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A definitive History of Balut in the Far East

Early Times

Considerable research has been undertaken in the past to establish the real roots of the game of Balut - one particular source dates the game to the time of the Roman Empire when Julius Caesar was heard to utter the immortal phrase 'Alea iacta est' or 'The die is cast'.

By the end of World War II a group of American GIs (no doubt descendants of the Romans) used to meet regularly in Tocloban at the Airport Hotel to play poker. One evening there were no cards available, so an enterprising GI located five dice and quickly established a new game known as 'poker dice'. This game spread like wildfire around the Far East and is still played in several permutations in Clubs and bars throughout the region and indeed the world.

Enter Balut

A couple of Danish businessmen who were stranded at the local airport hotel, which was owned by one Eddie Woolbright, saw the popularity of this game but realised it was not possible to play it properly with only two players. They therefore acquired a set of five dice from a group of nearby Mah-jongg players and started to play a new game. After several hours play - with the assistance of copious bottles of beer - they established the rules of a new game played with dice numbered from 1 to 6 rather than the number and picture dice used in poker dice which matched playing cards.

They had no idea what to call this game and decided to go for a walk to clear their heads, accompanied by Eddie. Whilst walking along a street they came across a street vendor selling a Filipino delicacy - an embryonic duck foetus still in the shell - that was advertised by the vendor calling out 'Balut! Balut!' Eddie and the two Danes looked at each other, smiled and shook hands, perceiving that they had found a name for their new game - Balut.

The Move to Cebu

Eddie Woolbright moved to Cebu City in the South Philippines in the fifties and introduced the game to the British Club where it was regularly played thereafter. A rule was established in the bar that any player throwing five of a kind in one throw had to swallow a Balut! This did not apparently impede its growing popularity amongst the drinking members who appreciated its aphrodisiac properties. This rule remains in force in many bars in the Philippines where Balut is played - chiefly by the bar girls.

Thence Singapore

Balut was brought to Singapore from Cebu by the late Captain Tony Church in the mid-sixties who introduced the game to the now defunct Jan’s Café in D’Almeida Street, off Raffles Place - where the Republic Tower now stands.

Commercial 'tuan besar' used to meet regularly there on Saturday mornings to discuss the week’s happenings, followed by the inevitable game of Balut to decide who would pay the morning’s contribution to Malayan Breweries! Singaporean Balut regulars will immediately recognise names like Clifton, Fulton, Thorburn, Church, Watson, Bonnichsen and Mole - of whom only the last three remain extant.

Singapore Town Club & others

These gentlemen and other like-minded players took the game to the Singapore Town Club in 1973, where it became the Club’s main activity. The Club’s Chairman, Ng Kian Fong, and Tony Church, proceeded to create and publish the current STC rules of Balut in 1978.

Between 1974 and 1977, Balut rapidly became popular in other Singapore Clubs, notable the Singapore Cricket Club and the Singapore Recreation Club. The SCC was the first club in Singapore to form a special Balut section - an initiative of certain stalwarts in the (old) Men’s Bar. Somewhat later, and not to be outdone, sections started in The Tanglin Club, the British Club (Singapore) and the National University of Singapore Society.

Further Abroad

Emissaries from these Clubs then spread the game during the late seventies and eighties to Kota Kinabalu (Kinabalu Yacht Club), Hong King (Kowloon Bowling Green Club), Kuching (the Sarawak Club) and Brunei Darussalam (The Royal Brunei Yacht Club). The game also found its way to Australia (Perth and Darwin), Spain (Majorca) and to Peninsular Malaysia (Johor and Negari Sembilan) and, in 2007, to Thailand (The British Club Bangkok). All of these have participated at one time or another in the STC Interport Competition which was started in 1981 and has been played every year since in Hong Kong, Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and this year in Thailand.

Top Scorers

The highest score achieved at Jan’s Café was in 1973 by Kristian Bonnichsen with a total of 166, a record that stood until 1982 when the late former SCC President Len Foster scored a record 169 in the Men’s Bar. This score remains the highest individual score in the world equalled only once, on 10th October 2007, by Simon Davies in the Churchill Bar of The British Club Bangkok - his scoresheet signed by all players and witnesses is on display for all to see.

And The Danes?

Meanwhile the two Danish businessmen mentioned above eventually moved to Bangkok and introduced the game there to the bar scene where it proved equally popular, especially amongst expatriate Scandinavians and other Europeans. The International Balut Federation with a branch in Bangkok was founded in 1972, followed by Singapore in 1975, after which the IBF grew tremendously and now has franchised branches worldwide and organizes a world championship every year in a different location.

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