Skip to main content
Original Issue

Droll Scandal of the Boules Hustlers

The police made a raid—and all Gaul was united in amused pride to learn that a simple bowling game could inspire so ingenious a swindle, such refinements of corruption

The French newspapers called it the scandal of the Gang de la Pétanque, meaning the Boules Hustlers. A nice couple of francs changed hands before the victims hollered "flic" and arrests were made. The cases were disposed of in the criminal courts eventually, but outside the bistros, where pétanque is played for rounds of drinks and sometimes for money, they still wonder if there might not be more scandals where that one came from.

Pétanque is supposed to have originated in Marseille, and like bouillabaisse, another Marseille creation, it often has a pleasant fishiness about it. It is the favorite game of the French, though you would never guess this from their novels, a simple kind of outdoor bowling played in one variation or another—like the Italian boccie—all over Europe and in many of its cultural outposts, such as Bleecker Street in New York City. In France some five million people play it. The Fédération Fran√ßaise de Pétanque et Jeu Proven√ßal, the licensing agency for tournament play and the awarding of championships, has a paid-up membership of 200,000. Only cycling and soccer rival it in popularity. It is played by 5-year-olds and by octogenarians. It can be played on any terrain, and games go by the hour on quays in Cannes, Bordeaux streets, village squares and elegant city parks like the Bois de Boulogne.

The players, two or three to a team, try to get the metal balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball. The metal balls, slightly larger than a baseball, are called boules. The wooden ball, two inches in diameter, is called the bouchon, probably because it used to be made of cork, and sometimes the cochonnet, which means little pig and has some obscure folklorish origin. The bouchon is placed between 20 and 32 feet from the players, who must stand inside a circle traced on the ground with feet joined when they toss, throw or roll the ball. This position is known in the Proven√ßal language as peds tanquas, or "feet joined together," hence the name, pétanque. Points are scored by the nearness of the boules to the bouchon, and half the fun is in measuring. This is done by ruler, tape, trouser belt or tree branch, and a great volume of rhetoric, with most players convinced they are being robbed.

It was this dislike of being robbed, in a more literal sense, that broke the scandal of the Gang de la Pétanque. It all began, naturally, in Marseille, a permanent cradle of liberties of one sort or another. One morning a few summers ago the newspapers told of the arrest of a 15-man gang. They were accused of bilking scores of businessmen from Marseille to Nice on the Riviera of $140,000 in games of pétanque. For some time, so the papers said, Marseille police officials had been registering complaints from store owners, proprietors of building-trade companies and small businessmen claiming they had been victimized by hotshot pétanque players using loaded balls.

When the flics (police) made a dawn raid on the gang, they confiscated pétanque balls in their apartments and automobiles and tested them. When rolled on rails toward a bumper, an honest pétanque ball comes back to the starting point. A tampered ball, generally weighted with metallic filings, stops on the way. The confiscated balls passed the test. One suspected ball was sawed in half but turned out to be legitimate.

The investigating magistrate put together the scenario the gang had organized for suckers. One member of the gang would contact, say, the owner of a masonry firm and offer to put him in touch with an eccentric old millionaire who was interested in building a villa along the Mediterranean coast. Or a Proven√ßal poultry farmer would be told of an eccentric old millionaire interested in creating a chain of chicken farms in Corsica. The businessman, hooked, was then taken to some country inn where he found a rich old man playing pétanque with a gang crony. Because he was 75 years old, had poor eyesight and suffered from arthritis, the millionaire's opponent had made some concessions. The bouchon, or cochonnet, was thrown only six feet from the players instead of the regulation 20 to 32 feet. The elderly millionaire had four balls to toss, against three for his adversary. He had a four-point handicap in a game of 10 or 11 points, and friends picked up the balls from the ground so he wouldn't have to bend down. Despite all this, the old man lost every game, and his "secretary" took wads of 100-franc notes from a briefcase to pay the winner.

After losing half a dozen times the old man hurled the pétanque balls away, saying he would not play against the winner anymore. Sometimes the old man would then invite the victim (called a "pigeon") to play; sometimes the eager-beaver businessman himself suggested a game with the angry old man. The gang was too clever to urge the pigeon to bet, but asked whether he minded if they bet on him to beat the old man. The businessman naturally gave his aged opponent the same handicap of an extra ball and four points at a distance of six feet. The old man lost game after game before he quit. The bettors made fun of him, saying "You're not a man, vous √™tes une patate [literally, you're a potato]." Enraged, the old man said: "Afraid, am I? Well, I'll tell you what. I'll bet you everything in my secretary's briefcase against you!" And he put up anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000. Bettors said they did not have that much money in their pockets but would go home or to their bank to get it. Often the pigeon drove them there.

