I’m learning to become a better sport. Saturday at Scrabble club I didn’t pout, whine, or complain. Maybe it’s because I only lost two out of five games: one to my husband, who cheated, and one to Scott Garner, who also cheated.
Okay. They didn’t cheat. The truth is, I let them win. They’re both manly men and need their egos stroked.
Yeah, yeah. I know. They’re better players than I am and they got better tiles than I did. Happy now?
I sometimes ponder the nature of my bad sportsmanship in club Scrabble. (I behave better at tournaments, unless I’m losing to two or three people who shall remain nameless, though one is a retired magician and the other is Melissa Routzahn, whom I no longer play because she’s rated a million points higher than I am.) I’m gracious in other areas of my life: I’m not a jealous person—I feel there’s enough love, fame, attention, money to go around for everyone. I don’t feel as if others have to fail in order for me to succeed. This is true in all areas of my life except for board games.
The roots of my need to win at every board game go back to my childhood. Play was a controversial word in my Lithuanian household. My parents had endured the Soviet occupation of their country followed by the Nazi invasion. They fled Lithuania before the communists could reinvade, spent years in Displaced Persons camps in Germany and Austria, eventually immigrated to the United States to build new lives from scratch. They counted every penny and waited anxiously for news from relatives in the homeland. That’s not to say they never had fun. They drank at rowdy immigrant parties and took vacations to neighboring Indiana and Michigan. But when it came to priorities, making sure their two daughters were having a good American time was at the very bottom of the list. My parents expected A’s in school, 5’s in Lithuanian Saturday School, reading of what they termed “good literature,” and completion of household chores in a timely manner. Television was so restricted as to be practically nonexistent.
“We need time to play,” my sister and I would nag my mother when she’d present us with a list of afterschool obligations.
“Okay, you can play the piano,” she’d chuckle, pleased with her American cleverness.
“Nooo! We want to play board games.”
“You become bored playing games,” she’d say, and laugh again.
“Nooo. Like Mouse Trap. Everyone in the neighborhood owns Mouse Trap. Except for us.”
It was at this point of the conversation that my father would pipe in: “You want catch mouses? Okay, go to hardware store. I give you money buy traps.”
My parents were suspicious of games involving plastic pieces and/or instructions written in English. Since this included almost every game on the market, our house was almost completely bereft of those diversions inundating the basements and closets of my American friends.
(Years later, my mother’s unfamiliarity with American popular culture caused her to confuse Scrabble with much simpler games. I’d tell her how much fun Marty and I had playing Scrabble, how challenging it was, etc.
“I hope you have fun playing Candy Land this weekend,” she said once.
“Mom, we’re not playing Candy Land.”
“How did you do at the Candy Land competition?” she asked after we’d come back from a particularly grueling tournament.)
The only game my parents accepted wholeheartedly was chess—sakmatai—as ubiquitous in our Lithuanian neighborhood as cold beet soup in the summer, the pieces made of wood or stone or sometimes even amber, the board sturdy and well-crafted. My father taught me to play when I was eight. I suspect he wanted someone to clobber on a regular basis. In the beginning I enjoyed the game, loved the fact that the nimble knight could prance around the board, that the queen was the most powerful piece of all—much more commanding than the sickly king. I quickly grew tired of losing to my father and decided to teach my sister, Rita, to play. After she revealed some talent for the game, I told her about additional rules I had forgotten to include with my initial instructions.
“Under special circumstances the rook can move both horizontally and vertically in the course of a single play,” I opined. “We call this the Rule of the L.”
Rita eventually grew suspicious of the Rule of the L, which never worked in her favor, and quit playing.
The prohibition against games extended to sports as well, at least American sports: football and baseball. My parents scoffed at these pastimes. They derided the way Americans looked upon athletes—as superior to opera singers and poets and sculptors. They also scorned what they saw as the American need to win—all the time, at all costs. That’s not to say my parents didn’t believe in competition. The nature of the contest was often confusing, the rules for winning, especially as set forth by my mother, never clearly stated: you should be the smartest girl in class, but be careful about being smarter than the smartest boy, unless he’s the type of boy who doesn’t mind girls who are smarter than he is. You may go beyond a mere four-year college degree, but if you could marry someone with a doctorate, well, that would be even better. Don’t be afraid of girls more attractive than you. You can “win” the affection of men by making them feel important and wearing revealing clothing.
“And always laugh at their jokes,” my mother would say.
“What if they’re not funny?”
“Laugh anyway. Be polite.”
I’ve worked through the looks and intelligence issues. And I’m getting there with the board games. In fact, my goal is to become not only a good loser, but a great loser. The best Scrabble loser in the world. I want there to be a Good Sportsmanship award at every tournament, and I want to win that award. Every time. And I want prize money to go with the statuette. And ratings points. And maybe a newspaper headline or two.