How Does Scoring Work in Bowling?

One might ask why, on a day full of incredibly exciting sporting events like the U.S. Open men’s semifinals and the second full Saturday of college football, I am sitting on the couch writing about bowling. Let me explain.

There is a great bowling alley about 20 blocks from my apartment. Unlike most of the bowling alleys in New York city, this alley has remained true to the bowling alleys of my youth. It is slightly tawdry, mostly empty, and absolutely comfortable. My birthday was a few weeks ago and I decided to invite a few friends to join me for an afternoon of bowling and general tomfoolery. It was great fun but I was frustrated by my lack of bowling skills. I told myself that I would return some day when I had nothing else to do and bowl by myself to see if I could improve my score. I did this the other day and bowled by far the best game I’ve ever bowled! I scored a 163! This made me realize that I didn’t really understand how scoring works in bowling. While watching tennis and football today, I did some research…

I’m not the only one who spends most of his time trying to find the perfect ball?

It feels like the hardest part of bowling is understanding the score but it doesn’t need to be so complicated! Scoring in bowling[1] is simpler than it seems. The point of the game is to roll the bowling ball down the lane and knock as many of the pins down as efficiently as possible. A game consists of ten standard frames. In each frame the bowler is given two chances (like downs in football) to knock the pins down. If the bowler knocks all the pins down his or her first attempt, the second attempt or ball in that frame is discarded. At the end of each frame, no matter what has happened, the pins are reset to start the next frame. In a standard game, if the bowler never is able to knock all of the pins down in a frame, the score of the game will be exactly the number of pins knocked down.

So far, so good; two pins knocked down equals two points scored. Here’s where things get a tiny bit tricky[2] Knocking down all of the pins in a frame earns the bowler more chances to bowl. If the bowler knocks all of the pins down in their first roll (a strike) they get two bonus chances. If the bowler knocks all ten pins down but it takes two attempts to do it (a spare) they get one bonus roll. Bonus rolls are taken right after they are earned. Here’s how it works for a strike:

Frame 1 || Ball 1 — 10 pins knocked down (strike!) || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2

And here’s how it works for a spare:

Frame 1 || Ball 1 — any number of pins knocked down less than 10 || Ball 2 — all the remaining pins knocked down for a total of 10 || Only Bonus Ball

The score for the frame in both scenarios is simply the total number of pins knocked down in the standard frame and the bonus balls. Another way to think about this is that knocking all the pins down in a frame means the score for that frame will be made up of three rolls instead of two. Note how this is true for strikes (one standard plus two bonus) and spares (two standard plus one bonus.) This concept is important because it means there’s really only one rule to learn, not two!

This seems to suggest that a perfect game (a score of 300) would be achieved by throwing 30 straight strikes. That’s not true. Actually it only requires 12 straight strikes. That magical shrinking effect is created by transposing one frame on the next within the standard ten frames. Instead of this pattern:

Frame 1 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2
Frame 2 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2
Frame 3 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2

Bowling follows this pattern:

Frame 1 || Strike || Bonus Ball 1 || Bonus Ball 2
Frame 2               || Strike            ||
Frame 3                                         || Strike 

The next roll after a strike counts as both the first bonus roll AND the first roll of the next frame. The second bonus roll after a strike will either be the second roll of the next frame OR the first roll of the one after that if the second frame is cut short by a strike. The single bonus roll after a spare is always the first roll of the next frame, regardless of the outcome of that roll.

If a bowler throws a strike in the last frame they are owed two bonus rolls but there is no standard next frame to overlap with. Instead the game reverts to how we originally explained it and the extra rolls are counted in the tenth frame regardless of their outcome. If there is a strike in the first bonus roll, the pins are reset before the second bonus roll.

Phew! There it is. There’s no multiplication, division, or subtraction[3] in bowling, just addition and one particularly tricky transposition.

Thanks for reading and if you’re ever in Queens, let’s bowl!

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. My Boston-proud girlfriend would want me to specify that this is Ten-Pin bowling and not any of the other regional variants of the game like Candle-Pin. For most of us, Ten-Pin is the only kind of bowling we know.
  2. If you know how bowling works, bear with me — I’m about to describe it in what I think is a very clever way… but which is going to seem wrong-ish initially to experienced bowlers.
  3. I hope!!

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