A big money game then began, and soon the pigeon was ahead eight points to four (the handicap) with only two to go to win. At this point the old man would say, "By the way, I've shown you my money, let's see yours." And it turned out the bettors lacked $1,000 or $2,000. Usually the delighted pigeon offered to supply the missing amount on the spot. Occasionally he required a little persuasion along these lines: "You want to get the old man to let you build his villa, don't you? Well, don't get him angry. Put in a couple of thousand dollars. You're way ahead," et cetera. Naturally, the old man suddenly began to play well—very well—and the pigeon found himself beaten 10-8 or 10-9. Incredulous, the pigeon often insisted on a return match and was, of course, plumed a second time. Some victims came back for third and even fourth games of pétanque. Such was a typical gang plot as revealed by the magistrate.

Now, the Frenchman who does not play pétanque watches it, and players and spectators ate up the front-page press accounts of how the pétanque gang operated. Everyone waited impatiently for the Marseille trial to begin. In the annals of French court trials few if any have been as hilarious as that of the pétanque gang. It went on for three days in the small courtroom in the Marseille Palais de Justice. French court reporters said it was superpagnol, referring to Writer Marcel Pagnol's colorful trilogy about Marseille. For Americans, the trial resembled Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin.

Justice with garlic

In the garlic-laden air defendants, lawyers, journalists and spectators pushed and shoved each other for seats on uncomfortable wooden benches. Reporters finally squatted on the steps of the judge's podium. One defendant, wearing dark glasses, was caught calmly sitting among 16 attorneys, instead of on the bench of the accused. There were not enough policemen to keep track of the shifty gang members, and they strolled out of the courtroom to smoke and hold impromptu press conferences in the corridors of the Palais de Justice. "This trial is a disgrace," they said indignantly to sympathetic little crowds. Inside the courtroom gesticulating, shouting spectators—all pétanque fans—acted like an antique chorus that had gotten out of hand. But the good-natured judge never once threatened to clear the courtroom.

Cries of "quel dommage" (what a pity) greeted Defense Attorney Paul Tramoni's announcement that chief defendant Baptistin Ivaldi, 75, who sometimes played the role of the eccentric old pétanque-playing millionaire, was in the hospital and too ill to appear in court. Judge Vincentelli agreed to try him later, separately. (Ivaldi really was an old man; the gang also used decoys, made up like character actors.)

To the 14 other defendants the judge read Ivaldi's signed statement on how the gang operated. Adolphe Bernasconi, Ivaldi's "secretary" with the briefcase full of banknotes, protested: "Sure, I sometimes carry a briefcase. What does that prove? There are always pigeons on a pétanque field. I was born on a pétanque field. It is true that I took a little advantage of the pigeons. But how can I live with the $400 old-age pension I get every year from the social security administration? I'm a father and a grandfather and have a hard time making two ends meet. So when I was $40 here and $80 there, it arranged things nicely for me. I've always seen people gamble at pétanque. There's nothing criminal in that. Besides, it was the pigeons themselves who begged to be allowed to play. You can tell a pigeon by his face."

Judge Vincentelli asked: "But why did the victims always lose?" Replied Bernasconi: "Alors ça! No doubt they were victims of their nervousness." And he added: "The old man looked like such a pushover that even police officers took him on."

Another defendant, jolly ex-Welter-weight Boxer Louis Ricci, now a film stunt man, said: "The game of pétanque, gentlemen, is joyful and pleasing. I love to play and I love to gamble—"

"Even in a dishonest manner?" the judge asked.

"Dishonest, dishonest, bah!" said Ricci. "In France there are the national lottery and horseracing. Aren't people robbed on horse tracks and in casinos?" Asked by his lawyer, Tramoni, if he had ever seen cheating in the game of pétanque, Ricci said, "Everyone cheats at pétanque. Even the plaintiffs did. I myself caught several of the 'victims' pushing their pétanque balls with their feet, and I said to them, 'Don't do that, it's not right.' "

Onto the witness stand came stuttering Antoine Ceccaldi, owner of a building-trades company and dealer in Corsican real estate. "All the plaintiffs insisted upon playing pétanque with the old man," he said. "They wanted to plume him."

The judge asked: "But weren't you surprised to find Ivaldi always playing pétanque when you arrived with a client?"

Ceccaldi answered: "Pé-pé-pé-tanque is Mon-mon-mon-sieur I-i-ivaldi's whole li-life."

When the lawyers attempted to cross-examine Ceccaldi, Judge Vincentelli exclaimed: "For pity's sake, don't interrupt him!"

Antoine's brother, Eugène Ceccaldi, admitted on the stand that he had introduced a plumber, an electrician and others to Ivaldi "in connection with an animal-breeding business in Corsica."

Asked a lawyer: "Breeding pigeons?"

Best-known and loved of the defendants was Emile Agaccio, national pétanque champion several times. "What's your occupation?" asked the judge. Agaccio answered: "I am a professor of pétanque."

