Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight
by Clifford Geertz

The Raid
Early in April of 1958, my wife and I arrived, malarial and diffident,
in a Balinese village we intended, as anthropologists, to study. A
small place, about five hundred people, and relatively remote, it was
its own world. We were intruders, professional ones, and the villagers
dealt with us as Balinese seem always to deal with people not part of
their life who yet press themselves upon them: as though we were not
there. For them, and to a degree for ourselves, we were nonpersons,
specters, invisible men.

We moved into an extended family compound (that had been arranged
before through the provincial government) belonging to one of the four
major factions in village life. But except for our landlord and the village
chief, whose cousin and brother-in-law he was, everyone ignored us in
a way only a Balinese can do. As we wandered around, uncertain, wistful,
eager to please, people seemed to look right through us with a gaze
focused several yards behind us on some more actual stone or tree.
Almost nobody greeted us; but nobody scowled or said anything
unpleasant to us either, which would have been almost as satisfactory.
If we ventured to approach someone (something one is powerfully
inhibited from doing in such an atmosphere), he moved, negligently but
definitively, away. If, seated or leaning against a wall, we had him
trapped, he said nothing at all, or mumbled what for the Balinese is
the ultimate nonword-“yes.” The indifference, of course, was studied;
the villagers were watching every move we made and they had an enormous
amount of quite accurate information about who we were and what we were
going to be doing. But they acted as if we simply did not exist, which,
in fact, as this behavior was designed to inform us, we did not, or
anyway not yet.

My wife and I were still very much in the gust of wind stage, a most
frustrating, and even, as you soon begin to doubt whether you are
really real after all, unnerving one, when, ten days or so after our
arrival, a large cockfight was held in the public square to raise money
for a new school.

Now, a few special occasions aside, cockfights are illegal in Bali
under the Republic (as, for not altogether unrelated reasons, they were
under the Dutch), largely as a result of the pretensions to puritanism
radical nationalism tends to bring with it. The elite, which is not
itself so very puritan, worries about the poor, ignorant peasant
gambling all his money away, about what foreigners will think, about
the waste of time better devoted to building up the country. It sees
cockfighting as “primitive,” “backward,” “unprogressive,” and generally
unbecoming an ambitious nation. And, as with those other embarrassments
-opium smoking, begging, or uncovered breasts-it seeks, rather
unsystematically, to put a stop to it.

As a result, the fights are usually held in a secluded corner of a
village in semisecrecy, a fact which tends to slow the action a
little-not very much, but the Balinese do not care to have it slowed at
all. In this case, however, perhaps because they were raising money for
a school that the government was unable to give them, perhaps because
raids had been few recently, perhaps, as I gathered from subsequent
discussion, there was a notion that the necessary bribes had been paid,
they thought they could take a chance on the central square and draw a
larger and more enthusiastic crowd without attracting the attention of
the law.

They were wrong. In the midst of the third match, with hundreds of
people, including, still transparent, myself and my wife, fused into a
single body around the ring, a superorganism in the literal sense, a
truck full of policemen armed with machine guns roared up. Amid great
screeching cries of “pulisi! pulisi!” from the crowd, the policemen
jumped out, and, springing into the center of the ring, began to swing
their guns around like gangsters in a motion picture, though not going
so far as actually to fire them. The superorganism came instantly apart
as its components scattered in all directions. People raced down the
road, disappeared head first over walls, scrambled under platforms,
folded themselves behind wicker screens, scuttled up coconut trees.
Cocks armed with steel spurs sharp enough to cut off a finger or run a
hole through a foot were running wildly around. Everything was dust and

On the established anthropological principle, When in Rome, my wife and
I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that
the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street,
northward, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of
the ring. About half-way down another fugitive ducked suddenly into a
compound-his own, it turned out-and we, seeing nothing ahead of us but
rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano, followed him. As
the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had
apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table,
a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without
any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea,
and sought to compose ourselves.

A few moments later, one of the policemen marched importantly into the
yard, looking for the village chief. (The chief had not only been at
the fight, he had arranged it. When the truck drove up he ran to the
river, stripped off his sarong, and plunged in so he could say, when at
length they found him sitting there pouring water over his head, that
he had been away bathing when the whole affair had occurred and was
ignorant of it. They did not believe him and fined him three hundred
rupiah, which the village raised collectively.) Seeing my wife and I,
“White Men,” there in the yard, the policeman performed a classic
double take. When he found his voice again he asked, approximately,
what in the devil did we think we were doing there. Our host of five
minutes leaped instantly to our defense, producing an impassioned
description of who and what we were, so detailed and so accurate that
it was my turn, having barely communicated with a living human being
save my landlord and the village chief for more than a week, to be
astonished. We had a perfect right to be there, he said, looking the
Javanese upstart in the eye. We were American professors; the
government had cleared us; we were there to study culture; we were
going to write a book to tell Americans about Bali. And we had all been
there drinking tea and talking about cultural matters all afternoon and
did not know anything about any cockfight. Moreover, we had not seen
the village chief all day, he must have gone to town. The policeman
retreated in rather total disarray. And, after a decent interval,
bewildered but relieved to have survived and stayed out of jail, so did

