Games People Play


I come from a long line of game players. I don't mean head games, although we have those in our repertoire, too. There's the "pretend it never happened" game, the "passive aggressive" game, the “dripping with sarcasm” game, etc.

But I'm talking about board games and card games. For decades, one of our family traditions was playing Flinch. Every player has a Flinch pile of 10 cards, and the goal of the game is to play all the cards in your Flinch pile before anyone else plays all of their pile. If you’re able to play off your Flinch pile, but you don’t, another player yells "Flinch." Which, of course, makes everyone flinch, and the yeller gives one of his cards to the offender’s Flinch pile. It's a simple game, but you have to stay alert. Mom, the Matron of Merciless Card Playing, didn't make it a habit to grant rookies a practice round while they learned the game. She’s got a kind heart, but she’s out to win. And this apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; I share her philosophy. Who wants to play a game if you're not trying to win? Isn’t that the whole point of playing? The phrase “just for fun” was created for people who perpetually lose. Imagine our excitement at Christmas or Thanksgiving when someone dropped by to visit; they were fresh blood.

My friend Rosebud is the Most Uncompetitive Game Player in the Universe. Regarding her musical abilities when she was younger, she was a fierce competitor who rose above the others. At work, she is driven, and excels. But put her in front of the Ticket to Ride board game, and she’s happy as a lark simply building her little trains, while the rest of us are ready to derail each other. She has no stress, no strategy; she’s in it purely for enjoyment. I’d like to play poker with her; I could use the extra money.

I’ve met a couple of people who don’t enjoy games. Of course, I don’t remember their names; sometimes a great shock affects my memory.

“I don’t understand,” I told one of them. “What do you mean? You don’t like board games?”

“I don’t like any games,” she said.

“Even cards? You like cards, right?”

“No, I don’t like cards either.”

I was horrified, and gave her the same look I get when Glenn Close sits up in the bathtub in Fatal Attraction. “Bless your heart,” I managed to stammer. “I’ll pray for you.”

I can’t imagine what calamity might have befallen me had I not learned Crazy Eights, Liverpool Rummy, Golf, Spit, various versions of solitaire, and more. Everywhere we travel, I take two decks of cards. I carry a printout of hand rankings for poker in my purse at all times. Because you never know when someone will want to strike up a round of five-card stud in the middle of Walmart, or at church, or during a movie.

But of all the games created, the one my family always excelled at was Balderdash. Each player takes a turn as the dealer, picking a word card with the word’s correct definition written on it. Other players must write down their own created definitions, and then the dealer shuffles all the definitions together, the true and the false, and reads them aloud. Everyone takes a turn guessing which definition is right, and you get points for every person who guesses your definition as the right one. It’s crucial that you keep a straight face when someone guesses your absurd definition. Basically, it’s the lovely art of BS, our native tongue.

Thankfully, I married a game player. He taught me to Wahoo (not a euphemism for anything in the bedroom), and I taught him how to properly gloat. The big rule at our house is that the game table is a no-phone zone. On more than one occasion, three-fourths of our rummy group would pay more attention to the internet than to keeping up with when it was their turn to play. The game could last hours.

“Do you know what the average lifespan of an earthworm is?” Flash asked, one night.

“Longer than yours, if you don’t hurry up and play,” I answered.

“I thought it was Vanessa’s turn.”

“No, she discarded that Queen that’s staring back at you.”

“Oh. I didn’t know.”

Everyone took their turns. Then, the King of Random Facts was at it again.

“Eww, you want to hear the longest fart ever recorded?”

“I hear it every night. You wanna play or you wanna Google?”

Phone usage came to a halt after my question, but it was short-lived. Then, we moved on to music. When a song from the 70s came on the radio, I made the mistake of asking everyone “Who sings that?” I thought it would be fun to play Name That Tune during our card game. Nobody responded, so I gave the answer. Since they didn’t believe me, all my competitors spent the next 10 minutes looking up the correct musician. After discovering I was right, they exclaimed about how surprised they were. Still, I continued spending time with these people, in spite of their lack of faith in me. I may not remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I can tell you who sang “Stay” in 1977.

And so it went. Weekend after weekend. Sometimes it was Flash; sometimes it was the others. Until Vanessa defected; she crossed over to the Unplugged Side with me. A couple of months later, she gave me a Cell Phone Jail for Christmas. It houses two bunk beds, and has enough space for several mobile delinquents. It’s a joy to throw Devices of Distraction into the slammer and set the alarm. Many an iPhone has done time in my house.

Through the years, it’s been difficult finding games for Cowboy to learn. We wanted to instill our love of games in him, and worked hard to teach him how to take turns and follow directions, mainly by playing Candy Land. Several years ago, when his eye-hand coordination had improved significantly, we thought video games with a physical aspect would be good for him. We bought a Wii and started with Mario Karts, because we’d noticed Cowboy loved arcade driving games. He was delighted, crashing into walls, falling off cliffs, slamming into buildings, and going backwards. There wasn’t a competitive bone in his body. Now, he’s more diligent, often beating us at bowling, tennis, baseball, wakeboarding, archery, and sword fighting - the student has become the Wii Master. Perhaps that’s why Flash practices alone, after Cowboy goes to bed. He says it’s for exercise, but I know better. Of course, there’s a price to pay the next day.

“Oh my gosh. I’m sore today,” he whined, a few weeks ago.

“Did you run 30 miles on the treadmill, bench press 600 pounds, or do 200 push-ups yesterday?” I asked my big, strong man.

“No,” he said, looking as if he just completed the Ironman Triathlon. “I played Wii Swordplay for 20 minutes last night.” Clearly, the rating on that game should be changed to RY - Really Young. 

Recently, we reintroduced board games to Cowboy. It’s amazing to see how his attention span has grown, and taking turns comes naturally now. He’s catching on to Wahoo and Trouble, and we’re glad we’ve moved out of Candy Land. It’s a nice place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. Last month, our friend Birdie taught us to play Sequence at one of our favorite coffee houses. Cowboy caught on quickly, and needed little help to succeed. I ordered it off Amazon a week later, and Cowboy quickly became proficient, often playing seven games in a row with us. But his favorite game remains Gas Out. It’s exactly what it sounds like. A card game involving a green cloud that farts after several times of being pressed by players. If it farts on your turn, you lose. Cowboy picked it out himself, and laughs whether he wins or loses.

There’s been a lot to teach our son, and little of it has been easy for him. He perseveres, never gives up, and is patient with himself as well as us, as he learns new things. In spite of our efforts to pass along our game-winning strategies to Cowboy, he does things his own way, and often beats us. He doesn’t need our help as much. And I’ve tried to instill in him my strong sense of competitiveness, but I’ve failed; he’s the nicest player in the family. Like his grandmother, I still play to win. And sometimes, I pout a little when I lose, vowing to take my vengeance on the victor. But I never mind losing to my Cowboy.