I was recently watching Harry Potter (because I'm super-cool), and it occurred to me: has there ever been a sport that had something akin to catching the snitch in Quidditch, where the game immediately ends in victory, regardless of how long you've been playing or how well you've been doing?

All sports I can think of generally end after a certain period of time (e.g. basketball), a certain number of turns (e.g. innings in baseball), or a certain number of milestones (e.g. holes in golf). With all of them, though, victory is the result of earning points as you go, so the winner can be predicted with increasing certainty as the session progresses. There may be a 9th-inning rally, but even if you turn it around in the last 2 minutes, you still have to close the distance and eventually overtake your opponent's score before you win.

Non-physical games often have instant-win conditions (e.g. checkmate in chess) where you could be doing horribly and then instantly be the winner, but are there any (or have there been any in history) physical sports that have similar potential? I seem to recall that the ball game of the Aztecs had something like this, but the accounts I'm finding online seem to disagree with each other.

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    I know this is the wrong brand of nerdity for the History stack, but grabbing the Snitch in Quidditch does not win you the game. It nets your team 150 points and ends the game, but it is quite possible to be behind by more than 150 when it is snatched. Being more than 15 Quaffle scores behind (10 points each) would do it.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 14, 2014 at 2:11
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    Very true, though that seems to be incredibly rare in practice. When Wood is introducing Harry to the game, he says simply "you catch this, and we win." The idea of being 160 points ahead seems mostly theoretical, aside from a few instances.
    – Alexander Winn
    Jan 14, 2014 at 2:16
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    While Harry Potter is great for many things, quidditch is incredibly poorly-designed: it is quite obvious the author had no clue at all how to build a set of rules which makes any kind of sense.
    – o0'.
    Jan 14, 2014 at 11:46
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    That being said, I'm not sure why you posted here instead of at Sports SE: I think history of sports should be IT there, and you'll find better answers.
    – o0'.
    Jan 14, 2014 at 11:47
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    @AlexanderWinn It turns out your recollection of an Aztec ball game when thinking of Quidditch may be more than a passing similarity. See my latest edit to the accepted answer.
    – called2voyage
    Jan 16, 2014 at 17:27

7 Answers 7


Boxing has a win in 10 seconds via knockout, or instantly if the referee calls it.

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    – Samuel Russell
    Jan 14, 2014 at 2:28
  • This is not really appropriate, IMO, since the real possibility to KO the opponent, is definitely influenced by how the match has been going so far: if he's fresh and you're beaten, it is possible but highly unlikely you'll KO him. In quidditch instead, you just grab the magic ball and you win (hint: if you were losing by more than 150 points you just don't grab it, because doing so you would lose).
    – o0'.
    Jan 14, 2014 at 11:49
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    @Lohoris I hope you are not implying Rocky isn't realistic ;)
    – James
    Jan 14, 2014 at 12:47
  • @Lohoris: it happens like that often enough in MMA, where boxers may get matched against wrestlers: the boxer is punching around the wrestler for most of the match, until the wrestler, barely alive, manages to grab the boxer by the neck, chokes him, and instantly wins the match he was loosing badly until the last few seconds.
    – Michael
    Jan 14, 2014 at 22:25
  • Boxing is instantaneous, as per the question. It's just not considered a knockout until the count is over. Once it's a knockout by count, victory is immediate - it just takes time for the "move" to end, just like it takes time for the ball to go from the player's hand to through the ring.
    – ComeAndGo
    Jan 16, 2014 at 2:19

I have found record of one sport that had an instant win move. The Mesoamerican ballgame, whose modern descendant is known as ulama, could be won with a single move: putting the ball through a ring.

This was said to be so difficult that it rarely occurred.

From Wikipedia:

According to 16th century Aztec chronicler Motolinia, points were gained if the ball hit the opposite end wall, while the decisive victory was reserved for the team that put the ball through a ring. However, placing the ball through the ring was a rare event—the rings at Chichen Itza, for example, were set 6 meters off the playing field—and most games were likely won on points.