The next morning the village was a completely different world for us.
Not only were we no longer invisible, we were suddenly the center of
all attention, the object of a great outpouring of warmth, interest,
and, most especially, amusement. Everyone in the village knew we had
fled like everyone else. They asked us about it again and again (I must
have told the story, small detail by small detail, fifty times by the
end of the day), gently, affectionately, but quite insistently teasing
us: “Why didn’t you just stand there and tell the police who you were?”
“Why didn’t you just say you were only watching and not betting?” “Were
you really afraid of those little guns?” As always, kinesthetically
minded and, even when fleeing for their lives (or, as happened eight
years later, surrendering them), the world’s most poised people, they
gleefully mimicked, also over and over again, our graceless style of
running and what they claimed were our panic-stricken facial
expressions. But above all, everyone was extremely pleased and even
more surprised that we had not simply “pulled out our papers” (they
knew about those too) and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status,
but had instead demonstrated our solidarity with what were now our
covillagers. (What we had actually demonstrated was our cowardice, but
there is fellowship in that too.) Even the Brahmana priest, an old,
grave, half-way-to-Heaven type who because of its associations with the
underworld would never be involved, even distantly, in a cockfight, and
was difficult to approach even to other Balinese, had us called into
his courtyard to ask us about what had happened, chuckling happily at
the sheer extraordinariness of it all.

In Bali, to be teased is to be accepted. It was the turning point so
far as our relationship to the community was concerned, and we were
quite literally “in.” The whole village opened up to us, probably more
than it ever would have otherwise (I might actually never have gotten
to that priest and our accidental host became one of my best
informants), and certainly very much faster. Getting caught, or almost
caught, in a vice raid is perhaps not a very generalizable recipe for
achieving that mysterious necessity of anthropological field work,
rapport, but for me it worked very well. It led to a sudden and
unusually complete acceptance into a society extremely difficult for
outsiders to penetrate. It gave me the kind of immediate, inside view
grasp of an aspect of “peasant mentality” that anthropologists not
fortunate enough to flee headlong with their subjects from armed
authorities normally do not get. And, perhaps most important of all,
for the other things might have come in other ways, it put me very
quickly on to a combination emotional explosion, status war, and
philosophical drama of central significance to the society whose inner
nature I desired to understand. By the time I left I had spent about as
much time looking into cockfights as into witchcraft, irrigation,
caste, or marriage.

Of Cocks and Men
As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf links, at a race
track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring.
For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it
is men.

To anyone who has been in Bali any length of time, the deep
psychological identification of Balinese men with their cocks is
unmistakable. The double entendre here is deliberate. It works in
exactly the same way in Balinese as it does in English, even to
producing the same tired jokes, strained puns, and uninventive
obscenities. Bateson and Mead have even suggested that, in line with
the Balinese conception of the body as a set of separately animated
parts, cocks are viewed as detachable, self-operating penises, ambulant
genitals with a life of their own. And while I do not have the kind of
unconscious material either to confirm or disconfirm this intriguing
notion, the fact that they are masculine symbols par excellence is
about as indubitable, and to the Balinese about as evident, as the fact
that water runs downhill.

The language of everyday moralism is shot through, on the male side of
it, with roosterish imagery. Sabung, the word for cock (and one which
appears in inscriptions as early as A.D. 922 ), is used metaphorically
to mean “hero,” “warrior,” “champion,” “man of parts,” “political
candidate,” “bachelor,” “dandy,” “lady-killer,” or “tough guy.” A
pompous man whose behavior presumes above his station is compared to a
tailless cock who struts about as though he had a large, spectacular
one. A desperate man who makes a last, irrational effort to extricate
himself from an impossible situation is likened to a dying cock who
makes one final lunge at his tormentor to drag him along to a common
destruction. A stingy man, who promises much, gives little, and
begrudges that is compared to a cock which, held by the tail, leaps at
another without in fact engaging him. A marriageable young man still
shy with the opposite sex or someone in a new job anxious to make a
good impression is called “a fighting cock caged for the first time.”
Court trials, wars, political contests, inheritance disputes, and
street arguments are all compared to cockfights. Even the very island
itself is perceived from its shape as a small, proud cock, poised, neck
extended, back taut, tail raised, in eternal challenge to large,
feckless, shapeless Java.

But the intimacy of men with their cocks is more than metaphorical.
Balinese men, or anyway a large majority of Balinese men, spend an
enormous amount of time with their favorites, grooming them, feeding
them, discussing them, trying them out against one another, or just
gazing at them with a mixture of rapt admiration and dreamy
self-absorption. Whenever you see a group of Balinese men squatting
idly in the council shed or along the road in their hips down,
shoulders forward, knees up fashion, half or more of them will have a
rooster in his hands, holding it between his thighs, bouncing it gently
up and down to strengthen its legs, ruffling its feathers with abstract
sensuality, pushing it out against a neighbor’s rooster to rouse its
spirit, withdrawing it toward his loins to calm it again Now and then,
to get a feel for another bird, a man will fiddle this way with someone
else’s cock for a while, but usually by moving around to squat in place
behind it, rather than just having it passed across to him as though it
were merely an animal.

In the houseyard, the high-walled enclosures where the people live,
fighting cocks are kept in wicker cages, moved frequently about so as
to maintain the optimum balance of sun and shade. They are fed a
special diet, which varies somewhat according to individual theories
but which is mostly maize, sifted for impurities with far more care
than it is when mere humans are going to eat it and offered to the
animal kernel by kernel. Red pepper is stuffed down their beaks and up
their anuses to give them spirit. They are bathed in the same
ceremonial preparation of tepid water, medicinal herbs, flowers, and
onions in which infants are bathed, and for a prize cock just about as
often. Their combs are cropped, their plumage dressed, their spurs
trimmed, their legs massaged, and they are inspected for flaws with the
squinted concentration of a diamond merchant. A man who has a passion
for cocks, an enthusiast in the literal sense of the term, can spend
most of his life with them, and even those, the overwhelming majority,
whose passion though intense has not entirely run away with them, can
and do spend what seems not only to an outsider, but also to themselves
an inordinate amount of time with them. “I am cock crazy,” my landlord,
a quite ordinary afficionado by Balinese standards, used to moan as he
went to move another cage, give another bath, or conduct another
feeding. “We’re all cock crazy.”

