THERE ARE THREE ways to determine if you're talking to a marble player: the telltale click-click of marbles coming from his pocket, the callus on the back of his thumb, and the dirt embedded on the knees of his pants. The marble yard literally loses several inches of dirt every year to the players' pants.

Rolley-Hole looks pretty easy to follow when you're standing outside the boards and all the guys are running you through the how-tos. The goal: for each team of two to go up and down the marble yard three times, landing their marbles in each hole while keeping their opponents from doing the same. It's not just about the shooting. It's about the strategy. Players can shoot, roll, toss, flick, or even tap their marble forward with the tip of their shoe. Hit an opponent's marble and you get to take a second shot. There aren't many rules to break. The first duo to take 12 holes in order wins. You just have to be careful that you don't go out too early, or your partner will be left to fend off the opposing team on his own.

"You coming up for the dog? He's getting his rover; he's ready to go out," says Biggerstaff as one player takes his last hole.

None of it, especially the game jargon, seems straightforward once you step onto the marble yard.

Almost all of the players favor white-flint marbles. For newcomers, figuring out which marble belongs to your teammate - and which belongs to your opponents - is harder than keeping your second cousin­ twice removed's identical twin babies straight. You just can't do it if you don't see them all the time. Even the regulars spend a fair bit of time asking, "Whose marble is that?" Shoot for the wrong marble and you could send your teammate sailing out of the marble yard. That is, if you can manage to shoot the thing in the first place, and shoot it straight.

"When we were kids, before learning to shoot, we would shoot it off the thumbnail and wear the nail to the quick and have to stop playing until it healed up," says Colonel Bowman (yes, that's his real first name). To keep your thumbnail out of harm's way, you have to use your thumb like a slingshot. Hold it back with your pinkie, middle, and ring fingers, and lean the marble against the back of your thumb, pointer finger lightly curled around it. "Lay it in there till it feels right," says Bowman, one of seven brothers who grew up playing. "You don't have to squeeze the marble." Once it's settled in, you slam it forward with your thumb knuckle. "That's your trigger finger right there," adds Bowman. "That's what throws the marble."

"If you can make the marble spin, it's like a bullet flying true," says Davis.

To make a straight shot, you have to line up your rump with the marble and your target. "Some people squat, some people kneel, some people get down on both knees," says Davis. But even then, no matter how much I tried to line up and put correct shooting technique to work, my shot usually fizzled or traveled an embarrassingly far distance (in the wrong direction). This isn't a game of muscle. A drop of extra power in a toss makes you feel like a fool. Luckily, newcomers don't get ribbed quite as much as the regulars. They'll even let some stuff slide.

But one thing they won't let slide: the opportunity to poke fun at the day-after pain first-time players endure. It isn't easy to get out of bed the day after a game. You constantly squat, stand, walk around, and squat back down again during a game. "Anybody who says, 'How can marbles be good exercise?' has never played Rolley-Hole," says Biggerstaff. Bad knees or a bad back can sideline a player permanently.