This week's Friday Five is from J-P Voilleque, known as "lawduck" on Twitter and the internet (and "Mr. Duck" in our initial communications). After becoming obsessed with contract bridge, he now occasionally blogs about his adventures at Cards Down. And when he's not fooling around, he works as an attorney at Immix Law Group.
Let's get this clear - I'm not talking about 'old' games like Zaxxon or Commodore 64 classics. I'm talking about old games - older than computers, older than Milton Bradley, sometimes older than the hills themselves. Games that your grandparents played. These are the byroads and alleyways along which you may discover the classics.
People have been writing about games for as long as they've been writing about anything. The ancient Egyptian game Senet appears to have gone from parlor diversion to a part of the rituals of the dead, and the writing and depictions of the game underwent a similar transformation. In our modern era, much ink has been devoted to the classics, and we sometimes encounter people who wrote about games (because they happened to be exceedingly good at them), but who were also fantastic writers. As we know, this is not always a requirement for writers in niche subjects.
It makes it all the more wonderful to read Victor Mollo's books about contract bridge technique, as well as his anthologized vignettes of the bridge exploits of his "Menagerie" of characters at a London bridge club. David Bronstein is a phenomenal writer who just happened to be one of the greatest chess players of his era. From the moment he picked up a pen until his death in the last decade, he provided incisive and astonishing insights into the mind of a chess player, the pressures of tournament play, and the wonder of chess. You can read these two authors without a drop of understanding of the game in question and still be the better for it.
It is a truism that you don't just marry a partner, you marry their family as well - and that may include traditions and favorite games that are wholly outside of your experience. It is through marriage that you might first discover the ancient and cruel arts of Canasta (which was undergoing such a rules revolution in the 1950's that Charles Goren referred to it as "a game gone wild"), Cribbage (a classic "easy to learn, hard to master" game), or Euchre (which makes - I swear to god - no sense at all). And of course you may also discover that you must wade into the murky waters of any number of other games (dominoes, anyone?) after dinner. I happened to marry into a clan of card sharks who were so much better at poker than I that I was ashamed to be at the table for the first two years. I estimate that I could have taken my spouse out to a lovely dinner with all the spare change I lost. Dear suitors - it's worth investigating what sort of gaming traditions your in-laws have during courtship.
If you routinely turned to the crossword in your local paper, odds were good that you might also spy a chess problem, or a column about contract bridge, on the same page. I was always fascinated by these bits of esoterica as a kid. As you grow into the games themselves, one of the first things you realize is that puzzles using game systems have very little to do with playing the game, and much more to do with...well, puzzles. Bridge problems in particular were often presented as stand-alone diversions during the height of the game's popularity - just as puzzlers maintained a working knowledge of ciphers and codes, there was once an expectation that they could locate the queen of hearts in a bridge diagram. Some of the most fearsome logic puzzles - retrograde analysis chess problems, are not really about chess at all. Rather, they are puzzles that use chess and its system of rules as a canvas to befuddle and amaze.
Still, as gateway drugs, there's almost nothing better.
Scandal (also refererred to as "news")
It would be hard for America to be any more crazy about bridge during the Great Depression, but if it was possible, the trial of Myrtle Bennett provided the spark. The trial - and the reconstructed bridge hand that captured the attention of the American public, inspired a love of bridge for a generation of card players. I'll not spoil it, except to say that partner games can be deadly serious. Even today, the story reads as a comment on the passions inspired by the games with which we deeply engage.
Bobby Fischer's rise to the top as World Chess Champion, and subsequent disintegration, was a signpost moment for most of my generation in America. Fischer's sudden superstardom led to a reinvigoration of chess in the U.S., both as a pasttime and as a legitimate competetive activity. Second only to the 1980 Olympic gold-medal-winning U.S. Men's Hockey team, Fischer was the model of American ingenuity and freedom. He "stuck it to the Russkies," as it were, and for that he is fondly remembered by people who have never pushed a pawn. The legacy of the man as a whole is more problematic. The saga of Viktor Korchnoi as he escaped the Soviet chess apparatus was so amazing that Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson (of ABBA fame) took the bones of the story and turned it into a musical.
Being called upon to settle a rules dispute because you are a grown-up
Now that I have a daughter, she frequently gathers with other kids. And those kids often have access to a Mancala board. And "Mancala," as a term, means almost nothing. There are hundreds of documented variants across the world - and judging by the reactions to certain "house rules" wherever we are at the time, there are roughly a million variants in Oregon alone. There is, in this, a lesson about old games being made new by the next generation to encounter the game pieces. Imagine - a bag of stones and a board with twelve pots. No rules, no structure beyond the constraints of the equipment. It's so liberating!
Just like the mad rules diaspora that Canasta experienced in the fifties, every day someone encounters a game and forever changes it based on their own preferences. In Chess a wise old man sings, "Each game of chess / leaves us one less / variation left to be played." But surely this only applies to capital-C Chess? When my daughter explains that the queen's horse can return to her side at any time during the game, who am I to argue?
But even as our kids introduce their own rules, we (or at least I) feel obliged to dig back into history, to see what the children made up, centuries ago. I hope I've encouraged you to take whatever paths into the past that come across your vision. You'll never regret it, and you might just find a lifelong pursuit.
Tell us - what classic games do you and your family play? And how'd you get hooked on them?