The madness has some less visible dimensions, however, because although
it is true that cocks are symbolic expressions or magnifications of
their owner’s self, the narcissistic male ego writ out in Aesopian
terms, they are also expressions- and rather more immediate ones-of
what the Balinese regard as the direct inversion, aesthetically,
morally, and metaphysically, of human status: animality.

The Balinese revulsion against any behavior as animal-like can hardly
be overstressed. Babies are not allowed to crawl for that reason.
Incest, though hardly approved, is a much less horrifying crime than
bestiality. (The appropriate punishment for the second is death by
drowning, for the first being forced to live like an animal.) Most
demons are represented-in sculpture, dance, ritual, myth-in some real
or fantastic animal form. The main puberty rite consists in filing the
child’s teeth so they will not look like animal fangs. Not only
defecation but eating is regarded as a disgusting, almost obscene
activity, to be conducted hurriedly and privately, because of its
association with animality. Even falling down or any form of clumsiness
is considered to be bad for these reasons. Aside from cocks and a few
domestic animals-oxen, ducks-of no emotional significance, the Balinese
are aversive to animals and treat their large number of dogs not merely
callously but with a phobic cruelty. In identifying with his cock, the
Balinese man is identifying not just with his ideal self, or even his
penis, but also, and at the same time, with what he most fears, hates,
and ambivalence being what it is, is fascinated by-The Powers of

The connection of cocks and cockfighting with such Powers, with the
animalistic demons that threaten constantly to invade the small,
cleared off space in which the Balinese have so carefully built their
lives and devour its inhabitants, is quite explicit. A cockfight, any
cockfight, is in the first instance a blood sacrifice offered, with the
appropriate chants and oblations, to the demons in order to pacify
their ravenous, cannibal hunger. No temple festival should be conducted
until one is made. (If it is omitted someone will inevitably fall into
a trance and command with the voice of an angered spirit that the
oversight be immediately corrected.) Collective responses to natural
evils-illness, crop failure, volcanic eruptions-almost always involve
them. And that famous holiday in Bali, The Day of Silence (Njepi), when
everyone sits silent and immobile all day long in order to avoid
contact with a sudden influx of demons chased momentarily out of hell,
is preceded the previous day by large-scale cockfights (in this case
legal) in almost every village on the island.

In the cockfight, man and beast, good and evil, ego and id, the
creative power of aroused masculinity and the destructive power of
loosened animality fuse in a bloody drama of hatred, cruelty, violence,
and death. It is little wonder that when, as is the invariable rule,
the owner of the winning cock takes the carcass of the loser- often
torn limb from limb by its enraged owner-home to eat, he does so with a
mixture of social embarrassment, moral satisfaction, aesthetic disgust,
and cannibal joy.

The Fight
Cockfights (tetadjen; sabungan ) are held in a ring about fifty feet
square. Usually they begin toward late afternoon and run three or four
hours until sunset. About nine or ten separate matches (sehet) comprise
a program. Each match is precisely like the others in general pattern:
there is no main match, no connection between individual matches, no
variation in their format, and each is arranged on a completely ad hoc
basis. After a fight has ended and the emotional debris is cleaned
away-the bets paid, the curses cursed, the carcasses possessed- seven,
eight, perhaps even a dozen men slip negligently into the ring with a
cock and seek to find there a logical opponent for it. This process,
which rarely takes less than ten minutes, and often a good deal longer,
is conducted in a very subdued, oblique, even dissembling manner Those
not immediately involved give it at best but disguised, sidelong
attention; those who, embarrassedly, are, attempt to pretend somehow
that the whole thing is not really happening.

A match made, the other hopefuls retire with the same deliberate
indifference, and the selected cocks have their spurs (tadji) affixed-
razor sharp, pointed steel swords, four or five inches long. This is a
delicate job which only a small proportion of men, a half-dozen or so
in most villages, know how to do properly. The man who attaches the
spurs also provides them, and if the rooster he assists wins its owner
awards him the spur-leg of the victim. The spurs are affixed by winding
a long length of string around the foot of the spur and the leg of the
cock. For reasons I shall come to, it is done somewhat differently from
case to case, and is an obsessively deliberate affair. The lore about
spurs is extensive-they are sharpened only at eclipses and the dark of
the moon, should be kept out of the sight of women, and so forth. And
they are handled, both in use and out, with the same curious
combination of fussiness and sensuality the Balinese direct toward
ritual objects generally.

The spurs affixed, the two cocks are placed by their handlers (who may
or may not be their owners) facing one another in the center of the
ring. A coconut pierced with a small hole is placed in a pail of water,
in which it takes about twenty-one seconds to sink, a period known as a
tjeng and marked at beginning and end by the beating of a slit gong.
During these twenty-one seconds the handlers (pengangkeb) are not
permitted to touch their roosters. If, as sometimes happens, the
animals have not fought during this time, they are picked up, fluffed,
pulled, prodded, and otherwise insulted, and put back in the center of
the ring and the process begins again. Sometimes they refuse to fight
at all, or one keeps running away, in which case they are imprisoned
together under a wicker cage, which usually gets them engaged.

