Introduction: How to Play Conkers.

Picture of How to Play Conkers.

Step 1: The Conker

Picture of The Conker

The "conker" is the fruit of the horse-chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum).  Not actually a chestnut (conkers are, in fact, slightly toxic), it has been an important commercial tree, with uses as broad as raw materials for explosives to providing deep shade to keep beer-gardens cool enough to make winter ice last longer.

The conker got its name from the game, rather than the other way round - before the horse-chestnut was introduced to Britain, the game was played with acorns or snail-shells (the word conker actually means "hard", and comes from the same root as the French conque, meaning "conch (shell)").

Step 2: Preparation.

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Preparing conkers for the game is very simple - drill a hole through the conker, then thread a knotted string through it.

Being a playground game, the drilling has been done with many tools, typically screwdrivers and found nails, and the string is often a shoelace.

The neater and rounder the hole, though, the less likely the conker is to split.  Use of a power drill is therefore recommended, as seen below, with #2 son helping me prepare for a Cub Pack contest.

The drill-bit used should match the string being used - thread the conker onto about 30-45cm (a foot to 18 inches) of string, then tie a good fat knot in the end of the string to stop the conker slipping off.

Shoelaces have an advantage, with a built-in threader (the aglet); you may have to resort to a large needle, awl or bent paperclip to thread the string through.

Step 3: Play

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The object of the game is to smash your opponent's conker, or, failing that, knock it off the string.

Decide who goes first any way you like - toss a coin, scissors-paper-rock, pistols at dawn - and then one player wraps the loose end of the string around one finger, and holds their conker out at arm's length.

They must hold it still, without swinging or swaying, and without flinching when their opponent takes a swing.

The other player then holds the string of their conker in one hand, briefly restrains the conker in the other, and swings as hard as he can to strike the hanging conker.

If the conker is struck, the conker-swinging player gets another go.

If the conker is missed, the players swap over - the hanging-conker-player becomes the conker-swinging-player, and vice versa.

This continues until one conker breaks or comes off the string.

Step 4: The Finer Points

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The rules of the game vary playground-by-playground.  These are the rules that I followed decades ago:


If the swinging conker just brushes the hanging conker, the attacking player must shout tips before the defending player shouts miss.

If there is a dispute about who shouted first, the bystanders must decide.  If there are no bystanders, it is usually sorted by a lot of shouting, stamping and the occasional fist.


If the two conker-strings tangle, the first player to shout strings gets the next swing.


It is possible for a conker to come off its string, otherwise unharmed, and fall to the floor.  The attacking player shouts stampsies, and attempts to flatten the conker underfoot before the defender can rescue it.  This rule has caused countless barked and bent fingers over the years...


Occasionally, a player may lose their grip of the end of the string, and the conker, with string, will go sailing across the playground, potentially quite some way.  If this happens, somebody, somewhere, will shout scramble, and everybody will try and grab the conker.  Whoever gets it first will win ownership of the conker, but not the string (especially if it is a shoelace - the lace owner needs it to walk home).

Step 5: Scoring.

Picture of Scoring.

Play continues until one conker becomes too damaged to continue.  This could just as easily be the attacking conker as the defender.

The other conker then gains a point.  That's the conker gains a point, not the conker's user.

When a conker breaks its first opponent, it becomes a one-er or a once-er.  When it breaks a second conker, it becomes a twicer or two-er.  Three wins makes it a three-er, then four-er, fiver and the traditionally-significant sixer.

Scores are cumulative as well - if a twicer bets a sixer, it becomes a niner (it's own two, plus the other conker's six, plus one for this win).  It is thus possible for a relatively few matches to turn a reasonably successful conker into the near-mythological ninety-niner.

Because the points are retained by the conker, not its user, successful conkers can become valuable commodities in the traditional playground, trading for sweets, comics and favours.

Step 6: Cheating.

Picture of Cheating.

As with any game with a long tradition, conkers has an almost-equally-long tradition of cheating.

Officially, anybody caught cheating is frowned upon, even shunned, but a successful cheat is almost as lauded as a successful player.

