How to Calculate Your Bowling Handicap

How many free pins do you deserve in a bowling competition?

Computer in bowling alley
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The intent of a bowling handicap is to make leagues fair and competitive for everyone, from an absolute beginner to an expert. With a handicap, a less-talented bowler who achieves her or his average will defeat a better bowler who comes in under her or his own average.

Granted, top bowlers typically form their own leagues, often without handicaps, but in the event a highly talented bowler wants to join a league with less-talented friends, handicaps can come in handy.

The league secretary will calculate your handicap for you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t understand how a handicap is calculated.

How to Calculate Your Bowling Handicap

  1. Determine your average. In league bowling, a minimum of three games is required to establish an average, although 12 games are usually required to qualify for any sort of award or league accolade. To calculate your average, take the total number of pins and divide by the number of games. If you scored a total of 480 through three games, your average is 160 (480 divided by three).
  2. Determine the basis score. Ask your league secretary, as the basis score varies from one league to the next. Ideally, the basis score will be higher than the highest average in the league. A typical basis score for a recreational league might be 210. Many leagues will take a percentage, such as 90 percent. If you ask your league secretary what the basis score is, you might hear “90 percent of 210.”
  1. Subtract your average from the basis score. If your average is 160 and your basis score is 210, subtract 160 from 210. 210 - 160 = 50.
  2. Multiply by the percentage. Take 90 percent (or whatever percentage your league uses) of the difference between your average and the basis score. 50 x .9 = 45. Your handicap is 45.

    Tips

    1. Your handicap will fluctuate from week to week. The basis score won’t change, but your average might, which will also cause your handicap to change.
    2. Some leagues use 80 percent; others use 90 or 100 percent. Always remember to subtract your average from the basis score before multiplying by the percentage.

    The Case Against Handicaps

    Some bowlers contend handicaps are detrimental to the sport. They say letting anyone compete with anyone dilutes the perception of how good the best really are and gives a false impression of accessibility to the sport.

    That's a bit of a harsh explanation to the furthest extent opponents of handicaps take their vitriol, but one very real drawback to handicaps is the element of sandbagging.

    In leagues or tournaments that use handicaps, it's far easier for players to sandbag their way into undeserved winnings than it is in scratch leagues.

    You typically won't see handicaps employed at the highest levels of bowling, but even in a standard, recreational league, handicaps can lead to your team losing games and, if applicable, money.

    Let's say there's a bowler in your league who legitimately averages 200. For the first several weeks of league play, he can't seem to average anything higher than 180.

    Then, when the games get more important (that is, there's more money on the line, or the championship qualifying weeks are coming up, or whatever else may be important in your league), the guy can't seem to shoot below 220. He has approximately an extra 20 pins of handicap and is shooting 220s, meaning his opponent needs to somehow beat 240 to win, which is not easy to do, especially in recreational leagues.

    Don't be that guy.