On a hot afternoon last week, the pétanque courts on the northwest corner of Bryant Park were all hushed concentration.
Gray-haired guys in cargo shorts crouched pensively while young, buttoned-down office workers held their lunchtime sandwiches in one hand and rolled steel balls, or boules, with the other.
"You either get hooked right away or you think it's one of the silliest games ever invented," player Ernesto Santos, who's built more like a rugby player than a boules sharpshooter, says of the century-old French game.
"Pétanque is played in more than 70 countries around the world," says Santos. "The last place this sport hasn't conquered is the Americas," as in Latin America.
The 42-year-old Web developer and self-described Chino-Latino hopes to change that as president of La Boule New Yorkaise, a local club that, in association with Bryant Park, has for the past 10 years offered free lessons weekdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Similar to Italian boccie and Venezuelan bolas criollas, in pétanque a small wooden ball – the cochonnet, or "piglet" – is tossed onto a gravel court and players then aim and pitch boules to land as close as possible to the cochonnet for points.
In New York, the pétanque season runs from April to November, with a number of scheduled competitions, including this Sunday's Bastille Day celebration tournament on Brooklyn's Smith St., billed as the biggest in the U.S.
Santos was born in Havana and later moved to Hong Kong with his Chinese mom before settling in Sunnyside, Queens. He grew up playing neighborhood pickup games of basketball and boxball and didn't get turned onto pétanque until 2003, when a friend showed him the game in Washington Square Park.
Stephen Cano, 24, a film and theater audio engineer, says he was drawn to the game when he heard the steel balls clacking against one another. He learned the game over the July 4 weekend and has been back at the park every day since. He has already fallen in with the regulars.