Cheats include; using last year's conker (a laggie), brief baking, time on a hot radiator, pickling, soaking and drying and coating with varnish (fresh conkers are shiny, and kept so by constant polishing in small boys' pockets during lessons).

In my day, rumours abounded of conkers made utterly indestructable by injecting some sort of glue into the conker, to fill the space between skin and flesh with a stone-hard inner armour.  No such conker was ever found, but the rumours returned every year.

Fears of cheating have meant that official championships usually ban players from bringing their own conkers, which upsets traditionalists.

Step 7: Sustainability

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The conker is the horse chestnut's future - every drilled conker is a lost seedling.

On top of that, around half the UK's horse chestnut population is suffering from parasitic and bacterial infections like leaf-miners and "bleeding canker".

So, to play conkers with a clear conscience, don't take all the conkers you see on the ground.  Instead, kick a few away from the tree, out of its shade, and gently step on them to press them into the ground, then kick some leaf-litter over them.

You could even take a few and propagate them at home - plant them in pots, in a normal (peat-free) potting compost, and leave them out in the garden to germinate.  You could bring them on in a greenhouse, or under a cloche, but make sure you don't let them dry out.  From the BBC...

Paul Bray asks...

What's the best way to grow a conker tree and an acorn tree, from a conker and an acorn, how long will it take and will they last? Thanks.

Bill replies...

I find the best method Paul is to plant your conker and acorn seeds in a peat and sharp grit sand mixture - in pots or a two inch sheet tray.  Cover the seeds with approximately one quarter to half an inch of peat and grit mixture.  The pots/seed trays can placed outside in the garden but you will need to cover them with a fine plastic mesh to keep mice at bay.  The time of year to plant your seeds is during the autumn when you have collected the seeds and they will start to germinate early spring time when they can be repeated into single pots.

When the seedlings seem tough enough, take them back where they came from, and plant them away from careless feet and out of deep shade, so that, in fifty or a hundred years, your descendants can continue to play conkers.


MikeKruft (author)2016-10-04

Great fun film.

astroboy907 (author)2012-09-25

Wow. I need to...

-Finish High school
-Go to college
-Marry someone
-move to England and have kids who will play conkers and have British accents.
-Move back to the U.S and spread the love

Thanks for writing this- ive heard the term conkers before (usually on top gear), and never really knew what it meant.

Never actually did this or many other games as a child. Mostly due to being homeschooled. I got quite good at "slapjack" and spoons though :D

btrog (author)astroboy9072014-09-03

lol top gear is where i first heard it to XD

astroboy907 (author)astroboy9072012-09-25

Oh, I actually went to Europe last year and picked up a few horse chestnuts... I think I still have them (dont tell customs!). Hehe.

kakmer (author)2012-11-04

In Ohio, these are known as buckeyes. We used to create something similar!

steampunkpotato (author)kakmer2014-06-07

yeah same in Illinois

Kiteman (author)kakmer2012-11-04


myboyzx4 (author)2012-09-16

this was cool I was just looking through when I found your conkers how too its funny but my boys were watching a childrens show "charlie and lola" and they mentioned the game conkers and I was curious as to how it was played thanks again

Kiteman (author)myboyzx42012-09-16

You're welcome!

clesiter (author)2011-10-28

Can these be found in australia

Kiteman (author)clesiter2011-10-28

If they are, they will be in temperate zones, and will have been deliberately planted by settlers.

See wikipedia.

Mutantflame (author)2011-08-18

A great instructable about perhaps one of my favourite games of all time! Five stars for you!

Kiteman (author)Mutantflame2011-08-18


d2j5 (author)2009-10-26

I have read that they are poisonous not just slighly toxic.

Kiteman (author)d2j52009-10-26

"Poisonous" implies fatality.

The skin of the nut contains toxins that cause vomiting, but the peeled nut used to be boiled, dried and ground into a flour.

d2j5 (author)Kiteman2009-11-04

aesculus hippocastanum several similar species,Aesculus and other buckeyes like the sweet buckeye a.octandra are all poisonus. all parts of the plant and nut contain a dangerous glycoside. nuts should not be eaten even after thorough soaking.

look for: Peterson field guides
Edible Wild Plants
eastern/central north america
by Lee Allen Peterson

a pretty usefull guide to have handy if you like those types of things but thats where i get the reason to belive they are poisonus. i got a copy at a borders book store for around $20.00.