Most of the time, in any case, the cocks fly almost immediately at one
another in a wing-beating, head-thrusting, leg-kicking explosion of
animal fury so pure, so absolute, and in its own way so beautiful, as
to be almost abstract, a Platonic concept of hate. Within moments one
or the other drives home a solid blow with his spur. The handler whose
cock has delivered the blow immediately picks it up so that it will not
get a return blow, for if he does not the match is likely to end in a
mutually mortal tie as the two birds wildly hack each other to pieces.
This is particularly true if, as often happens, the spur sticks in its
victim’s body, for then the aggressor is at the mercy of his wounded

With the birds again in the hands of their handlers, the coconut is now
sunk three times after which the cock which has landed the blow must be
set down to show that he is firm, a fact he demonstrates by wandering
idly around the rink for a coconut sink. The coconut is then sunk twice
more and the fight must recommence.

During this interval, slightly over two minutes, the handler of the
wounded cock has been working frantically over it, like a trainer
patching a mauled boxer between rounds, to get it in shape for a last,
desperate try for victory. He blows in its mouth, putting the whole
chicken head in his own mouth and sucking and blowing, fluffs it,
stuffs its wounds with various sorts of medicines, and generally tries
anything he can think of to arouse the last ounce of spirit which may
be hidden somewhere within it. By the time he is forced to put it back
down he is usually drenched in chicken blood, but, as in prize
fighting, a good handler is worth his weight in gold. Some of them can
virtually make the dead walk, at least long enough for the second and
final round.

In the climactic battle (if there is one; sometimes the wounded cock
simply expires in the handler’s hands or immediately as it is placed
down again), the cock who landed the first blow usually proceeds to
finish off his weakened opponent. But this is far from an inevitable
outcome, for if a cock can walk he can fight, and if he can fight, he
can kill, and what counts is which cock expires first. If the wounded
one can get a stab in and stagger on until the other drops, he is the
official winner, even if he himself topples over an instant later.

Surrounding all this melodrama – which the crowd packed tight around
the ring follows in near silence, moving their bodies in kinesthetic
sympathy with the movement of the animals, cheering their champions on
with wordless hand motions, shiftings of the shoulders, turnings of the
head, falling back en masse as the cock with the murderous spurs
careens toward one side of the ring (it is said that spectators
sometimes lose eyes and fingers from being too attentive), surging
forward again as they glance off toward another – is a vast body of
extraordinarily elaborate and precisely detailed rules.

These rules, together with the developed lore of cocks and cockfighting
which accompanies them, are written down in palm leaf manuscripts
(lontar; rontal) passed on from generation to generation as part of the
general legal and cultural tradition of the villages. At a fight, the
umpire (saja konong; djuru kembar) – the man who manages the coconut –
is in charge of their application and his authority is absolute. I have
never seen an umpire’s judgment questioned on any subject, even by the
more despondent losers, nor have I ever heard, even in private, a
charge of unfairness directed against one, or, for that matter,
complaints about umpires in general. Only exceptionally well-trusted,
solid, and, given the complexity of the code, knowledgeable citizens
perform this job, and in fact men will bring their cocks only to fights
presided over by such men. It is also the umpire to whom accusations of
cheating, which, though rare in the extreme, occasionally arise, are
referred; and it is he who in the not infrequent cases where the cocks
expire virtually together decides which (if either, for, though the
Balinese do not care for such an outcome, there can be ties) went
first. Likened to a judge, a king, a priest, and a policeman, he is all
of these, and under his assured direction the animal passion of the
fight proceeds within the civic certainty of the law. In the dozens of
cockfights I saw in Bali, I never once saw an altercation about rules.
Indeed, I never saw an open altercation, other than those between
cocks, at all.

This crosswise doubleness of an event which, taken as a fact of nature,
is rage untrammeled and, taken as a fact of culture, is form perfected,
defines the cockfight as a sociological entity. A cockfight is what,
searching for a name for something not vertebrate enough to be called a
group and not structureless enough to be called a crowd, Erving Goffman
has called a “focused gathering”-a set of persons engrossed in a common
flow of activity and relating to one another in terms of that flow.
Such gatherings meet and disperse; the participants in them fluctuate;
the activity that focuses them is discreet-a particulate process that
reoccurs rather than a continuous one that endures. They take their
form from the situation that evokes them, the floor on which they are
placed, as Goffman puts it; but it is a form, and an articulate one,
nonetheless. For the situation, the floor is itself created, in jury
deliberations, surgical operations, block meetings, sitins, cockfights,
by the cultural preoccupations-here, as we shall see, the celebration
of status rivalry-which not only specify the focus but, assembling
actors and arranging scenery, bring it actually into being.

In classical times (that is to say, prior to the Dutch invasion of
1908) when there were no bureaucrats around to improve popular
morality, the staging of a cockfight was an explicitly societal matter.
Bringing a cock to an important fight was, for an adult male, a
compulsory duty of citizenship; taxation of fights, which were usually
held on market day, was a major source of public revenue; patronage of
the art was a stated responsibility of princes; and the cock ring, or
wantilan, stood in the center of the village near those other monuments
of Balinese civility-the council house, the origin temple, the
marketplace, the signal tower, and the banyan tree. Today, a few
special occasions aside, the newer rectitude makes so open a statement
of the connection between the excitements of collective life and those
of blood sport impossible, but, less directly expressed, the connection
itself remains intimate and intact. To expose it, however, it is
necessary to turn to the aspect of cockfighting around which all the
others pivot, and through which they exercise their force, an aspect I
have thus far studiously ignored. I mean, of course, the gambling.