Roger Highfield speculates in The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works that Quidditch may have been based on this Mesoamerican ballgame because of its magic/religious significance:

I suspect the answer to these questions may lie in Central America, Mesoamerica, where an extraordinary ball game--perhaps the most amazing of all time--contains intriguing echoes of Quidditch and its American variant, Quodpot. Indeed, I was surprised that this does not even merit a passing mention in Quidditch Through the Ages, marking a serious omission by Kennilworthy Whisp.

The people who took part in Nahualtlachtli, which means the magic ball game, were probably involved in the very first team sport. The game was played for thousands of years and probably started in Mexico in around 1500 B.C., with Mesoamerica's first great civilization, the Olmec, according to Manuel Aguilar of California State University, Los Angeles. By 1200 B.C. it was being played in Oaxaca, the Mexican highland and in the west of Mesoamerica, notable El Opeño, Michoacán. The location of its birthplace is no accident, for the balls were made of rubber, which originated in Mesoamerica.

Further down, he notes:

The ball game was indeed a cermonial activity that celebrated a magical battle for survival, where a human team was symbolically pitched against the gods and the awesome powers of the natural world. Each clash was seen as a struggle between the opposing forces of day and night, good and evil, and life and death, echoing how the best games of Quidditch put sly Slytherin against noble Gryffindor.

The game was richly textured with symbolism to reflect the creation story.


Wikipedia references Shelton, Anthony A. (2003). "The Aztec Theatre State and the Dramatization of War". In Tim Cornell and Thomas B. Allen (eds.). War and Games. New York: Boydell Press. ISBN 978-0-85115-870-9.

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    Its probably quite difficult to acquire the skill required to score through that tiny hoop in a game featuring sacrificing the losers.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 16, 2014 at 20:59

Nine-ball pool meets this criteria, and is currently played in tournament settings.

In Nine-ball, unlike in the standard Eight-ball pool that more people are familiar with, anytime a player puts the nine-ball in the pocket with a legal shot, that player wins. It doesn't matter how many other balls either player has gotten in. Player A could pocket the first eight balls, but if Player B puts in the nine-ball, Player B is the winner. Nine-ball really has no score; a single event wins the game, and it can happen at any time.

In Eight-ball pool, there is actually a progression to the game, and one player can be ahead of the other. However, the player that is behind can still instantly win the game if the player that is ahead pockets the eight-ball prematurely. You might think of this as more of an instant-lose event rather than an instant-win.

If you want to count instant-lose scenarios, there are a number of sports (races, for example) where the person that is ahead can disqualify themselves by breaking rules, and the person behind can win.

  • IMO questionable if cue games qualify as a sport as outlined in the question. For example, they are not included in the Olympics.
    – Vector
    Jan 19, 2014 at 7:03
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    @ComeAndGo Lots of sports aren't in the Olympics, but nine-ball tournaments are featured on ESPN.
    – Ben Miller
    Jan 19, 2014 at 7:25
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    but nine-ball tournaments are featured on ESPN So is Poker... :)
    – Vector
    Jan 20, 2014 at 0:25
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    @ComeAndGo Competitive-eating is also featured on ESPN. To be fair, most aspects of poker would be more suitable for Board and Card Games SE.
    – user527
    Jan 20, 2014 at 18:27
  • I considered Nine-ball, but Nine-ball is not exactly a physical sport in the sense expressed in the original post. Jan 22, 2014 at 17:12

The boxing answer seems to answer the question in affirmative, but I think this is an exception rather then the rule: KO/ippon are called when the blow has been "decisive", usually meaning that the loosing opponent cannot continue anyway. In fact, the inability to continue is the basis for "technical KO".

I think the answer to the question should be something like "there is no instant-wins in common sports, except for the situations when one of the sides cannot continue."