Kiteman (author)d2j52009-11-04

I'll take your word for it.

They still used to eat the flour over here, though.

d2j5 (author)Kiteman2009-11-04

really? thats interesting what country are you from?

Kiteman (author)d2j52009-11-04

The UK.  I think the flour thing is old, though - medieval, even.

We used to make coffee out of acorns as well, but that was down to WWII shortages.

d2j5 (author)Kiteman2009-11-04

cool, can also make coffee from dryed dandylion roots, fritters from the unopen buds and salad from unsprayed leaves :D

hmm im not shure if the book i mentioned earlyer is avalable in the UK or not i but still consider looking for it.

Kiteman (author)d2j52009-11-04

I've tried dandelion coffee - it is foul!

d2j5 (author)Kiteman2009-11-04

eewwwouuuhh ill skip it then.

d2j5 (author)d2j52011-06-07

i know this is an old comment but it just kinda came to me....

one: i live in the U.S. and you live in the UK, so it is possible that the "horse chestnut" could be two different things. to me i know it as poison but to you it COULD be perfectly safe.

two: DANDYBLEND IS HORRIFIC (dandylion coffee)

-that is all.

Neon Panda (author)2011-03-23

I'm English, and have grown up in a small town in the north of England.
I can remember my grandmother teaching me all these things when I was really little :) great game- still haven't grown out of it lol!!

dungeon runner (author)2010-02-24

Huh, we never had a version of this in the US. Strange how one culture that evolved from the other can still be so different, even in the games their kids play on the playground. *Sips iced tea looking contemplative*

Nice instructable by the way!

Kiteman (author)dungeon runner2010-02-24

Thank you.

What games did you play? 

dungeon runner (author)Kiteman2010-02-24

I think I remember playing marbles, but to be honest, the games we played were a lot less organized than this (hey guys, whoever can run to the other side of the playground the fastest doesn't get punched in the face!)

I'm kidding, of course. Nobody ever got punched in the face :).

(We were some pretty creative kids)


You never played the classic game of "If you run faster than I throw this rock I won't hit you with it"? I belive I shall write an ible' about it. Victory will be mine!

Ah, classic fun for all the ages ;)...

AwajiMan (author)dungeon runner2010-02-25

What a fantastic instructable Kiteman! It really brought back a lot of memories of being an expat kid in London, down to the errant shouting/shoving matches.

In America, there isn't really an equivalent, given the lack of quality conkers lying about. The closest game in spirit would be pencil fighting, in which the defender holds his pencil between thumb and forefinger in both hands and the attacker flicks their pencil in an attempt to break the defending pencil in two - which was really just an excuse to not do homework.

dungeon runner (author)AwajiMan2010-02-25

I've never heard of pencil fighting, but that sounds like something I would do as a kid :).

Maybe that should be an 'ible.


Octarine (author)dungeon runner2010-04-12

Sure, we had it in Rhode Island.  We played it at the bus stop so it didn't matter whether the school banned it.  My knuckles are getting a chill as I think about it.  Our variation on "one-ers, two-ers, etc." was that a ten-er was a "kinger". 

big-jamie (author)2010-03-28

 i used to play conkers with my uncle a lot as he had a chestnut tree out his back door, great way to pass the time. Conkers also got banned at my primary school many years ago as too many kids were getting bloody knuckles and broken fingers lol.

greytown (author)2010-03-21

we all ways played bloody person would spin a quarter,if the other person stops it standing up they get to spin but if it falls when they try to stop it they get the quarter slammed into there nuckles

General_Zod (author)2010-02-25

OMG! I used to play this when i lived in Hamilton, Ontario. I thought we made that odd game up. Awesome to see it here!

usbfuse (author)2010-01-17

if u say its kind of a explosive but in a plant or tree usually are friendly but if this has raw explosives then u should of put this on becuase terrorist will put this stuff in their c4

Kiteman (author)usbfuse2010-01-18

No, conkers do not contain explosives, but they can be made into explosives.

