Playground games

Episode 50 of Reconcilable Differences reminded me of some of my playground games.

I got curious about what was typical and what was specialized, so I did what I usually do: research.

One game in particular sticks out in my memory: punchball.


After a search on Wikipedia, I quickly realized that my friends and I were not playing punchball, even though that’s what we all called it. I took a brief look at American handball and realized this wasn’t quite right either. Finally, I found a variation that seemed to match up: Chinese handball (despite the name, it originated and was/is played mostly in America).

Chinese handball (known in its 3-or-more-player forms as Ace-King-Queen, King(s), Down the River or Slugs), is a form of American handball popular on the streets of New York City, Philadelphia, and Bridgewater, New Jersey during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s and is still played today, mostly in New York City, Philadelphia, and San Diego.

I was in K–8th grades in the Los Angeles area during the ’90s, so the location and timeframe cited was a little unexpected. It could have migrated from San Diego though.

The description was really close to what we played:

The purpose of the game is to hit the ball (either a racquetball, or a spaldeen, kick pinkie, tennis ball or soft golf ball) in such a way that the opponent cannot return the shot before its second bounce after hitting the wall. In its simplest form two players can play for points. More players can play an elimination game or Ace-King-Queen.

But different

We used a much larger ball than what’s described. Instead of tennis/racquetball-sized, it was always a textured rubber dodgeball between 8 and 10 inches. I’m guessing this was because it’s what was around (we would play dodgeball during PE on rainy days). We didn’t know this was a “different” way to play.

Most of the descriptions of all the variations of handball mention hitting the ball with a closed fist as a special move. For us it was the exact opposite. This was probably because the size/type of the ball we used. I remember occasionally hitting the ball with an open hand when trying to slice or hit the ball very softly, but it would kill your wrist and palm to hit open-handed with that large of a ball.


A lot of the moves sounded familiar (baby shots, shotgun).

I don’t remember using a specific term for this but I was an expert and had the dirty shirt to prove it:

Watermelon: After a player hits the ball, the next player in line may duck under it and it counts as a shot. The ball must not touch the player.

As you can imagine, my parents weren’t big fans of that move.

One thing I didn’t see described was something we called black magic. You faked you were hitting the ball and swung your hand underneath the ball without touching it while yelling “black magic”. It’s an easier version of the watermelon move.

No idea where the name came from, but a lot of us were playing Magic: the Gathering back then.

Locally-sourced, artisanal games

As a kid, you assume the games you and your friends play are played by everyone everywhere. As an adult, you realize a lot of it was your neighborhood, your school, or, more often, your bunch of weirdos taking something more widespread and putting a spin on it.

There was probably a kid who had been yelled at one too many times about their dirty shirt that came up with black magic. That’s what play is and I’m thankful for that.

Note: This is for all the weirdos who grew up on that blacktop punchball court with me. Seriously, no babying.