Eton Fives: no Place For a Referee / by John Patrick Reynolds

The defining ethos of the game is a result of the fact that there is no place for a referee or umpire. 

There is no referee because only the players can tell if the ball has bounced twice, they have hit the ball cleanly, if they have been significantly baulked by another player or if they would have returned the ball if they hadn’t been. 

Players themselves have to admit foul shots, and have to decide for themselves if they are entitled to a let. 

Another reason why there is no role for a referee is that much of the play is hidden from spectators’ view.

As a result, the game encourages honesty with yourself and your opponents. Disputes have to be settled between the players on court. 

Even the highest level of the game is played without a referee. 

This is very significant – many games rely on a referee to call foul play so the players themselves are robbed of the need to be honest and can become inveterate cheats – see how football has become marred by players diving to win penalties. 

Fives therefore promotes conflict resolution – players are taught from the beginning that they have to see things from their opponents’ point of view, and to judge themselves from a neutral standpoint. 

The game requires courtesy; the need to help your opposition is built into the game. Each rally starts with the server throwing the ball up for his opponent to strike. The server must serve to the returner’s requirements. And yet it is very rarely a problem: servers learn to throw it to their opponents’ satisfaction. No other game has this peculiarity.

The game encourages a sense of humour and a philosophical attitude to failure: its irregular playing surface means even the most well-placed shot can fly out of court.