C4 by itself is far more destructive.

Lithium Rain (author)Kiteman2010-01-18


Step number 4 on our tour of Instructables: our esteemed British friend explaining to a numpty that C4 is a more powerful explosive than conkers. 

No, it's not all that unusual, why do you ask?

Right, next up we have a real cultural experience - a duck into the K*nex Ghetto...not even the police admins go to this part of town...

Kiteman (author)Lithium Rain2010-01-18

In my next project, I will be demonstrating that cutting down horse chestnut trees causes a radical reduction in alcohol-related diseases...

IdahoDavid (author)2009-10-27

In the U.S. these are also called "buckeyes."

Aburame Shino (author)IdahoDavid2010-01-01

 I thought those game pieces looked familiar!

Kiteman (author)IdahoDavid2009-10-28

I saw that somewhere - they look like a deer's eyeball, apparently.

Redfrk (author)Kiteman2009-12-18

In Puerto Rico we have a similar game called "Gallitos" (fighting cocks).  We use the seeds from the Algarrobo tree (Hymenaea courbaril).  We drill a hole through the flat side and tie a string around it so that the "gallito" lays flat.  The defending "gallito" lays on the ground in an approx 6" diameter circle and the attacking one attempts to hit it.  All the other basic rules are the same.  This is a cool instructable that brought back some childhood memories.  It's awesome to see that even in cultures as different as British and Puerto Rican there can be such a similar game. Thanks!

Bunglebogs (author)2009-10-26

 I guess the rules vary greatly depending on where you grow up. In my neck of the woods (Nottingham) the rules were slightly different:
- Players took alternate turns, regardless of whether the last swing was a hit or not.
- "strings" was called "snags" and rather than just deciding whose turn it was the players would tug hard on their string in an attempt to pull their opponents conker off the string (or the string out of their hand), thus facilitating a "stampy" opportunity.
- conker scores were not cumulative. If a "sixer" beat a "niner" it just became a "sevener"!

But all the same, a great instructable - brings back great childhood memories!

Kiteman (author)Bunglebogs2009-10-26
As I said in step 4;
The rules of the game vary playground-by-playground.  These are the rules that I followed decades ago:
NickTyr (author)Kiteman2009-12-07

Nice to see some one bother to catalogue the games 'everybody knows the rules of' . the problem is that not everybody does know them, It is imporant that someone writes them down before there are so few people who DO know, that you lose half the rules or the finer points.

The call for 'strings' that I knew was 'tangles one, two, three. In Birmingham, both methods of scoring were used, which lead to considerable confusion! Also it was considered bad form to deliberately tangle the string and attempt to pull the other conker off. 

A player had won  when there was no conker remaining on his opponent's string, This meant that it was possible for a very damaged conker to win a fight, only to be completely destroyed on it's next hit. 

Any treatment such as holding conkers over from one year to the next, baking or pickling was considered legal, but injecting epoxy resin between the shell and kernel was a definite infringement of the rules, as was having an overlarge knot at the bottom of the conker. This was because you could use it to hit your opponent's conker, rather than letting your conker take the impact.

I had never heard of the 'Stampsies' rule, that would have been regarded as the worst form of cheating imaginable! Likewise 'Scrambles' was new to me.

There are loads of games I played as a kid that are dying a slow death now, partially due to schools being over cautious with health and safety, and partially due to the rise of  computer games, (don't get me wrong I LOVE computer games, I spend far too much time with them), but even when I was young there were games that were slowly dying out, Marbles are still out there, but who knows how to play 'Cat's Cradle' now ?

Kiteman (author)NickTyr2009-12-07

"...but who knows how to play 'Cat's Cradle' now ?"

In that case, consider yourself obligated to produce an Instructable!

circuitbreaker (author)2009-11-29

I do not think conkers grow anywhere near me, but I have a whole bin of slightly past there prime hazelnuts, would they work?

Kiteman (author)circuitbreaker2009-11-29

Worth a try!

circuitbreaker (author)Kiteman2009-11-30

I made a few last night, they worked fine!
It wasn't all that fun with 12 inch strings, because there were not many hits, but with 7 inch strings it is way more fun :-)

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