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How Do Bowling Handicaps Work? How League Handicaps Are Calculated

Six ladies bowling together and the lady in the denim jacket is rolling a pink bowling ball.

Are you new to a league or to handicaps scoring in bowling? You’re not alone. The concept of bowling handicaps may seem complicated at first, but with a clear explanation, you’ll have a better understanding.

So, how do bowling handicaps work? In this article, we’ll tell you what bowling handicaps are, how they work, and everything else you need to know. 

How Do Bowling Handicaps Work?

What is a bowling handicap? The United States Bowling Congress (USBS) defines handicapping as “the means of placing bowlers and teams of varying degrees of bowling skill on as equitable a basis as possible for competition against each other.”

In other words, handicapping gives a new bowler or bowler with lower skills a “bump” to their score! When you bowl typical games in scratch leagues, or a “regular league,” or with friends, you get your “scratch” or raw score with no adjustments. 

You bowled 87, your score is 87.

But in handicap leagues, handicap scoring, for example, can add an additional 35 pins to your scratch, and your new score would be 122!

Are you wondering how this could be? In a handicap league, this is possible because everyone who plays will get their scratch score in each frame. When the game is over, those with a handicap will add that handicap number to their overall scratch score, keeping the game competitive.

It also encourages more skilled or experienced players to play their best since a score with a handicap can quickly surpass their higher scratch score.

Are Handicaps a League-Only Practice?

Are handicaps a league-only practice? Of course not; anyone can decide to allow for or use a handicap in their game. While some leagues will practice the use of handicaps based on skill levels and average scores, the practice isn’t limited to “official” players.

People who are just starting out in bowling could benefit from having a handicap when playing with more experienced players. A handicap is a tool that keeps the game from being a blowout until a bowler’s skill set is more developed.

Using a handicap promotes fun gameplay and a sense of individual accomplishment. It also serves as motivation to improve your skill set, no matter your experience level.

Handicap scoring can make bowling fun with family and friends of varying bowling skills.

How Is a Bowling Handicap Calculated?

So now that you know what a handicap is and how it works, let’s now discuss how to calculate it. Keep reading for some easily digestible tips: 

  1. Find out what the basis score is. The basis score is a purposefully high score, higher than anyone on the team or league’s average bowling score. The typical basis scores for new or inexperienced bowlers will be around 200. This score is usually set above the best bowler’s average score in the game. If you’re playing against someone who regularly bowls 200 games, set the limit at about 210, higher than their score.
  2. Determine your average score from any official league games you’ve played if you’re able. You can use the average of your most recent games if you don’t play in a league.
  3. Now you’ll work on getting your handicap number by using a percentage of 80 to 100. Your handicap is the percentage of the difference between your average score and a basis average score. In most cases, 90% is used as the handicap percentage or percentage factor.
  4. If you need to figure out your handicap for a new league and don’t have any bowling experience, ask the league to give you an average until you get some scores on the board. Add your score from your official league games and divide by the number of games you played to get an average. Take that average score and subtract it from the basis score. Then multiply the result by the decided-upon percentage to figure out your handicap.
  5. While calculating your handicap score, ignore any decimals you get with your final score. Use the whole number, and you’ll do just fine.

Now let’s look at some hard numbers.

How to Calculate a Bowling Handicap Score

If you’re like most people, the thought of having to do anything beyond basic math calculations can be stressful. But after reviewing the handicap bowling formula (basis score – average score)(percentage factor), we break down each section, so you’ll have a much better idea about how simple the math is.

Determine the basis score

More than likely, the basis score will have to be given to you. So let’s assume it’s 210. Here’s what you do next:

Calculate Your Average Score

Let’s assume you bowled 4 games:

Game 1: 78

Game 2: 61

Game 3: 82

Game 4: 97

Next, add up the scores from all the games, then divide that total by 4 (the number of games).

78 + 61+ 82+ 97 = 318

318 / 4 = 79 

Your average score is 79.

Subtract Your Average Score from Your Basis Score

210 (Basis Score) – 79 (Average Score) = 131

Multiply Your Result By The Percentage Factor (90%)

The percentage factor will be assigned to you. It can range anywhere from 80%-100%. You will be assigned this percentage of the basis score.

Continuing with our example:

131 x 90% = 117.9 (remember, ignore any demicals)

You will have a handicap of 117 for your game. If you score a 64 on your game, you’ll add 117 to that number.

64 (raw score) + 117 (handicap) = 181 (score with handicap)

Your total score with your handicap is 181!

If this math seems complex, you have other resources that you can use to get your handicap less mental effort. There are several charts and handicap calculators that you can use to make getting your handicap easy.

How to Figure a Bowling Handicap

What’s the Highest Handicap Possible in Bowling?

While there’s no set rule about the highest handicap you can have in bowling, there is an unspoken understanding that 219 is the highest handicap possible.

Leagues vary with this number and may consider a lower number to be the highest handicap one can get for their league. It all depends on the individual group and situation.

As a general guide, you probably don’t need a handicap if your bowling average is 220 or more. However, you should check with your league to see what their guidelines are when it comes to handicaps. 

Don’t forget that you can calculate a handicap for any new or struggling bowlers without considering league guidelines. Simply follow the formula above before you play your game. If you’re just playing the game for fun, feel free to only go by the rules that keep it fun for you!

Why Are Handicaps Used in Bowling?

The simple explanation as to why handicaps are used in bowling is to keep the playing field fair, especially when you have a wide range of skills and experience in a league.

Amateur leagues help new or struggling bowlers by allowing them to use their handicaps to remain competitive. A handicap can help a new bowler when they’re having a rough time during a game.

Knowing that their limited skills are accounted for with a handicap can take the pressure and embarrassment off of someone struggling to establish their skills. This way, they can be confident in taking the time to learn correctly, however long that may take them.

People with physical or special needs can enjoy bowling games with their own personal limitations. Spending time bowling with family or friends can be a more positive and fun experience when overall scores remain competitive.

The lady with the yellow bowling ball is the league secretary who works at the bowling alley.

The controversy of Handicap Scoring

Sometimes, handicaps can be damaging to skill-building in bowling. If a given person already knows that a handicap adjustment will apply to their score, they may decide to sandbag or not bowl their best to lower their average.

In addition, if the basis score or percentage factor is off, either player may have an unfair advantage. 

While the concept of a handicap in bowling makes sense to some, others feel that handicaps aren’t good for the game. Some more experienced bowlers take the stance that a handicap isn’t needed for a bowler to be competitive.

Playing without a handicap with more experienced bowlers should encourage growth and skill without the help of a handicap.

Bowling Handicap Discussion

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Clearly, leagues that allow for handicaps, especially with new bowlers, are seen as beneficial to boost morale and encourage competitive gameplay. 

Now that you know what handicaps are and how to calculate your handicap using the formula: (basis score – average score)(percentage factor), you can look forward to developing the skills you need to bowl at your pace while staying competitive. You can also work toward getting your scores better so that you won’t even qualify for a handicap anymore!