AskDefine | Define jackstraws

Dictionary Definition

jackstraws n : a game in which players try to pick each jackstraw (or spillikin) off of a pile without moving any of the others [syn: spillikins]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Plural of jackstraw

Extensive Definition

For the song "Pick Up Sticks" by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, see Time Out
Pick-up sticks (or pick-a-stick) is a game of physical and mental skill in which sticks have to be removed from a pile without disturbing the remaining ones. One root of the name "pick-up sticks" may be the line of a children's nursery rhyme, "...five, six, pick-up sticks!"
A few of the many variations/names:
The sticks are made out of ivory, bone, wood (walnut, cherry, oak, beech, ash, pine, bamboo, maple), straw, reed, rush, yarrow, or plastics.


A bundle of sticks is held in one hand with the bottoms of the sticks touching a flat table. A helper stick, usually black, is set aside to use as a tool. The sticks are then released, and fall in a pile. The first player chooses a stick and removes it by hand by lifting it, pressing down on the tapered end of a stick, or flicking it out with the helper stick. A turn ends if any other stick moves. The next player continues to extract sticks. The sticks may be worth differing numbers of points (based on color, shape, or other defining characteristics), each player trying to reach the highest total score possible.


Stick games are ancient and prevalent in all cultures. In India, the Buddha games list, which dates back to the time of Gautama Buddha (c. 563-483 BCE), mentions the game of pick-up sticks. In China, the sticks were used for divination, then later on as a gambling game. The game spread to Korea and Japan, and even to North America - the Haida Native Americans of British Columbia, and certain tribes in California (e.g., the Lenape). It's not clear if, how or when these Asian games were introduced to North America, though if they were not simply invented another time in America, it had to be very early, via the land bridge across the Bering Strait or by ship across the Pacific Ocean.
Herodotus wrote that he had seen in 450 BCE a game played by the Scythians that was also known by the Teutons as a play of oracle named "Zitterwackel" (jitter whobble) [doubtful claim: a modern German word in Herodotus??]. There is also a resemblance to the "casting of lots" mentioned in the Bible.
In China (and Japan), a similar oracle was known, based on the Book of Changes (I Ching, Yijing, eki divination). A handful of sticks is scattered to base the reading of destiny (also in respect to the calendar) called "Chien Tung" in which a stick is called an "emperor stick." This oracle practice was most common around the 12th century during the civil wars, when Zen Buddhist monks were advisors of the warlords.
In the 16th century, the Tsuchimikado house in Japan adapted the astrology and calendar sciences from China and possibly also the Chien Tung oracle. A dated term for the Japanese emperor is Mikado.
In the 17th century, the Jonchets (French) game is mentioned in references.
The Mikado pick-up sticks variant was brought from Europe (Hungary) in 1936 to the United States and became quite popular.

External links


  • Culin, Stewart; printed by the United States Government (1907). Games of North American Indians (rev. ed. 1975). Dover Publications. 867 pages. ISBN 0-486-23125-9.
  • Culin, Stewart; University of Pennsylvania (1895). Korean Games With Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan. (Ed. 1958/1960) Games of The Orient. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company. 177 pages. (orig. Ed. 1991) Korean Games With Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan. Dover Publications. 256 pages. ISBN 0-486-26593-5
  • Bell, Robert C.; Oxford University Press (1960 & 1969). 2 volumes. Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations (rev. ed. 1979). Dover Publications. 448 pages. ISBN 0-486-23855-5.
  • Glonneger, Erwin. Das Spiele-Buch. Drei Magier Verlag. ISBN 3-9806792-0-9
jackstraws in Spanish: Palitos chinos
jackstraws in Hebrew: דוקים
jackstraws in Polish: Bierki
jackstraws in Swedish: Plockepinn
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