Merrills, anyone? It made its way into Shakespeare's verse and a Viking's burial booty; it was carved into church pews, and played by Henry VIII's sailors. Now this simple game is experiencing something of a renaissance.

The writer is an artist and an author of books on medieval history, who discovered the game of Merrills 20 years ago in a book on antiques. He taught his wife and children, who soon beat him at it regularly. Amazed to learn of the Merrills world championship, he packed up his board and left for Hutton-le-Hole. There he won six games, lost seven, and tied three, thus failing by a wide margin to join the top 16 in the finals. That nonetheless ranked him 17th in the world. And being the only entrant from the US, he is also now the American grand champion. His family is, at best, bemused. THEY held the world championships this fall for one of the most popular games ever played in England. It was 500 years too late, of course, because hardly anyone plays the game anymore. But that's exactly why it wasn't a moment too soon. The game is best known as Merrills, or Nine Men's Morris. And the simplest way to explain it is to imagine playing tic-tac-toe with triple the options. Hence its popularity since ancient days: It can be learned in less than a minute, is played without speaking, and can become as mind-challenging as you wish to make it when studying your next move.

But that doesn't explain why a game so old that few still played it was suddenly in worldwide competition. And on the North Yorkshire moors?

In late September, alerted by the flurry of publicity and the sweet smell of competition in the air, 56 Merrills-lovers - locals and strangers from all around Yorkshire, a father and son from Surrey, and a young fellow from Worcestershire - rode or hiked into Hutton-le-Hole (actually a ``hole in a valley,'' four hours' drive north of London). Once there, they muscled the sheep out of the way and prepared to play for keeps. No restrictions barred them from entry. One didn't have to be a regional winner, or local champion. One just had to enjoy playing the game, and show up on time at the Ryedale Folk Museum.

Museum curator Douglas Smith, almost disappearing in a flurry of memorandums, correspondence files, and notes on the game's history, tried to put it into perspective: The Romans called it Merellus, a slangy Latin term for ``tokens'' or ``counters,'' the nine pieces each player begins with. The Mongols probably played it as well. But the first reliably datable evidence was in the luggage of a Viking. Friends and family had packed him off to Valhalla on his death in 870. But paradise would not be complete, apparently, if he couldn't play Merrills there, so someone had tucked his game board into the ceremonial ship burial.

The origin of the game will always be a mystery - one Mr. Smith hopes to write a book about now that quiet has returned to Hutton-le-Hole. Merrills probably crossed the English Channel with the medieval Normans, who called it Merrills or Morell or Merelles, and brought it along to take their minds off the strain of invading England in 1066.

By the 12th century the game was well on its way to being the biggest in England. Farmers and shepherds played it by tracing the diagram in the dust and using pebbles as pieces. Children and adults throughout the country played on diagrams scraped into cathedral windowsills, rural church floors, and monastery cloister walkways. Parishioners survived the tediously long Sunday church sermons by carving the diagram in pews and playing the morning away. In fact, the farther from the pulpit, the more the game is found.

Sailors enjoyed the game, as evidenced by the pattern found on a barrelhead when the Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII's navy, was raised from the seabed in the Channel several years ago. By the 14th century the wealthy had the game carved onto boards to be played at home and at court. And in Shakespeare's day, Merrills was occasionally to be found on a huge scale, carved into lawns and with children cajoled into being the playing pieces. Thus the most famous related quotation is from Shakespeare's ``Midsummer Night's Dream,'' when the rain falls so heavily that ``The nine men's morris is filled up with mud....''

But then, mysteriously, decline set in. Merrills began to disappear. Although Victorian children were given it as a pocket game, by 1890 the most kind word one scholar could find for it was ``obsolete.'' And 14 years ago, a writer on games was hard put to mention six pubs in the entire nation in which habitu'es still played it.

That is why Smith and assistant curator Dorothy Ellison felt so compelled to step in. The museum they care for - the Ryedale Folk Museum - is a beautiful example of dedicated effort to preserve the tools, the craftwork, and the content of early shops, barns, and homes, as a means of re-creating a bygone way of life. And they felt the folk museum could make no less an effort to save another fine tradition: a good game.

Mrs. Ellison is clearly a born organizer. If the sea rolled in and covered the moors, one feels sure, she'd be right there treading water and organizing a game of Bobbing for Ewes. So in 1987 the museum was host to Britain's first-ever national championships. It sold Merrill boards to raise funds, taught visiting children, beguiled tourists, and spread the good word that medieval is still marvelous. Thirty-three competitors turned up, and Andrew Fawbert, a farmer from nearby Farndale, walked off with the title.

The only possible next step for 1988 was the world championships. The museum put the word out, sold more than 600 game boards, each with an invitation to enter the big competition, and prepared to face the world.

As the 56 competed in the first of two-day combat, dozens of others watched from the sidelines or played against each other. Age, it was quickly evident, is of absolutely no consequence. The oldest player in the competition, cowman Ozzie Midgley, 89, of Stamford Bridge, York, had played since childhood and could remember when ``the game was played in most Yorkshire villages.'' His score by day's end was well below that of Sarah Leng of nearby Pickering, a tiny, poised lady of 7. Sarah learned the game a few months ago from her grandfather, and had beaten him for the past month. And an odds-on favorite was 14-year-old Angela Wass, whose gamekeeper father taught her a year ago and has rarely won against her since. She's now become the Ryedale County Modern School champion.

Waiting for final games to be played, Mrs. Ellison kept the BBC television cameraman busy by teaching him the game. Sixteen players survived to the second day. An area newspaper, sponsoring a junior award, gave youngsters a chance to compete against others their age, as well as hold their own in the major contest. Angela Wass, playing in both finals, fell only three games from the end. The junior championship was won by Leonard Fawbert, age 13, from Gillamoor, taught only 15 months ago by last year's national champion.

Meanwhile, Andrew Fawbert, last year's champ, finally beat a bearded antiques dealer well past dinnertime Sunday to become world champion.

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