Odds and Even Money

The Balinese never do anything in a simple way that they can contrive
to do in a complicated one, and to this generalization cockfight
wagering is no exception.

In the first place, there are two sorts of bets, or toh. There is the
single axial bet in the center between the principals (toh ketengah),
and there is the cloud of peripheral ones around the ring between
members of the audience (toh kesasi ). The first is typically large;
the second typically small. The first is collective, involving
coalitions of bettors clustering around the owner; the second is
individual, man to man. The first is a matter of deliberate, very
quiet, almost furtive arrangement by the coalition members and the
umpire huddled like conspirators in the center of the ring; the second
is a matter of impulsive shouting, public offers, and public
acceptances by the excited throng around its edges. And most curiously,
and as we shall see most revealingly, where the first is always,
without exception, even money, the second, equally without exception,
is never such. What is a fair coin in the center is a biased one on the

The center bet is the official one, hedged in again with a webwork of
rules, and is made between the two cock owners, with the umpire as
overseer and public witness. This bet, which, as I say, is always
relatively and sometimes very large, is never raised simply by the
owner in whose name it is made, but by him together with four or five,
sometimes seven or eight, allies- kin, village mates, neighbors, close
friends. He may, if he is not especially well-to-do, not even be the
major contributor, though, if only to show that he is not involved in
any chicanery, he must be a significant one.

Of the fifty-seven matches for which I have exact and reliable data on
the center bet, the range is from fifteen ringgits to five hundred,
with a mean at eighty-five and with the distribution being rather
noticeably trimodal: small fights (15 ringgits either side of 35 )
accounting for about 45 per cent of the total number; medium ones (20
ringgits either side of 70) for about 25 per cent; and large (75
ringgits either side of 175) for about 20 per cent, with a few very
small and very large ones out at the extremes. In a society where the
normal daily wage of a manual laborer – a brickmaker, an ordinary
farmworker, a market porter – was about three ringgits a day, and
considering the fact that fights were held on the average about every
two-and a-half days in the immediate area I studied, this is clearly
serious gambling, even if the bets are pooled rather than individual

The side bets are, however, something else altogether. Rather than the
solemn, legalistic pactmaking of the center, wagering takes place
rather in the fashion in which the stock exchange used to work when it
was out on the curb. There is a fixed and known odds paradigm which
runs in a continuous series from ten-to-nine at the short end to
two-to-one on the long: 10-9, 9-8, 8-7, 7-6, 6-5, 5-4, 4-3, 3-2, 2-1.
The man who wants the underdog cock shouts the short-side number
indicating the odds he wants to be given. That is, if he shouts gasal,
“five,” he wants the underdog at five-to-four (or, for him,
four-to-five); if he shouts “four,” he wants it at four-to-three
(again, he putting up the “three”), if “nine” at nine-to-eight, and so
on. A man backing the favorite, and thus considering giving odds if he
can get them short enough, indicates the fact by crying out the
color-type of that cock – “brown,” “speckled,” or whatever.

Almost always odds calling starts off toward the the long end of the
range – five-to-four or four-to-three- and then moves toward the
shorter end with greater or less speed and to a greater and lesser
degree. Men crying “five” and finding themselves answered only with
cries of “brown” start crying “six.” If the change is made and partners
are still scarce, the procedure is repeated in a move to “seven,” and
so on. Occasionally, if the cocks are clearly mismatched, there may be
no upward movement at all, or even movement down the scale to
four-to-three, three-to-two, very, very rarely to two-to-one, a shift
which is accompanied by a declining number of bets as a shift upward is
accompanied by an increasing number. But the general pattern is for the
betting to move a shorter or longer distance up the scale toward the,
for sidebets, nonexistent pole of even money, with the overwhelming
majority of bets falling in the four-to-three to eight-to-seven range.

The higher the center bet, the more likely the match will in actual
fact be an even one. In a large-bet fight the pressure to make the
match a genuinely fifty-fifty proposition is enormous, and is
consciously felt as such. For medium fights the pressure is somewhat
less, and for small ones less yet, though there is always an effort to
make things at least approximately equal, for even at fifteen ringgits
(five days work) no one wants to make an even money bet in a clearly
unfavorable situation. And, again, what statistics I have tend to bear
this out. In my fifty-seven matches, the favorite won thirty-three
times over-all, the underdog twenty-four, a 1.4 to 1 ratio. But if one
splits the figures at sixty ringgits center bets, the ratios turn out
to be 1.1 to 1 (twelve favorites, eleven underdogs) for those above
this line, and 1.6 to 1 (twenty-one and thirteen) for those below it.
Or, if you take the extremes, for very large fights, those with center
bets over a hundred ringgits the ratio is 1 to 1 (seven and seven); for
very small fights, those under forty ringgits, it is 1.9 to 1 (nineteen
and ten).

The paradox of fair coin in the middle, biased coin on the outside is
thus a merely apparent one. The two betting systems, though formally
incongruent, are not really contradictory to one another, but part of a
single larger system in which the center bet is, so to speak, the
“center of gravity,” drawing, the larger it is the more so, the outside
bets toward the short-odds end of the scale. The center bet thus “makes
the game,” or perhaps better, defines it, signals what, following a
notion of Jeremy Bentham’s, I am going to call its “depth.”

