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How Do Bowling Scores Work?

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

With the introduction of the automatic scoring machine in 1976, keeping track of the score was at the back of our minds. However, it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of how the scores work, especially when you want to calculate the numbers of pins you need to hit to beat your opponent. Additionally, if the computers were to randomly break down, understanding how scores work would prove a very useful skill. Overall, while the scoring system may seem complicated, it is easy to wrap your head around once you break everything down.

Short Summary: The more pins you knock down, the more points. There are 10 frames, each giving you 2 chances to bowl. You earn extra points if you hit a strike (X) and spare (/). When you hit a strike, you score 10 points plus the amount of pins you knock down in the entire next frame. With spares, you get 10 points + the amount of pins for the 1st attempt of the next frame.

First of all, what is meant by a 'game of bowling'. Well, a 'game of bowling' consists of 10 frames with 2 chances of bowling in each frame. In a frame, the 1st bowl is located at the top left portion while the 2nd bowl is the top right in the box. Sometimes, you might get a strike which ends the frame, meaning you only get one chance to bowl but this is a good thing! The 10th frame can get a little tricky. If you manage to knock down all the pins with those 2 chances, you are given a 3rd chance to bowl, meaning you can potentially get a total 3 chances to bowl in the 10th frame. Regardless, In each frame, a point gets added to the scoreboard for every pin you knock down.

There are special scenarios where the player can get bonus points, by getting strikes and spares.


Strikes are typically symbolised by a capital 'X', and it gives you a chance of getting bonus points. This is why strikes are very important. A strike happens when you knock all the pins down in your first chance in a frame, and award you 10 points plus the number of pins you knock down in the next frame. For example, you get a strike in the 1st frame. In the 2nd frame you knock down 8 pins. For the 1st frame your score would be 18. If you get strikes for every frame, the scores would increase by 30 from the first frame in the order 30,60,90...all the way up to 300.

Consecutive strikes are given special nicknames. If you get 2 strikes in a row, that is called a 'double'. 3 strikes in a row is called a 'turkey'. The term turkey was believed to originate from the fact that early bowlers used to give actual turkeys to those who got 3 strikes in a row, although there are many other theories which try to explain this. Anything after a 'turkey' has the number in front of the word 'bagger'. For example, 4 consecutive strikes is called a '4-bagger', and 5 consecutive rows is called a '5-bagger'.


Spares are typically symbolised by a '/', and like the strike, gives you the opportunity to get bonus points. A spare happens when you do not hit every pin in the 1st bowl of a frame, but hit every remaining pin on your 2nd bowl. Getting a spare awards you with 10 points plus the number of pins you get on your 1st bowl of the next frame. For example, if you get a spare on the 1st frame, and then knock down 5 pins on your 1st bowl of the 2nd frame, you will get 15 points on your first frame.

In some special scenarios, hitting spares can be more difficult than hitting strikes. The infamous '7-10' split is one of these scenarios, where the player has knocked every pin except for the 7 and 10th pin in their first bowl, leaving a giant gap. Other notable spare splits include the 'Cincinnati Split (7-9 or 8-10)', 'Three-Wise-Men Split (5-7-10)' and the 'Christmas Three (2-7-10 or 3-7-10)'.

Other Symbols

During your games you may notice symbols other than the strike (X) and spare (/). But do not worry, they are not as complicated as they appear!

For instance, you may see the symbol '-' pop up. The '-' symbol simply means that no pins were knocked down on that attempt, otherwise known as the 'miss' symbol. I had this symbol pop up a lot in my beginner years!

You may also notice the 'F' symbol appear if you step too close on the slippery bits of the lane. This symbol means 'foul', similar to the long jump white line, and means you stepped over the boundary of the approach into the lane itself.

If you see an 'O' around a number that is, a number is circled, means that the pins are in the formation of a split. Alternatively, some places may use the symbol 'S' in front of the number. Splits happen when the foremost pin is knocked down and there exists a gap between at least one pin.

You may, rarely, see the symbol 'W' pop up. While it has gone out of use, this symbol was used to indicate whether or not the foremost pin was still standing in the event of an unofficial split. Don't worry about this symbol that much!

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