How to Conquer Playing Conkers!

At this time of year, our local park is littered with conkers (otherwise known as horse chestnuts) – at times they are literally (and rather painfully!) raining down on us. Who can resist prising open spiky cases for that thrill of discovering shiny brown nuts inside? My kids certainly can’t, and so over the first month of autumn we tend to accumulate a big pile. And what better way to make use of this autumn bounty than through a smashing game of conkers? We love it so much, I had to share it with you. So read on to discover all the do’s and don’ts, rules and the cheats, hows and whys of playing conkers!

Horse chestnuts threaded on butchers string for playing conkers
How to conquer playing the traditional childhood game of Conkers!

A History of Conkers

While we don’t use all our horse chestnuts playing conkers, the classic game of conkers is a great way to carry on a childhood tradition that has been going strong in Britain since the 1800s – the first ever recorded game using horse chestnuts being held on the Isle of Wight in 1843, though it was played for hundreds of years before that using hazelnuts or snail shells instead of conkers. It’s a simple game that’s easy to play (if harder to win!), and where a good part of the fun is in the preparation.

Harvesting Horse Chestnuts (or Conkers)

Close up of conkers growing in spiky shells on a horse chestnut tree
Horse chestnuts ripe and ready to fall…

The first step is to locate a horse chestnut tree and find some conkers. They’ll start to fall around early September, but you’ll see the clusters of bright green shells much earlier so should be able to tell which trees will have a good harvest.

Don’t confuse them with sweet chestnuts, which come in shells completely covered in longer, needle-like spikes – horse chestnut shells have short and blunt spikes with big gaps between them. Sweet chestnuts are good for eating but bad for playing – the complete opposite of the horse chestnut, which is inedible but fantastic for playing with. ​

Girl finding horse chestnuts - holding handful of conkers
A handful of conkers means bags of fun!

Picking a Winner

Once they’ve got some conkers, it’s time to pick a potential winner. The World Conker Championship source over a thousand conkers for their annual tournament, and the requirements are for nuts 32mm-35mm in diameter, symmetrical, and with no flat sides. As a child, I found that while big conkers can look very impressive, small ones can be harder to hit – being a smaller target – and harder to break. ​

conkers scattered on table with hand drill and folding ruler
Going by the World Conker Championship rules means measuring your conkers first.

The most important thing is to make sure there are no cracks or holes, as conkers can be damaged when they fall from the tree. A great, and very scientific, way to find out which of their haul is the best is to get the kids to put their conkers in a bowl of water. Denser (and therefore likely to be stronger) conkers will sink, so those should be the best to use for playing conkers.

Girl dropping conker into bowl of water
Floating conkers in a bowl of water is a good way to test for strength.

Drilling and Threading Conkers

Before they can start playing conkers, their horse chestnuts must be threaded onto a piece of string or something like a shoelace (about 25cm – 30cm long). You can use a metal skewer or a small, sharp screwdriver to make the hole – a conker shell is fairly thin and pierces relatively easily.

bowl of conkers with hand drill, string and nutcracker.
Using the right tools makes boring holes in conkers easy!

This year I treated us to a great set of kids’ conker drills, which came with a mushroom-shaped nutcracker to hold the conker securely while you make the hole.

If you fancy picking these same ones up yourself, they’re available on Amazon (affiliate links):

Girl holding conker held in nutcracker ready for drilling
A nutcracker makes a great holder for conker drilling!

We found they make it much safer for the kids to make the hole themselves, and being able to do this adds immeasurably to the kids’ enjoyment of the whole process! I recommend wearing a gardening glove or similar on the hand holding the conker, to protect them against any slips (erm, yes, something we should – and usually would – have done…).

Girl drilling hole in conker using hand drill and nutcracker
Success! One conker, ready to thread.

​When drilling, go slow to avoid cracks that will weaken the shell. The hole needs to go completely through so that the string can be threaded and knotted at one end. ​

girl threading conker onto string
It takes great concentration and skill to thread a conker!

I often use butchers string, which is waxed, as it’s easy for the kids to thread. If you’re using regular string, you might want to wrap one end tightly with a bit of sticky tape to create a needle-style point. It’s also traditional to use a shoelace, but go for the thinner type to avoid needing a massive hole to thread it through.

girl displaying conker threaded onto string.
Kids get such satisfaction out of doing things themselves.