Sports seem to favour the one who can sustained prolonged advantage: that is more fair as well as better for spectators. However, when one side cannot or would not continue, whether by receiving KO, or by getting deemed decisively outmatched, or by getting disqualified, or by forfeiture, only then the other side gets awarded the instant win. In a way, that's the punishment for denying the spectators the prolonged match they were expecting. :)

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    I have to disagree with the construal of inability to continue. The Judo ippon is measured against the standards of randori, then an ippon relates to a cultural understanding of the efficacy of the action if unrestrained, but not measured against the efficacy of the action itself. For example, a 30 second hold is sufficient time to disable an opponent, for example by repeated striking. Disabling of an opponent is not itself conducted. Strangles or arm holds neither kill nor break the limb.
    – Samuel Russell
    Jan 15, 2014 at 9:34
  • @SamuelRussell same thing. While the opponent isn't actually phisically unable to continue, he would be if the action was unrestrained, so this is not very different from what happens with boxe. Still quite different from "take this special ball, you win".
    – o0'.
    Jan 15, 2014 at 15:56
  • Nobody claimed they were the same. The claim is that this is close to an 'instant win' in a real sport, which it is. Note that Quiddich is also NOT an instant win, just instant points and end of game. The point of these sites is to encourage discussion, not quash it with negative reps.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 15, 2014 at 20:19
  • @Lohoris I think this is a key example of where theory of games would be necessary. Games have both written and unwritten rules. Judo's written rules prevent unrestricted combat based on late 19th century impressions of lethality, modified over time. The game as a "simulation" of combat is not combat. Ippon in Judo is an arbitrary rule of the same class as "Magic ball = win." "Magic throw," which doesn't relate to uke actually being disabled, = win. As a result, more reference to ludology theory of simulation versus actuality would improve this answer.
    – Samuel Russell
    Jan 16, 2014 at 1:00
  • @Oldcat as I mentioned, grabbing the little ball actually is, because if you are down by more than 150 points you would lose grabbing it, hence if you're not totally stupid you just don't grab it.
    – o0'.
    Jan 16, 2014 at 11:39

I started to offer Pankration, as an example, but then I found this anecdote:

In an odd turn of events, a pankration fighter named Arrhichion (Ἀρριχίων) of Phigalia won the pankration competition at the Olympic Games despite being dead. His opponent had locked him in a chokehold and Arrhichion, desperate to loosen it, broke his opponent's toe (some records say his ankle). The opponent nearly passed out from pain and submitted. As the referee raised Arrhichion's hand, it was discovered that he had died from the chokehold. His body was crowned with the olive wreath and taken back to Phigaleia as a hero. Wikipedia

If killing your opponent didn't qualify as a win, then I can't imagine an instant win.

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    Conversely, one has to wonder about the disgrace attendant upon the competitor who submitted to a dead guy.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 15, 2014 at 15:34
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    @T.E.D. - the competitor who submitted to a dead guy He was still alive when he broke the guy's toe, which is what caused him to lose - the dead guy delivered the blow of defeat while he was still alive, even though the actual loss wasn't manifest until after death. Not sure if that's called losing to a dead man or a live one....
    – Vector
    Jan 19, 2014 at 6:56

Many simple races fit your criteria: Doesn't matter how well you did before or how long it takes you - just get over the finish line first, and you win immediately.