The Balinese attempt to create an interesting, if you will, “deep,”
match by making the center bet as large as possible so that the cocks
matched will be as equal and as fine as possible, and the outcome,
thus, as unpredictable as possible. They do not always succeed. Nearly
half the matches are relatively trivial, relatively uninteresting-in my
borrowed terminology, “shallow”- affairs. But that fact no more argues
against my interpretation than the fact that most painters, poets, and
playwrights are mediocre argues against the view that artistic effort
is directed toward profundity and, with a certain frequency,
approximates it. The image of artistic technique is indeed exact: the
center bet is a means, a device, for creating “interesting,” “deep”
matches, not the reason, or at least not the main reason, why they are
interesting, the source of their fascination, the substance of their
depth. The question why such matches are interesting-indeed, for the
Balinese, exquisitely absorbing-takes us out of the realm of formal
concerns into more broadly sociological and social-psychological ones,
and to a less purely economic idea of what “depth” in gaming amounts

Bentham’s concept of “deep play” is found in his The Theory of
Legislation. By it he means play in which the stakes are so high that
it is, from his utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in
it at all.

This, I must stress immediately, is not to say that the money does not
matter, or that the Balinese is no more concerned about losing five
hundred ringgits than fifteen. Such a conclusion would be absurd. It is
because money does, in this hardly unmaterialistic society, matter and
matter very much that the more of it one risks the more of a lot of
other things, such as one’s pride, one’s poise, one’s dispassion, one’s
masculinity, one also risks, again only momentarily but again very
publicly as well. In deep cockfights an owner and his collaborators,
and, as we shall see, to a lesser but still quite real extent also
their backers on the outside, put their money where their status is.

It is in large part because the marginal disutility of loss is so great
at the higher levels of betting that to engage in such betting is to
lay one’s public self, allusively and metaphorically, through the
medium of one’s cock, on the line. And though to a Benthamite this
might seem merely to increase the irrationality of the enterprise that
much further, to the Balinese what it mainly increases is the
meaningfulness of it all. And as (to follow Weber rather than Bentham)
the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary
condition of human existence, that access of significance more than
compensates for the economic costs involved. Actually, given the
even-money quality of the larger matches, important changes in material
fortune among those who regularly participate in them seem virtually
nonexistent, because matters more or less even out over the long run.

This graduated correlation of “status gambling” with deeper fights and,
inversely, “money gambling” with shallower ones is in fact quite
general. Bettors themselves form a sociomoral hierarchy in these terms.
As noted earlier, at most cockfights there are, around the very edges
of the cockfight area, a large number of mindless, sheer-chance type
gambling games (roulette, dice throw, coin-spin, pea-under-the-shell)
operated by concessionaires. Only women, children, adolescents, and
various other sorts of people who do not (or not yet) fight cocks – the
extremely poor, the socially despised, the personally idiosyncratic –
play at these games, at, of course, penny ante levels. Cockfighting men
would be ashamed to go anywhere near them. Slightly above these people
in standing are those who, though they do not themselves fight cocks,
bet on the smaller matches around the edges. Next, there are those who
fight cocks in small, or occasionally medium matches, but have not the
status to join in the large ones, though they may bet from time to time
on the side in those. And finally, there are those, the really
substantial members of the community, the solid citizenry around whom
local life revolves, who fight in the larger fights and bet on them
around the side. The focusing element in these focused gatherings,
these men generally dominate and define the sport as they dominate and
define the society. When a Balinese male talks, in that almost
venerative way, about “the true cockfighter,” the bebatoh (“bettor” )
or djuru kurung (“cage keeper”), it is this sort of person, not those
who bring the mentality of the pea-and-shell game into the quite
different, inappropriate context of the cockfight, the driven gambler
(potet, a word which has the secondary meaning of thief or reprobate),
and the wistful hanger-on, that they mean. For such a man, what is
really going on in a match is something rather closer to an affaire
d’honneur (though, with the Balinese talent for practical fantasy, the
blood that is spilled is only figuratively human) than to the stupid,
mechanical crank of a slot machine (….Continued…)

What makes Balinese cockfighting deep is thus not money in itself, but
what, the more of it that is involved the more so, money causes to
happen: the migration of the Balinese status hierarchy into the body of
the cockfight. Psychologically an Aesopian representation of the
ideal/demonic, rather narcissistic, male self, sociologically it is an
equally Aesopian representation of the complex fields of tension set up
by the controlled, muted, ceremonial, but for all that deeply felt,
interaction of those selves in the context of everyday life. The cocks
may be surrogates for their owners’ personalities, animal mirrors of
psychic form, but the cockfight is – or more exactly, deliberately is
made to be – a simulation of the social matrix, the involved system of
crosscutting, overlapping, highly corporate groups –villages,
kingroups, irrigation societies, temple congregations, “castes” – in
which its devotees live. And as prestige, the necessity to affirm it,
defend it, celebrate it, justify it, and just plain bask in it (but not
given the strongly ascriptive character of Balinese stratification, to
seek it), is perhaps the central driving force in the society, so also
– ambulant penises, blood sacrifices, and monetary exchanges aside – is
it of the cockfight. This apparent amusement and seeming sport is, to
take another phrase from Erving Goffman, “a status bloodbath.”

The easiest way to make this clear, and at least to some degree to
demonstratee it, is to invoke the village whose cockfighting activities
I observed the closest – the one in which the raid occurred and from
which my statistical data are taken.

