Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

“Board Game Etiquette”

by Patrick Stephenson,
competitive board gamer

TEMPERAMENTAL RIFT // “The fun is gone… the players are quitting,” read the cover headline of a recent U.S. News and World Report. Beneath lay a photo of sad-faced young girl, cradling her mitt Chessin the middle of an empty baseball field. Parental interference is killing youth sports, claims the mag, and player numbers are dwindling.

I sympathize with the cover girl, but I cannot empathize. At age 10, I quit baseball, because my coach moved me from first base to outfield, where I saw less action, and which was as far as possible from the pitcher’s mound, where I really wanted to be. Afterward, too lazy to abandon books and videogames, I quit organized sports entirely, and began to think myself too physically unrefined to play them. As a result, I missed out on the popularity athletic acumen grants in adolescence, but found other ways to make friends.

That competitive spirit hasn’t shriveled up inside me, though. Sports out, I turn it toward intellectual pursuits instead. During trivia games, for example, I’m an absolute monster, gloating over and yelling at anyone who dares compete. Several of my classes have ended with Jeopardy-style finals reviews. The Patrick to whom everyone’s accustomed—quiet, inattentive—becomes beastly during these. Once, with a teammate who barely contributed, I took on my entire English class. Although I hadn’t read most of the material under review, I destroyed them. On my way out, I laughed heartily. HA HA HA.

This applies to board games as well. I’m so competitive—during Monopoly and its ilk—that I’ve acquired a nemesis. His name is Jeff. He is my uncle. Family or not, he’s a suitable nemesis. Uncle Jeff, a competitive sailor and windsurfer, once tried out for the Olympics and nearly got in. Now, he bikes 30 miles a day. Like me, however, he’s not an especially good sport. He’s a gloater, a yeller, and a taunter. Anyone who isn’t up to snuff will collapse before him. Thankfully, in my arsenal, I’ve got the—intestinal and intellectual—fortitude required. At the board games, we’ve battled for years now.

Our favorite is Sorry, wherein players move four droop-headed pyramids around a rectangular board in search of the safety zone. Your competitor’s goal is to knock you back to start and get his four pieces to safety before you can. When he knocks a piece of yours out, gaming etiquette dictates your competitor apologize, “Sorry!” Hence the name. The tone in which these apologies should be delivered isn’t mentioned, however. You must not, for example, be sincerely apologetic. Therefore, our responses are often sarcastic. “Sowwy!” my 38-year-old uncle will say, imitating a toothless baby.

Unfortunately, I don’t see Uncle Jeff often. Several months, during which he gloats and stews over past wins and losses, pass between our visits. As soon as we meet, however, the avuncular affection switches quickly to smack. There is a hug, a howyadoin’, and the insults begin. One time, Uncle Jeff couldn’t wait. A few days before a visit up north, he left a voicemail on our machine brimming with his lame smackitude: “Do you have your game faces on? Are you ready to be taken down? Gonna take you down… to Chinatown!” When Emily my sister plays Sorry with us, the smack level reaches unforeseen, selt-pitying heights: “You can’t beat me unless you gang up on me! Your old uncle!”

I’ve come to an understanding about Uncle Jeff. I understand his frustration. I sympathize, too, but as with the cover girl, I cannot empathize. I’m 21-years-old, a vigorous young buck in his physical and mental prime, but Uncle Jeff, athlete or not, is nearing 40. The bones are creaking, the mind is too. He knows old age and its companion senility are approaching. As an amateur psychiatrist, I know this smack stems from dread of that unavoidable, inexorable decline. He insults his nephew to fight back his fear. With words Uncle Jeff attempts to understand what he most fears is true, and what, in actuality, is true already: the old man cannot compete with my Sorry skills.

Now, my impression of my uncle’s character is broader. From now on, whenever he abandons a game he’s losing, or pushes our board off the table and lets the pieces from each end take flight, I’ll know his anger has nothing to do with me. Every time he alters the scores we’ve tallied from past games, I’ll know he isn’t actually trying to put one over on us. Rather, I will recognize that he’s afraid of becoming an old man, too wizened and crotchety to stand beside his nephew. Within me, my guts will groan with a response to his insecurity, and that response will resonate throughout the silken innards of my lean, youthful mind, one as yet unmarred by time: SORRY!


Written by patiomensch

March 5, 2007 at 1:44 pm

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