Five stones is a traditional game that was popular with children in the kampong days. Few may know about its ancient origins, and its popularity declined with the urbanisation of Singapore. However, it has seen a few revivals through the efforts of schools, community organisations and government agencies.
History and origins
The knuckle, wrist, or ankle bones of goats, sheep, and other animals have been used in games of five stones. Such objects have been found in prehistoric caves in Kiev, Ukraine, and pictures of the game are depicted on jars from ancient Greece.1
Five stones is also known by a variety of other names, including Jackstones, Chuckstones, Dibs, Dabs, Otadama, Tally, and Knucklebones. Jacks is a variant of five stones in which a ball is used.2 In Malaysia, the game is known as Batu Seremban.3
Instead of stones, the game can be played using five small triangular or pyramid-shaped cloth bags which are filled with either sand, rice or dried beans.4 It is a good gauge of one’s dexterity and hand-eye coordination.5
Five stones in Singapore
This used to be a popular game with kampong girls, who played with real stones.6
In the past decades, there were sporadic efforts to revive traditional games such as five stones. For instance, the National Museum of Singapore organised an exhibition titled Traditional Games in May 1979.7 In February 1982, the People’s Association organised traditional games such as five stones, capteh, marbles and gasing (top spinning) at 20 community centres across Singapore.8
To celebrate Singapore’s 25th birthday, the Singapore Armed Forces Reservists’ Association (SAFRA) and the Institute-Varsity-Polytechnic (IVP) Sports Council organised an island-wide treasure hunt called Time Trail in May 1990 to help younger Singaporeans learn more about Singapore’s history and cultural heritage. Five Stones was one of the games included in the trail.9
In February 1997, SingPost issued a new set of postage stamps that featured traditional games such as five stones, capteh, goli (marbles) and gasing.10
Former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was known to have played this game.11
Rules and method12
Number of participants: Two or more players. It can also be played as an individual game.
Equipment: Five small triangular cloth bags filled with seeds, rice or sand.
Playing surface: Usually on the floor.
Aim: Score as many points as possible by completing the most number of sets of eight steps.
How to play:
1. Players determine the order of play.
2. Each takes turn to play the game.
3. A player begins by throwing all five stones onto the ground. He throws a stone into the air, picks up a stone from the ground and then catches the first stone with the same hand. He continues picking up each stone in this manner until all five stones are in his hand.
4. Repeat Step 3 but the player picks up two stones each time.
5. Repeat Step 3 but the player picks up three stones the first time and one stone the second time or vice versa.
6. Repeat Step 3 but the player sweeps up all four stones at one go.
7. The player throws one stone into the air, places the other four on the ground and catches the falling stone before it lands. He throws the stone up again and sweeps up the others on the ground, and catches the stone.
8. He throws all five stones onto the ground and picks up two. Then, he throws one stone into the air and exchanges the other with one on the ground (note that for this action, a player uses only one hand). He continues to do this to the remaining stones on the ground.
9. After the exchange is completed, the two stones held in one hand are thrown up. The player picks up a stone with the same hand and catches the two falling stones separately in each hand. He continues to do this until there are three stones in one hand and two stones in the other. The remaining two stones are then thrown up and caught separately in each hand again. He throws the last stone up and catches it with the other hand.
10. The player throws all five stones onto the ground. The opponent selects the stone to be thrown into the air. The player throws the selected stone and sweeps up the others on the ground and then catches the falling stone. When all these steps are completed, the player scores a point and starts from Step 3 again.
11. The player stops playing when:
a. The stone, which is thrown into the air, is not caught in time.
b. He touches or moves stones apart from those he has picked up.
12. When it comes to his turn again, the player begins from the step where the mistake was made.
The winner is the one who completes the set of eight steps the most number of times.
Bonny Tan and Damien Wang
1. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Jacks. Retrieved 2019, October 11 from Encyclopaedia Britannica website: https://www.britannica.com/topic/jacks
2. Masters Games. (2012). The rules of fivestones and jacks. Retrieved 29 April, 2016, from Masters Traditional Games website: http://www.mastersgames.com/rules/jacks-rules.htm
3. Foo, N. (2014, March 29). Top 10 games people used to play. The Star. Retrieved April 29, 2016, from The Star Online website: http://www.thestar.com.my/news/community/2014/03/29/top-10-games-people-used-to-play-before-the-advent-of-mobile-devices-and-apps-children-were-enterta/
4. National Archives of Singapore. (2015, June 26). A girl playing five stones, 1950s. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
5. Foo, N. (2014, March 29). Top 10 games people used to play. The Star. Retrieved April 29, 2016, from The Star Online website: http://www.thestar.com.my/news/community/2014/03/29/top-10-games-people-used-to-play-before-the-advent-of-mobile-devices-and-apps-children-were-enterta/
6. Yen, F. (2006, October 17). Take FIVE! The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Sung, B. (1979, January 13). Museum to revive near extinct childhood games. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. 600 enjoy playing traditional games. (1982, February 22). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Tang, W. Y. (1990, May 23). Treasure hunt into our past. The Straits Times, p. 10; Games in the Time Trail. (1990 May 23). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Traditional games stamped for posterity. (1997, February 19). The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. PM played five stones. (1999, October 9). The Straits Times, p. 60. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Ministry of Education. (1998). Traditional games. Singapore: Curriculum Planning & Development Division, Ministry of Education, pp. 31–33. (Call no.: RQUIK 796 SIN)
The information in this article is valid as at October 2019 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.