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Sharks and Minnows is a simple pool game (think chlorine, not cue balls) for around 4 to 15 players, and a fond memory of summers gone by.

Setup

No equipment needed for this game, though playing the role of “shark” involves a lot of treading water, and so for long sessions or young or weak players, you may want to keep some flotation devices on hand for them to take advantage of. That aside, the only setup issues are the establishment of boundaries, done by group consensus before a session of play. The game area spans the width of the pool, and in our games at home, usually stretched from the deep end of the pool for 20 yards towards the shallow end. This area can be expanded or contracted to change the flow of the game, but it’s important that the whole “field” be deep enough to take a running dive into.

Rules

One person starts in the center of the pool. This is the shark. The remaining players (the minnows) are lined up along one of the sides of the pool. A shark calls “minnows come over” (or some similar phrase) to begin a round, and the minnows will attempt to cross to the other side of the pool before the shark can tag them. Any part of the body is fair game, although minnows are “safe” if they manage to touch the opposite wall. Minnows do not have to jump into the pool immediately when the call is sounded, indeed it can be good strategy not to, but if a shark manages to touch the wall, everyone still on it is considered “tagged” (this is why sharks must start the game at least as far back as the halfway point). A round ends when every minnow has either been tagged or has reached the opposite side. All tagged minnows become sharks in the next round, and this pattern continues until there are no minnows left, and the next game begins with the first minnow caught as the new shark. If this means that the same players keep starting off as sharks, a rotation may be instituted.

Optional rules allow for the establishment of “chains”, by which any minnow touching a minnow who is touching the wall (or who is touching a minnow who is touching the wall, etc.) is considered “safe”. We occasionally had a rule against taking running starts of more than a given length, but this was less a matter of strategy than of pacifying busybody lifeguards.

Strategy

Minnows
First, go where the sharks aren’t. When they’re by one end of the field, go to the other. Lure them to one side, then run to the other and dive in, while they have to fight water resistance to follow. Wait until they’re busy chasing another minnow, and won’t notice you or can’t switch targets. If there are multiple sharks, look for gaps in the “line”, or take your chances with the weakest swimmer.

Wear the sharks down. They have to tread water while you stand on deck or rest between rounds. Make them tire themselves out. Juke one way, then another, as mentioned above, to make them follow you. Go after the other minnows have left, and the sharks have spent their energy chasing them. Dive in as they’re coming up for breath. Wait the sharks out, make them approach the wall to force you, but before they tag it, jump over or past them.

Use depth to your advantage. Humans are buoyant, and aren’t very well built for swimming downwards. However, diving into the water allows gravity to accelerate you through the air, giving you a decent velocity to seek the bottom. Thus, one option is to attempt to go under the sharks and break for the opposite side. Or if they’re descending to meet you, push off the bottom and rise faster than they can climb.

Sharks
For the early part of a round, when there are only one or two sharks, the game is mostly reactive - get who you can (and as good swimmers as you can), and bide your time for the next round, with strategy becoming a more significant issue as the number of sharks grows. The early growth of the sharks’ ranks is less of a power swing than you’d otherwise think, as the players tagged early tend to be among the least talented and weakest swimmers.

Force them to the wall - try to get minnows between you and a boundary, limiting their options. You may also be able to do this with the pool floor, especially if you’re closer to the “safe” wall than they are, though in both cases you should watch out for clever minnows attempting to push off the wall/floor and evading you. Alternately, you may want to stick to a boundary or the “safe” wall yourself, pulling yourself along faster than you can swim and pushing off for an extra burst of speed. This use of “terrain” also means that the shallower ends of the field are easier to defend.

Spread out - if there are any undefended areas, the minnows will know it, and will exploit your vulnerability with all haste. Keep even coverage, and if possible, keep one or two sharks back along the safe wall where they can pick off the minnows that break through your blockade.

Alternately, double- (and triple-, and quadruple-) team them. If there’s a clever or skillful minnow you want on your side, get your teammates to concentrate on them. Ignore the other minnows, and spread your sharks for good coverage, keeping one or two back in case your mark breaks through or goes low. Starting next round he’ll pay for himself in minnows caught.

No one wants to be first, so minnows will tend to linger on the wall. Send one shark (usually a weak, “expendable” member, as he probably won’t accomplish much else this round) towards the wall to make them jump en masse, creating target-rich “fielder's choice” situations.

Of course, on either side, strategy can only get you so far, and there’s no substitute for speed and maneuverability. Older players and experienced swimmers who can hold their breath longer also have a significant advantage, extending the effective playable area in the third dimension.

Background

The origins of this game, as with many other folk and children's games, are unknown - many schoolmates from around the country and some from overseas report playing a game something like this, though it may go by other names, and the game is very similar to documented dry land games like "British Bulldog" and “Octopus”. This game is reportedly sometimes played, under the name “Fisherman”, with the alteration that all “sharks” would join hands to form a net, rather than attempting to catch minnows on a freelance basis. Also, some people have mentioned playing a different game by this same name, in which players would separate into groups and then when their group was chosen, attempt to swim by a blinded, solitary shark.

Growing up, this was a staple of our summertime repertoire, though as my old neighborhood friends grew up and moved away, games of this scale became impractical to mount, while subzero weather and the excessive serious-mindedness of the indoor pool staff have prevented me from trying to achieve a renaissance on campus. With perhaps an increase in the playing area, however, this game should remain workable and fun for players of any age.

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