Culture

The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Carrom

A favourite South Asian game that found worldwide renown — and enjoyed a renewed interest in the pandemic.

A favourite South Asian game that found worldwide renown — and enjoyed a renewed interest in the pandemic

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Among the checkerboards, Scrabble, chess and the Monopoly box that's missing pieces, there is one game in my family's collection that stands out among the rest — and it's not just because it's the size of a small table. I don't recall exactly when we got our wooden carrom board, but I instantly fell in love with the tabletop pastime. 

Carrom is a game of strategy, angles and dexterity — played with two or four players — which is popular among the South Asian diaspora. Francis D'Costa, 67, began playing in his hometown of Mumbai. After moving to Markham, Ont., he found a renewed passion for the game while he was recovering from surgery in 2011. The following year, D'Costa founded Carrom Canada — a group he says has now grown to more than 150 members and has competed in international tournaments.  

Carrom Canada initially focused on competitive play, but D'Costa was also planning to start teaching beginners. While the pandemic put his plans on hold, he shared some of his wisdom and top tips with me. 

Here's what you need to know to get started. 

History

The precise origins of carrom (also known as karam, kayrum and carum) are unconfirmed, though many reports indicate the game was created in India; some say it was played by maharajas. Carrom is also cited as a precursor to the Canadian game crokinole, which similarly requires players to aim and shoot disks across a typically wooden board.

Carrom rose in popularity in the subcontinent after the First World War, initially as an enjoyable pastime and soon as a competitive sport. By the late 1980s, the game was played around the world: elsewhere in Asia and in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, with international competitions launching too. 

In 2016, India's Allada Pavan and Shaik Husna Sameera set a Guinness World Record after playing a marathon game that lasted more than 34 hours, breaking a record previously set in Texas.

Carrom has had a resurgence in popularity; enthusiasts in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India have dusted off their old boards as a way of passing the time during the pandemic. Factories, some which still build and paint boards by hand, saw a surge in demand for carrom sets. The All India Carrom Federation even hosted the first-ever World Online Carrom Challenge, attracting players from the U.K., Switzerland, Canada and Sri Lanka.

What you need to know to get started 

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Carrom has been described as similar to billiards, but instead of multicoloured balls, each player is aiming to hit wooden (or sometimes plastic) coins, also known as carrommen, into one of four corner pockets. There are nine black coins, nine white coins and one red coin, which is the queen. The players or teams flip a coin to decide who goes first — the player who strikes first or "breaks" is assigned white. And both sides also hope to sink the queen at some point. 

Players hit the carrommen by flicking their striker, a slightly larger disk often made of a different material, like bone, ivory or metal. Strikers must be shot from within the parallel lines and red circles on the player's side. As per its name, the striker must be struck, not pushed, and there are a variety of techniques for this.

On their turn, each player attempts to use their striker to hit their carrommen into the pockets. Each time a player sinks one of their carrommen, they get to strike again. If they do not pocket a coin, their turn is over. 

The aim of the game is to sink all of your coins, whether black or white, before the other player or team. If a player sinks the queen, they must then sink one of their own pieces. This is called "covering" the queen. If the red coin is pocketed but not covered, it doesn't count, and the queen has to be placed back in the centre of the board. Once the queen has been covered, the player who clears the board of their tiles first wins. If the queen is not covered, the player's turn ends and the red coin is returned to the centre circle, once again up for grabs. 

If players commit a foul — such as pocketing their striker and no other pieces — there's a penalty, like putting one of their pocketed carrommen back on the board. For details on fouls, penalties and more, the All India Carrom Federation's regulations can be found here

Each carroman is worth one point, and the queen is typically worth three points (points a player can't claim after they reach 22 points). The player who pockets all of their carromen first wins the board and gains points based on the coins their opponent has left on the board. If the player who lost pocketed and covered the queen, it doesn't count toward their score. Games are played up to eight boards or 25 points, whichever comes first. For more details on scoring and how to play, see the All India Carrom Federation's website

What you need to have to get started 

Carrom boards can be purchased online or from South Asian or specialty sports stores such as Scarborough, Ont.'s Black Ash Sports. The essential components of carrom are a board, carrommen, strikers and powder.

The powder that often comes with carrom sets is for lightly dusting across the board so the pieces can easily glide across. (My family hadn't used our board in years, and the powder had become granular and didn't spread easily, which D'Costa told me can happen over time. An easy replacement is boric acid powder, which can be picked up at any drugstore.) 

Once you have all the materials, you can play games with two opposing players or two teams of two players each. For single players, the two players sit opposite each other. For doubles, teammates sit opposite each other. 

What you need to do to get started 

Before playing, ensure the board is properly powdered and the carrommen can glide easily across the surface. Once the board is prepared, place the queen on the centre circle and place the carrommen pieces tight around it, alternating black and white. This will create two layers of playing coins and a compact, flower-like pattern in the middle of the board. 

Decide which player or team strikes first, perhaps by flipping a coin, and then let the game begin. 

Tips for beginners 

  • How to strike. D'Costa recommends beginners try striking with their index finger, or an index finger-thumb combination, almost like a slingshot. "One finger is better because you're using less space on the board," he said. 

  • Keep your nails short. Striking technique is key to succeeding in carrom, and having long nails makes it harder to aim and hit the striker properly, explained D'Costa.

  • Don't get too comfy. Though carrom is a seated game, D'Costa said it's important to be able to move around easily. He recommended players perch at the edge of their chair so they can pivot and position themselves for different shots. 

  • Think about the physics. Like billiards, carrom is all about angles and force. D'Costa said it's helpful to think about each piece as a clock. For instance, to hit a piece straight, aim for the six. If a striker hits the five position on a carromman, it will be sent off on an angle. 

  • Try not to hit too hard. D'Costa said new players have a tendency to strike far too forcefully. (I definitely struggle with this.) A gentle touch, and lots of practice, can go a long way. 

Ishani Nath is a freelance entertainment and lifestyle journalist. She has appeared as a pop culture expert on CBC, CTV and Global News Radio and has bylines in Maclean's, Flare, Chatelaine and more. Follow her @ishaninath.

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