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What is the Game of Jackstraws?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 March 2014
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Jackstraws is a game which is closely related to pick up sticks. Instead of sticks, however, jackstraws is played with small wooden pieces carved into various shapes. The carved pieces make jackstraws much more challenging than pick up sticks, as it is difficult to remove pieces without catching them on others. Stores which specialize in games sometimes sell jackstraw sets along with other old-fashioned games, and it is also possible to make your own set.

Pick up sticks is an ancient game; various versions of it are depicted in ancient works of art and writing, suggesting that multiple cultures developed essentially the same game independently. For those not familiar with the rules of pick up sticks, the game involves a cluster of sticks or straws which are dropped onto a flat surface. Players must remove individual sticks without disturbing the others, demonstrating considerably steady hands and good coordination.

If a player does disturb a stick as she or he moves, the turn is over, and play passes to the next player. Some players use this rule as a point of strategy, distracting players as they move in the hopes of forcing them to disturb the pile of sticks, creating a new arrangement which may make it easier to extract pieces.

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Pick up sticks in turn was the foundation of a lot of other games, especially in China, where a game similar to pick up sticks was used for gambling, and another variant was used for divination. The precise origins of jackstraws are a bit unclear, but a version of the game appears to have become immensely popular in Victorian England, at which point it crossed the pond to the United States and became known as jackstraws.

The pieces in a jackstraw set are often thematically related, as for example in a set which includes farm implements like ladders, rakes, shovels, and hoes. Sometimes the pieces are carved more abstractly, with the goal being the creation of multiple jagged or confusing edges which make the game more challenging. When the jackstraws are dropped, the protruding edges of the pieces tend to lock together, making it very hard to lift out a single piece without disruption.

In addition to the jackstraws themselves, the game typically includes a helper piece with a hooked edge to help people grasp and manipulate pieces. Each piece in the game also has a point value, with more challenging pieces being worth more points at the end of the game. At the end of play, points are tallied up and the pieces can be thrown again or stored in a container for another use.

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