Playing Conkers: the Rules

​The object of the game is to break your opponents conker by hitting it with yours. One conker is held dangled (but steady) by its owner, so that the other player can swing their conker, with as much force and accuracy as they can manage, at this target. The players take turns doing this until one (or both!) of the conkers is destroyed. Pretty simple, but of course no sport is complete without being over-complicated by rules and scoring. There can be regional variations on this, so these are the generally agreed ones:

  1. Each player wraps the end of their string around their hand. The player whose conker will be the first to be ‘target’ dangles their conker for the ‘striker’ to hit
  2. Each player takes turns striking the other conker.
  3. If the striker makes the target swing up and over in a complete 360° arc (known as ‘around the world’), they get one extra strike.
  4. If the strings tangle, the first player to shout ‘strings’ gets the next strike
  5. Victory is declared when one conker is smashed (sometimes, in bitter irony, it’s the striker that falls apart, not the target…).
  6. Some insist that tampering with a conker to harden it artificially (for example, with varnish) or even using an old conker from a previous year (which will have hardened naturally) counts as cheating. Others say it’s a part of the game…
Children holding conkers on string
Holding the target conker steady!

Boy playing conkers poised to swing conker on string
Taking a big swing at the conker!

How to Cheat…

When it comes to cheating at playing conkers, there are several ways to go about it. My kids loved having a scientific enquiry into the best method but as two of them require the conkers to be left in a dark, dry spot for a year, the jury is still out on the results. In case you want to try to create that Ultimate Champion Unconquerable Conker yourself, there are a few ways to go about it.

Soaking in vinegar (some say a 50/50 mix of vinegar and warm water) is a one old method, while baking the conker at a low heat is another traditional method. We’ve not tested out another tradition of soaking in urine – one probably best left untested! For a more modern cheat, varnish, PVA glue or clear nail varnish are all recommended, though having a super-shiny conker can be a bit of a giveaway.

Boy playing conkers - holding horse chestnut threaded onto string.
Playing conkers is the quintessential autumn activity.

Scoring Conkers

Scoring is where playing conkers gets most complicated, as the player doesn’t get points for a win; instead the points go to the conker. After winning its first match, a conker gets the title ‘Oner’. If it beats a new conker in its second match, it becomes a ‘Twoer’. However, if that defeated conker is also a veteran of other matches (for example, if it is also a Oner), the winning conker gets all the points that conker has, plus an extra point for defeating it. A Oner defeating another Oner becomes a Threer. If it then defeated another Oner, it would become a Fiver. A Fiver defeating a Threer would become a Niner… and so on. This scoring system could only have been invented by small children, but it is great maths practice for the kids.​

A smashed conker and a whole conker on string
Smashed conkers are a sad but inevitable result of playing the game.

The Benefits of Playing Conkers

Playing conkers is a lot of fun and actually has a several developmental benefits for young children as well. It requires hand-eye coordination, fine motor control and muscle strength to drill into and thread the conkers, and then there is the coordination needed to aim and hit another conker. Losing at conkers can be tough for little ones – you lose the game and your conker in the same instant. That itself can be a valuable experience. Some kids revel in the destruction while others take such pride in the making and owning, or place such importance on the ‘win’, that the loss can be emotional – especially when the conker is a venerable veteran of several campaigns.

But having more conkers to hand can soften the blow considerably, and it can be a great way to develop analytical skills – why did that conker break? Were there cracks or holes already? Was the hole for the string too big? Did they do the sink/float test for hardness? What conker will they choose next? What can they try doing differently next time? Playing – and losing – at conkers actually helps kids experience and learn to cope with loss and losing in a less intense way, and encourage an attitude of perseverance, curiosity and determination when things don’t go their way. Also, as I said before, it’s so much fun!

Conkers threaded onto striped bakers twine or butchers string
Colour code their strings to avoid mix-ups…

More Things to Do With Conkers

While we do love playing conkers, there are lots of other things you can do with this shiny treasure, and I’ve picked a few of the best ideas to share with you over the course of the month, so make sure you save a few from being smashed, and come back shortly for some fantastic crafty fun! You can also head over to The Adventures of Meemoo and Pook, to read my guest post on how to make some ever-so cute conker creatures with the kids. While you’re there, be sure to check out the lovely Gemma and Sarah’s other fabulous ideas for autumn play.

Bag of conkers with a conker creature standing beside it.
When one is tired of conkers, one can make conker creatures instead…

More about Playing Conkers from Around the Web

Want more information and ideas for the game of conkers? We found lots of fun stuff on these other sites, all about playing conkers:

Canvas bag full of conkers lying at base of tree
So. Many. Conkers…

Looking for more fun things to make and do with the kids? Check out these great activities!

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How to conquer playing conkers
Playing the autumn game of conkers takes more skill than you might think.

2 Comments

  1. Ooh – have just ordered the tools as we have soooooo many conkers! Will be doing this tomorrow…

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