The trifecta—three games, played simultaneously.
Mothers Day, 1994, and the kids and I set out three game boards on a rickety table at the Village Chess Shop on Thompson Street. To the surprise of the guys behind the counter, we’d rented backgammon, chess, and go sets; we planned to play three games simultaneously, our very own triathlon.
Albert was 10 and Rose was almost 16; I was still getting used to being 50. I was also getting used to Mother’s Day without my mother, who’d died of breast cancer four years earlier. We knew without saying it that playing all three games would make it agreeably impossible to think about anything except which piece or stone or man to move next.
Amidst strangers earnestly competing, the air ripe with the smell of bad coffee and the plastered-on cigarette smoke of yore, we contrived a hilarious, chaotic, deliciously geeky hour. (Modesty compels me to note that we were playing gomoku, not go, with the black and white stones and go board: a simpler, starkly beautiful game, in which you must be first to get five stones in a row.)
I remember how I felt: I remember it exactly. A sentence, not just a sense impression, formed in my brain. “These are the children I wanted.” My life wasn’t perfect (I was struggling to write novels while being an always-there mother and wife; my father was starting to fade) but I lived in Greenwich Village, I had my dream son and daughter.
Games were all-important in this algorithm for happiness; I cannot exaggerate their importance.
My younger brother and I were raised on games. Our mother may have bought the first Scrabble set available in Hartford. Daddy patiently taught Nick and me the arcane (but utterly logical) rules of cribbage, which he’d learned from a Canadian friend at a Florida convention for printing-company presidents. On our after-dinner walks, he would pitch rapid math at Nick and me. Our idea of perfect fun.
Our basement had not only the requisite Ping-Pong table but also a full-size Bally pinball machine. I remember that the installer offered to cross the wires so it would play for free, but Mom gave him the steely look I’d seen her use with golfers who wanted to improve their lie. “What’s the kick in winning a free game if you haven’t paid your nickel?” she asked.
My mother had a theory, she told me later. If my brother and I grew up playing games, tests and exams in school would hold no terror for us. And in her will, she stipulated that Nick and I should play a game of cribbage; the winner would get the first pick from her jewelry collection, which my sister-in-law and I were to divide—taking turns, of course.
While the three-piece-suited lawyer sat up very straight and our father made himself another Scotch, Nick and I threw down cards and pegged, calling out the score in our family patois. “Fifteen for two, fifteen for four, fifteen for six, and a perforate [pair for eight].” “Zilchmeyer for firk.” (A crib with no points.) Our faces were grim, our eyes were red, and we both played to win, as we’d been brought up to do. When I won, by a point or two, I suggested that my beautiful dark-haired sister-in-law take the sapphires, which I knew she loved—we’d been brought up to do that, too.
And so my own children grew up playing with cards, dice, spinners, timers, pegs, and pieces of all sorts. And whenever they faced a test in school, from primary-school vocab tests right through to the LSATs, I would tell them to have fun.
Of course, games are about more than test prep. They teach the intersection of skill and luck. Kids learn early on that games are more satisfying when you follow the rules—and the rules must be understood, not just imposed, with room made for house rules clearly identified as such. The family game board permits a singular and wonderful emotional experience: You play to win but take pleasure in the triumphs of your opponents—who are, after all, people you love.
The great games have their cultural history, yet they favor no gender, race, or nationality and are indifferent to age. I gave my 9-year-old friend Gabriel his first lesson at 18 months, when he wowed his mother and me by shouting “knight!” and picking up the right piece. An 11-year-old California girl, Annie Wang, recently became a chess master. I play two or three games a night with my darling Ricardo, 87. We’re patzers, not masters, he likes to say—but the games are thrilling, anyway. Tender and intimate, even as our bishops swoop along the diagonal to capture unguarded rooks.
Every few years The New York Times rediscovers board games, most recently this May in a piece about an unexpected boost from technology. But board games go back nearly forever; the Egyptian game Senet, a precursor of backgammon, has been found in pharaohs’ tombs. Nefertiti played it.
For some of us, board games will never lose their charm and power, their ability to connect across all divides, without booting up via the electronic umbilical cord. I’m addicted to Lexilus, a computerized version of Scrabble, which I play with one talented and gallant opponent I never see on terra firma, but I can’t bear chess or my other favorites on a screen. The sensory pleasures count for much: the cool smoothness of go stones, the muted rattle of dice in a leather cup.
On Mothers’ Day this year, my kids, now very grown-up, took me to The Uncommons, a board game café on the site of the old Village Chess Shop. The coffee is terrific now, the tables don’t wobble, the last whiff of cigarette smoke is gone; and the primal magic remains.
We played Super Big Boggle (although we remain hardcore fans of the original 4 x 4 grid), cribbage with a pegboard designed for three players, and backgammon. We played the games serially; these moments for the three of us are rare now, and I didn’t want to blunt the pleasures.
I looked at my daughter the editor, whose book launch party my son and I had gone to the day before, and my son the lawyer, whose swearing-in to the bar my daughter and I had attended the week before. No longer mine in the same way, but still exactly the children I wanted, and they kindly let me tell them so that day.
When I think about grandchildren, I think about the games we’ll play together, from tic-tac-toe and wooden pizzas divided into fractions to games that haven’t yet been invented. We’ll win, we’ll lose, we’ll talk or not talk in between moves; we’ll connect. And on airplane flights we’ll counter boredom with games, and maybe find some of the pieces my kids and I dropped between seats long ago.