Consider, then, as support of the general thesis that the cockfight,
and especially the deep cockfight, is fundamentally a dramatization of
status concerns, the following facts:

1. A man virtually never bets against a cock owned by a member of
his own kingroup. Usually he will feel obliged to bet for it, the more
so the closer the kin tie and the deeper the fight. If he is certain in
his mind that it will not win, he may just not bet at all, particularly
if it is only a second cousin’s bird or if the fight is a shallow one.
But as a rule he will feel he must support it and, in deep games,
nearly always does. Thus the great majority of the people calling
“five” or “spes the great majority of the people calling”five” or
“speckled” so demonstratively are expressing their allegiance to their
kinsman, not their evaluation of his bird, their understanding of
probability theory, or even their hopes of unearned income.
2. This principle is extended logically. If your kin group is not
involved you will support an allied kingroup against an unallied one in
the same way, and so on through the very involved networks of alliances
which, as I say, make up this, as any other, Balinese village.
3. So, too, for the village as a whole. If an outsider cock is
fighting any cock from your village you will tend to support the local
one. If, what is a rarer circumstance but occurs every now and then, a
cock from outside your cockfight circuit is fighting one inside it you
will also tend to support the “home bird.”
4. Cocks which come from any distance are almost always favorites,
for the theory is the man would not have dared to bring it if it was
not a good cock, the more so the further he has come. His followers
are, of course, obliged to support him, and when the more grand-scale
legal cockfights are held (on holidays and so on) the people of the
village take what they regard to be the best cocks in the village,
regardless of ownership, and go off to support them, although they will
almost certainly have to give odds on them and to make large bets to
show that they are not a cheapskate village. Actually, such “away
games,” though infrequent, tend to mend the ruptures between village
members that the constantly occurring “home games,” where village
factions are opposed rather than united, exacerbate.
5. Almost all matches are sociologically relevant. You seldom get
two outsider cocks fighting, or two cocks with no particular group
backing, or with group backing which is mutually unrelated in any clear
way. When you do get them, the game is very shallow, betting very slow,
and the whole thing very dull, with no one save the immediate
principals and an addict gambler or two at all interested.
6. By the same token, you rarely get two cocks from the same group,
even more rarely from the same subfaction, and virtually never from the
same sub-subfaction (which would be in most cases one extended family)
fighting. Similarly, in outside village fights two members of the
village will rarely fight against one another, even though, as bitter
rivals, they would do so with enthusiasm on their home grounds.
7. On the individual level, people involved in an institutionalized
hostility relationship, called puik, in which they do not speak or
otherwise have anything to do with each other (the causes of this
formal breaking of relations are many: wife-capture, inheritance
arguments, political differences) will bet very heavily, sometimes
almost maniacally, against one another in what is a frank and direct
attack on the very masculinity, the ultimate ground of his status, of
the opponent.
8. The center bet coalition is, in all but the shallowest games,
always made up by structural allies – no “outside money” is involved.
What is “outside” depends upon the context, of course, but given it, no
outside money is mixed in with the main bet; if the principals cannot
raise it, it is not made. The center bet, again especially in deeper
games, is thus the most direct and open expression of social
opposition, which is one of the reasons why both it and match making
are surrounded by such an air of unease, furtiveness, embarrassment,
and so on.
9. The rule about borrowing money – that you may borrow for a bet
but not in one – stems (and the Balinese are quite conscious of this)
from similar considerations: you are never at the economic mercy of
your enemy that way. Gambling debts, which can get quite large on a
rather short-term basis, are always to friends, never to enemies,
structurally speaking.
10. When two cocks are structurally irrelevant or neutral so far as
you are concerned (though, as mentioned, they almost never are to each
other) you do not even ask a relative or a friend whom he is betting
on, because if you know how he is betting and he knows you know, and
you go the other way, it will lead to strain. This rule is explicit and
rigid; fairly elaborate, even rather artificial precautions are taken
to avoid breaking it. At the very least you must pretend not to notice
what he is doing, and he what you are doing.
11. There is a special word for betting against the grain, which is
also the word for “pardon me” (mpura). It is considered a bad thing to
do, though if the center bet is small it is sometimes all right as long
as you do not do it too often. But the larger the bet and the more
frequently you do it, the more the “pardon me” tack will lead to social
12. In fact, the institutionalized hostility relation, puik, is often
formally initiated (though its causes always lie elsewhere) by such a
“pardon me” bet in a deep fight, putting the symbolic fat in the fire.
Similarly, the end of such a relationship and resumption of normal
social intercourse is often signalized (but, again, not actually
brought about) by one or the other of the enemies supporting the
other’s bird.
13. In sticky, cross-loyalty situations, of which in this
extraordinarily complex social system there are of course many, where a
man is caught between two more or less equally balanced loyalties, he
tends to wander off for a cup of coffee or something to avoid having to
bet, a form of behavior reminiscent of that of American voters in
similar situations.
14. The people involved in the center bet are, especially in deep
fights, virtually always leading members of their group-kinship,
village, or whatever. Further, those who bet on the side (including
these people) are, as I have already remarked, the more established
members of the village – the solid citizens. Cockfighting is for those
who are involved in the everyday politics of prestige as well, not for
youth, women, subordinates, and so forth.
15. So far as money is concerned, the explicitly expressed attitude
toward it is that it is a secondary matter. It is not, as I have said,
of no importance; Balinese are no happier to lose several weeks’ income
than anyone else. But they mainly look on the monetary aspects of the
cockfight as self-balancing, a matter of just moving money around,
circulating it among a fairly well-defined group of serious
cockfighters. The really important wins and losses are seen mostly in
other terms, and the general attitude toward wagering is not any hope
of cleaning up, of making a killing (addict gamblers again excepted),
but that of the horseplayer’s prayer: “Oh, God, please let me break
even.” In prestige terms, however, you do not want to break even, but,
in a momentary, punctuate sort of way, win utterly. The talk (which
goes on all the time) is about fights against such-and-such a cock of
So-and-So which your cock demolished, not on how much you won, a fact
people, even for large bets, rarely remember for any length of time,
though they will remember the day they did in Pan Loh’s finest cock for
16. You must bet on cocks of your own group aside from mere loyalty
considerations, for if you do not people generally will say, “What! Is
he too proud for the likes of us? Does he have to go to Java or Den
Pasar [the capital town] to bet, he is such an important man?” Thus
there is a general pressure to bet not only to show that you are
important locally, but that you are not so important that you look down
on everyone else as unfit even to be rivals. Similarly, home team
people must bet against outside cocks or the outsiders will accuse it –
a serious charge – of just collecting entry fees and not really being
interested in cockfighting, as well as again being arrogant and
17. Finally, the Balinese peasants themselves are quite aware of all
this and can and, at least to an ethnographer, do state most of it in
approximately the same terms as I have. Fighting cocks, almost every
Balinese I have ever discussed the subject with has said, is like
playing with fire only not getting burned. You activate village and
kingroup rivalries and hostilities, but in “play” form, coming
dangerously and entrancingly close to the expression of open and direct
interpersonal and intergroup aggression (something which, again, almost
never happens in the normal course of ordinary life), but not quite,
because, after all, it is “only a cockfight.”