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    This is totally not "an instant-win move": to be able to cross the line, you have to reach the line, i.e. you have to run all the field to get there. The "instant-win" we're talking about instead is that regardless of what happened so far, you win.
    – o0'.
    Jan 16, 2014 at 17:07
  • This would also apply to games like 'capture the flag'.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 16, 2014 at 18:27
  • @Lohoris - ulama also has to START. The game has to start, you have abide by ther rules (whatever they are) and then the ball has to get through the ring - so there is always a pre-condition of some sort. Still, the win is instantaneous and it doesn't matter how you got to the situation that gave you the "instant win".
    – Vector
    Jan 19, 2014 at 6:54
  • I have to stress out again (despite being bolded) "regardless of what happened so far". In ulama and quidditch, you score many points during the game, but those points are ignored when you score an instant-win. In a race, there is no "instant win which aborts the race", rather you "reach a predetermined goal", which you have to reach step by step.
    – o0'.
    Jan 23, 2014 at 14:24
  • @Lohoris - In ulama, doesn't the game have to BEGIN? Doesn't a player have to do something to score the instant win? Same with a race - there is a precondition, but when that's fulfilled, the win is instantaneous - same with boxing - the bell has to ring, and you have to go out and punch...
    – Vector
    Jan 23, 2014 at 22:26

Not only does boxing currently have the ten-second KO rule and the ancillary TKO rule (in which a referee can stop a fight at any time if it looks like the consequences of keeping the fight going are greater than charging a guy a loss - this happens when a fighter is "out on his feet" but also, for instance, when he's cut over one of his eyes and can't see the punches coming in) but its pre-Marquis of Queensbury origins generally had fights run as follows:

  1. The boxers would fight until one of them was knocked down. This ended a "round" of boxing. As you might imagine, they often lasted longer than 3 minutes.
  2. The boxers were given some short amount of time to get themselves ready to go. Nowadays the time between rounds is 60 seconds, to give you some idea of how long a recently knocked-down fighter might have.
  3. By some period of time, both fighters would have to meet each other in the center of the fighting arena at a line scratched out in the dirt. If one of the fighters was unable or unwilling to reach this point, the contest was called in favor of his opponent.

Incidentally, this is the origin of the phrase "up to scratch".

Another thing that can happen in boxing, and I think this is as close as you're going to get to the Quidditch parallel, is that if one boxer accidentally fouls another in such a way that the latter is unable to proceed, the bout is scored as follows:

  • If less than 4 complete rounds have been fought, the fight is ruled a technical draw.
  • If 4 or more complete rounds have been fought, the judges' scorecards are revealed and whoever is leading on them wins. This process is known as a technical decision.


Note that unlike in Quidditch you don't get a point boost for causing the accidental foul. In fact, if the referee decides that your foul was intentional, he has the right to award a victory to your opponent by way of disqualification. The most common way this kind of thing happens, since most fouls are kind of obvious, is on an accidental head butt - for example, both fighters duck at the same time and hit each other in the head, causing a cut to form over one of the men's eyes. To further cloud this issue, such a cut might not become too severe to play though for a couple of rounds after it was created. At that point there could be some consternation on both sides because if a legal punch caused the cut, the result is a TKO, not a technical decision.

The other primary way a sport can end before its predetermined limit is the mercy rule. For instance, softball up into college has a rule that states that if you pull ahead of your opponent by 10 runs or more, the game is instantly called right then and there. This is a little important when playing a ball-and-bat game between potentially wide ranges of opposition since a game could theoretically never end if one side lacked the ability to put the other side out.

  • While this is a well written and thought post, I have to give it -1 neverthless. This is because I still think that boxing is a totally misleading answer to this question, as per @Michael's answer: here instant-win occurs because there's no other way to continue the match anyway, while in quidditch the match ends in an arbitrary way, just because a rule states that (i.e. that rule could be changed, while in boxing you just can't go on anyway in case of KO, regardless of what the rules said). While this answers the letter of the question, IMO it totally fails to answer its spirit.
    – o0'.
    Jan 15, 2014 at 15:39
  • In the case of technical knockouts or technical decisions you generally could continue past the point of the called KO (and often a fighter will get very angry when a fight ends this way). It's just that doing so would often be highly detrimental to the boxer (I say "often" because there are times such as Lewis-McCall II where the opponent is called out on TKO because he refuses to fight).
    – John Craven
    Jan 15, 2014 at 19:17

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