The Bowling Gutter

The Least Desirable Spot for Your Bowling Ball

A bowling lane surrounded by gutters.
Gutter to the left, gutter to the right.

In bowling, a gutter can refer to a couple different things, neither of which benefit you, the bowler:

  1. The trench on either side of a bowling lane that must be avoided for a ball to knock down any pins.
  2. A shot that lands in the gutter, also known as a gutter ball, resulting in a score of zero.

Score-Swallowing Semi-Circles

A bowling lane is 60 feet long (from the foul line to the head pin) and 39.5 boards (42 inches) wide. On each side of the lane, extending the entire length of the lane, is a trench large enough to collect a bowling ball. Because any ball that lands in the gutter (even if it bounces out and knocks down one or more pins) results in a score of zero, gutters are something bowlers try to avoid at all costs.

The moment a ball lands in the gutter, the score for that shot is guaranteed to be zero. On a fairly regular basis, a ball thrown in the gutter will bounce out and hit a pin (or more), but it still counts as a zero (this is called illegal pinfall). If such an instance happens on the first shot of a frame, the pins are reset before the second shot is thrown. If it happens on the second shot, the frame is over.

The Dreaded Gutter Ball

"Gutter" is also an abbreviation for "gutter ball," which is simply what a shot that lands in the gutter is called. Gutter balls are common among infrequent recreational bowlers, obviously, but they're not as rare as one might think in league competition, all the way up to competitive amateur bowling and even professional bowling. There have been some very famous gutter balls thrown in PBA Tour history, but they're too depressing to think about, so you can search for those yourself.

Throwing a gutter ball leads to the worst possible score for a shot (zero), and can even ruin an entire game for a bowler who doesn't have the state of mind to forget about it and try to reclaim a decent game. Because of this, it's important to realize a gutter ball, if on the first shot in a frame, can be converted into a spare (called a sprike or Jacob) and a good game can be salvaged. If you throw a gutter ball on the second shot in the frame, it's just one open frame. Yes, that hurts your score, but one time won't kill your game.

Bumper Bowling

The ominous presence and heinous function of gutters leads to the invention of bumper bowling, in which the gutters are blocked and throwing a gutter ball is almost impossible. Yes, almost - some people find some very creative ways to still manage to get the ball in the gutter.

Bumper bowling makes the game accessible to anyone without having to suffer the dejection that comes with a bunch of zeroes (or hash marks) up on the scoreboard. Serious bowlers, of course, shun bumpers and in many cases the bumpers could make it harder for these bowlers to succeed, but bumpers add a lot of fun to those who don't bowl very often and are just out to have some fun with their friends.

No matter the strategy, the point is to keep the ball out of the gutters, thereby avoiding gutter balls and piling up high scores.