More observations of this sort could be advanced, but perhaps the
general point is, if not made, at least well-delineated, and the whole
argument thus far can be usefully summarized in a formal paradigm:


1. Between near status equals (and/or personal enemies)
2. Between high status individuals


1. The closer the identification of cock and man (or: more properly,
the deeper the match the more the man will advance his best, most
closely-identified-with cock).
2. The finer the cocks involved and the more exactly they will be
3. The greater the emotion that will be involved and the more the
general absorption in the match.
4. The higher the individual bets center and outside, the shorter
the outside bet odds will tend to be, and the more betting there will
be over-all.
5. The less an economic and the more a “status” view of gaming will
be involved, and the “solider” the citizens who will be gaming.

Inverse arguments hold for the shallower the fight, culminating, in a
reversed-signs sense, in the coin-spinning and dice-throwing
amusements. For deep fights there are no absolute upper limits, though
there are of course practical ones, and there are a great many
legend-like tales of great Duel-in-the-Sun combats between lords and
princes in classical times (for cockfighting has always been as much an
elite concern as a popular one), far deeper than anything anyone, even
aristocrats, could produce today anywhere in Bali.

Indeed, one of the great culture heroes of Bali is a prince, called
after his passion for the sport, “The Cockfighter,” who happened to be
away at a very deep cockfight with a neighboring prince when the whole
of his family-father, brothers, wives, sisters-were assassinated by
commoner usurpers. Thus spared, he returned to dispatch the upstarts,
regain the throne, reconstitute the Balinese high tradition, and build
its most powerful, glorious, and prosperous state. Along with
everything else that the Balinese see in fighting cocks-themselves,
their social order, abstract hatred, masculinity, demonic power-they
also see the archetype of status virtue, the arrogant, resolute,
honor-mad player with real fire, the ksatria prince.


What sets the cockfight apart from the ordinary course of life, lifts
it from the realm of everyday practical affairs, and surrounds it with
an aura of enlarged importance is not, as functionalist sociology would
have it, that it reinforces status discriminations (such reinforcement
is hardly necessary in a society where every act proclaims them), but
that it provides a metasocial commentary upon the whole matter of
assorting human beings into fixed hierarchical ranks and then
organizing the major part of collective existence around that
assortment. Its function, if you want to call it that, is interpretive:
it is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience; a story they tell
themselves about themselves.

What the cockfight says it says in a vocabulary of sentiment-the thrill
of risk, the despair of loss, the pleasure of triumph. Yet what it says
is not merely that risk is exciting, loss depressing, or triumph
gratifying, banal tautologies of affect, but that it is of these
emotions, thus exampled, that society is built and individuals put
together. Attending cockfights and participating in them is, for the
Balinese, a kind of sentimental education. What he learns there is what
his culture’s ethos and his private sensibility (or, anyway, certain
aspects of them) look like when spelled out externally in a collective
text; that the two are near enough alike to be articulated in the
symbolics of a single such text; and-the disquieting part-that the text
in which this revelation is accomplished consists of a chicken hacking
another mindlessly to bits.

Every people, the proverb has it, loves its own form of violence, The
cockfight is the Balinese reflection on theirs: on its look, its uses,
its force, its fascination. Drawing on almost every level of Balinese
experience, it brings together themes-animal savagery, male narcissism,
opponent gambling, status rivalry, mass excitement, blood sacrifice

-whose main connection is their involvement with rage and the
fear of rage, and, binding them into a set of rules which at once
contains them and allows them play, builds a symbolic structure in
which, over and over again, the reality of their inner affiliation can
be intelligibly felt. If, to quote Northrop Frye again, we go to see
Macbeth to learn what a man feels like after he has gained a kingdom
and lost his soul, Balinese go to cockfights to find out what a man,
usually composed, aloof, almost obsessively self-absorbed, a kind of
moral autocosm, feels like when, attacked, tormented, challenged,
insulted, and driven in result to the extremes of fury, he has totally
triumphed or been brought totally low.



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