Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Games night

"Did I tell you," Chief Loon asks as I tally up our scores, "that we received another $25 donation for the Wasp? That brings our total to $844."


"Yeah. I have half a mind to go down to the library with a check for six dollars, just to make it an even $850."

"You're still winning, by the way." I deal the cards. "By an embarrassing amount."

"I think I kinda like this game." It's a card game called Five Crowns. I bought it last winter from one of those games-and-calendars stands that pop up in malls all over the country right around November and vanish by the end of January.

"Me too. It's like a kinder form of gin, except with five suits and really nice artwork."

"I don't play gin." She picks up her cards and starts to rearrange them.

"No, me neither. Not with people, anyway. Gin makes me swear."

"What does vermouth do?"

"Don't know yet."

"Ah. Working your way through them alphabetically, are you."

I nod, concentrating on my cards.

Games night is something the Chief came up with last fall. At 7 pm on the first Saturday of every month, we (the Loons) open up the teeny little ex-train station that serves as Bellefonte's Chamber of Commerce building, hang out a sign that says, "GAMES NIGHT!" and play board and/or card games for three hours. The idea is that people can drop in and play with us, bring their own games, whatever. It gets announced in a couple of the local papers, and the Chief puts out a come-one-come-all message over the libraries' email the day before (did I mention we're coworkers? We are. Different departments, same building). So far, the only time anyone who wasn't a Loon (or a Loon's spouse) showed up was accidental. People asking directions, looking for info on Bellefonte, etc. Nobody stops in to play with us.

Here's the thing: I don't like playing games. Chief knows this, and thinks that I'm either extremely kind, I'm slightly masochistic, or she's a lot better with the guilt than she thought she was. I keep showing up because I have this image in my head of her playing solitaire for three hours or (as she put it jokingly at the last games night, when this subject came up) playing rock-paper-scissors by herself all night and losing.

It's not really accurate to say that I don't like playing games. I do play them, see. I even own a few. I don't like competitive people. I want to play just to play. My childhood friend Suzanne and I used to drive her mother crazy with the way we played badminton. She'd sit on the porch and watch us bat the birdie back and forth, back and forth.

"You do know that you're never going to score if you keep hitting it to each other," she'd point out.

"Are you keeping score?" Suz and I would ask each other in unison. Our unspoken common goal was to keep the birdie aloft as long as possible.

My family is full of poor losers and worse winners, and I still bear scars from a Monopoly game where my father swore at my mother. If I run into someone who must win, I get put off. At first. Then I feel the Beast rise within me and I need to win. I need to crush this person who presumes to think they can beat me. I want to send them home crying. That disturbs me.

And so, I play games online at Pogo against a computer whose feelings won't get hurt. Or I play with the few members of my family who are gracious winners and losers. I try to model my playing after my Grandma Ruth, who died a year ago this past April. She was an excellent game player -- anything you wanted to play she'd try, but she really liked cards, scrabble, and yahtzee best. She taught all of her grandchildren how to play some of the games she liked, and now the whole clan (and there are hordes of us. We could populate a town, these descendants of Grandma Ruth's) plays canasta, at least. Most of us play shanghai rummy, backgammon, and hearts as well.

She was cutthroat. If she saw an opening she'd take it, and she'd expect you to do the same. But when she won (which was most of the time) she didn't rub your nose in it. She'd just reshuffle the cards, or collect the dice, or slide the tiles back into the box, and say, "Again?" And whether she was winning or not, she always complimented the good moves you made, marveled with you over your stroke of luck if you rolled 5 6's as a double yahtzee, applauded your seven-letter word.

I try to be like that, and most of the time I can silence the Beast and be a gracious winner or a good loser.

As long as I don't play gin.


Amy B. said...

Oh, wow. I desperately miss playing Scrabble with my mother (and Canasta, Parcheesi, Cribbage, Pinochle, the list is endless). My mom was also a cutthroat player and gracious winner/loser, and I try to be that way as well. I rarely, rarely ever won Scrabble against Mom, and when I started winning, I knew she was dying.

People are confused when I tell them to how and why they should save an S, and they're downright unnerved when I remove or rearrange their words so they land on premium tiles.

When George and I play, we don't keep score. I'd like to, but not for victory's sake. I just like to see what I can get out of my tiles.

Spit, of course, left no room for such niceties.

The only time I go for "the kill" is when playing my sister. I can't help myself. It doesn't matter what game.

She used to perpetually crush me at chess. To this day, I can't play a game without having anxious flashbacks to our childhood battles.

After yet another devastating loss, when all I was left with was my king and a pawn or two, we'd play "Castles."

Divide the chessboard in half, at the fold. My lonely king and pawns live on one side. Valerie elaborately arranged her pieces on the other, and my captured pieces were slaves and servants to hers. I don't remember how (probably blocked it) but my lonely king had to laboriously negotiate the release of the prisoners. It was never easy and rarely successful. I often quit Castles in frustration.

In the 33 years following my first game of Chess, I won only one game against a former boyfriend, and I truly don't know how I did it.

Anna said...

Great dialogue in this piece. I so well remember The Loneliness of the Event-Running Librarian.

I play a lot of Spades and Hearts online and am astonished at how often people cut off as soon as they meet a little adversity in the game. I'm a dogged loser.