. The Mexican Jorge Ramirez Carrillo took the place of a contestant who was unable to arrive on time at Ashton, and defeated the 1975 champion at the finals. The Men's champion has been British in every other year except 1998, when Helmut Kern from Nauort, Germany, won.

In 1993, Michael Palin, of Monty Python fame, was disqualified from a Conkers competition in the United Kingdom for baking his conker and soaking it in vinegar.[5]

In 1999, the British charity ActionAid applied for a patent on hardening conkers, in protest at the patenting of life forms by large companies.

In 1999 the Irish Conker Championships began in Freshford Co.Kilkenny.

2000 saw the first Ladies' champion from outside the UK. Selma Becker, originally from Austria, took the title. Again, the title of Queen of Conkers has remained in the UK, except in 2001 when Frenchwoman Celine Parachou won.

2001 Eamonn Dooley from Kilkenny, Ireland smashed the world record and broke an amazing 306 conkers in one hour.

In North America, the game currently has no official status or competitions. Its popularity has surely declined, but it is not thought to be an extinct game. It was played during the late 1940s and early 1950s in New York in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and in the 1950s and early 1960s in the Amalgamated section of the Bronx and a winning chestnut was referred to as a "killer". It was also played in Queens, the upper West Side of Manhattan, in the Mohawk Valley area of upstate New York and in Westmount, Quebec and other English-speaking parts of Montreal into the 1970s. It was played in the Catholic areas of North Cambridge, MA in the late 1950s,and a winning chestnut was also labeled a "killer". It was being played in the 1960s in Rhode Island [6] and into the early 1980s in Smithfield, RI.[citation needed] Conkers has also been popular with school children in Newfoundland.

Safety concerns

In 2000 a survey of British schools showed that many were not allowing children to play conkers as head teachers were afraid of the legal consequences if children were injured from shards while playing the game. In 2004 a headmaster bought goggles for pupils to wear while playing the game.[5][7] This in turn prompted DJs on BBC Radio 1 to start their own Radio 1 Conker Championships.[citation needed] The TV programme Top Gear later staged a game of conkers using caravans (travel trailers) suspended from cranes.[8] After putting on safety goggles, presenter James May commented "I now feel perfectly happy about being hit in the face by a caravan." Top Gear, along with other media commentators, mistakenly stated that the wearing of goggles during the game was due to an official Health and Safety Executive (HSE) edict when it was in fact an initiative which the schools themselves had put in place independently. In response to such concerns, the HSE stated that the goggles requirement was a myth,[9] and sponsored a Conkers tournament.[10]

In 2004, several schools banned conkers due to fear of causing anaphylactic shock in pupils with nut allergies. Health advisers said that there were no known dangers from conkers for nut-allergy sufferers, although some may experience a mild rash through handling them.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Robert Hendrickson, Ladybugs, Tiger Lilies, and Wallflowers, New York: Prentice Hall, 1993, ISBN 067179910X, p. 47.
  2. ^ a b Alice Bertha Gomme, The traditional games of England, Scotland, and Ireland: with tunes, singing-rhymes, and methods of playing according to the variants extant and recorded in different parts of the Kingdom, A Dictionary of British folk-lore 1, London: Nutt, 1894-98, p. 71 refers to Conkers as "the same game as Cogger" and states that it is more generally known as "playin at sneel-shells".
  3. ^ Monograph on Hymenaea courbaril (Spanish), p. 1
  4. ^ a b Iona and Peter Opie, Children's Games in Street and Playground: Chasing, catching, seeking, hunting, racing, duelling, exerting, daring, guessing, acting, pretending, Oxford: Clarendon, 1969, p. 232.
  5. ^ a b "Action to tackle conkers cheats", BBC News 8 October 2005. Accessed 2009-03-18
  6. ^
  7. ^ BBC News: Pupils wear goggles for conkers 4 October 2004 (Accessed 2009-03-18)
  8. ^ "Van conkers". Top Gear. Retrieved 2008-11-19. 
  9. ^ "Myth: Kids must wear goggles to play conkers". Health and Safety Executive. Retrieved 2008-10-27. 
  10. ^ "Conkers get safety group backing". BBC News. 2008-09-26. Retrieved 2008-10-27. 
  11. ^ BBC News: School bans 'nut allergy' conkers (7 October 2009) (Accessed 2009-03-18)

External links

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