"Was Ivaldi, the old man, a good pétanque player?" asked the judge.

"No, he was punk."

Question: "Weren't you, a champion, ashamed to play with a duffer?"

Answer: "I recognize now that I was wrong. But I did give him four points and an extra ball. I guess I could have given him two extra balls."

Question: "How does it happen that you bet small sums, never millions?"

Answer: "Because one is never sure to win in pétanque."

A defense lawyer interjected: "The plaintiffs should have been equally cautious."

Testifying in Agaccio's behalf was Louis Alterio, president of the pétanque federation. He said:

"Agaccio is a pétanque player of admirable conduct; he is a worthy representative of French pétanque in foreign competitions. He has hoisted the French tricolor high in international competition. I wish to salute him here." Thunderous applause.

Judge Vincentelli asked Defendant Maurice Donnat: "Didn't you find it curious that every time someone was brought to see the old man, Ivaldi was playing pétanque and losing money?" Replied the witness: "A simple coincidence, Monsieur le Président."

Defense attorneys introduced a fishmonger named François Corso, who claimed he defeated Ivaldi and won money from him. "I took, one look at the old man and I said to myself, he's not a pigeon, he's a dove! I've lost money in casinos and on horse tracks. For once I was a winner! And then the police arrest the old man. Me, I haven't got millions. If some people throw millions around, it's only right that others should profit from them."

Of two dozen pigeons asking damages, only 16 continued to press charges. The rest were afraid of public ridicule and figured they couldn't get the money back anyway.

Moan of a pigeon

One pigeon, Dominique Pascal, who is in the plumbing business, said: "They talked about a $40,000 plumbing contract. So I played pétanque and lost $4,000. Ceccaldi took me to a pizzeria to console me. But I wasn't hungry," he added wistfully.

But the high in naiveté was hit by a Marseille furniture store owner, Fran√ßois Massimelli. He fell for the line that an eccentric old millionaire film producer was looking for furniture to decorate Brigitte Bardot's villa. Defense Attorney Tramoni asked: "Did you really imagine that your merchandise was good enough for Brigitte Bardot?" "No," admitted Massimelli finally.

"That question was out of order," the judge ruled.

Massimelli pointed to defendant "Temp√™te" (Tempest) Voiron, sitting on the lawyers' bench, and identified him as the old man who had beaten him at pétanque. "I remember you," Massimelli said. "You were disguised as an old man. We had lunch together at the Ch√¢teau de Meyrargues. And you weren't able to eat the trout because you didn't have your false teeth."

Jumping to his feet, Voiron shouted: "I have never seen this gentleman and, as for eating trout, I should like to inform him that I eat only salt-water fish."

Finally, it was time for the plaintiffs' lawyers to plead. One attorney, Roger Malinconi, stated the case rather oddly: "There is no more likable misdemeanor than swindling, and the victims always have a completely idiotic appearance. Juridically this is an irrefutable case of. swindling. There are fraudulent maneuvers, people playing false roles, the enticement of an imaginary deal, the intervention of third parties to persuade the victims. Our clients were certainly 'pigeoned,' and we have had a lot of fun laughing at this comedy. But I ask that the guilty persons be punished. You will condemn them because this time they have tossed the cochonnet just a little too far."

Defense lawyers never denied the material facts or made any effort to whitewash the pétanqueurs morally. But Maitre Paul Tramoni argued in a defense as odd as the complaint: "No doubt there was deceit and trickery in this affair, but there was no swindling. Since the noble combat of David against Goliath there has always existed the element of uncertainty in sport. Even the great Agaccio has been beaten in a pétanque championship. You will not condemn these men at the demand of victims who were motivated by a desire for lucre."

Maître Christian Grisoli conceded handsomely: "The defendants are not saints, but who of us can pretend to be one? Everything that is not morally good is not necessarily legally condemnable."

Judge Vincentelli observed: "This game of pétanque is like marriage. Let him who can deceive another." The remark was quite heartening to the defendants, and after all the fun everybody had at the trial, defense attorneys and the man in the street freely predicted acquittal of the 14 defendants, or at least suspended sentences.

Three of the defendants did not even bother to show up to hear the verdict, given a week later. But Judge Vincentelli convicted all 14 of the misdemeanor of swindling. He sentenced them to a minimum of two months and a maximum of 18 months in prison. Four minor members of the pétanque gang got six-month suspended sentences. One got off with a 10-month suspended sentence. The judge also ordered the defendants to pay the plaintiffs $4,000 damages. Most of the defense lawyers considered the sentences severe. But one, a conventional type, said somewhat stuffily: "It proves that everything in Marseille is not a rigolade."

That is French for a big joke. Around the bistros, over the pastis, they disagree. They think it was not only a big joke, but rather a good one.