Christmas In Kamchatka

Risk map in Wikipedia.
Image via Wikipedia

Christmas In Kamchatka

I think it’s wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly – Steven Wright

Competitiveness is like a morning cowlick that never seems to settle. It pops up in the most prosaic circumstances – at the family room table across a game of Hearts as a son-in-law drops the queen of spades on his mother-in law for the third straight hand. It is in the sharp elbows that suddenly fly in your annual family “touch” football game and it is constant skirmishes along the borders of Kamchatka during the Christmas Day game of Risk.

We like playing games in my family.  I pretend not to be competitive but it is a thin veneer.  The art of enjoying any contest as a type A cutthroat adult is to always win but never let others catch you trying to win.  Let them speculate on your motives but do not get caught blatantly attempting to succeed.  It is important to fake humility and to reinforce this with periodic excursions away from the board game – – requiring people to call you back.  Forcing them to shout, “it is your turn” can make you a master of misdirection. You must appear to not care.  When crushing a nine-year-old niece in Sorry, you must seem sympathetic. ” I rolled a six? Oh I guess that means you are bumped back to home. …What do you know? I win! (Tears) Ohhh, don’t worry sweetheart (feigned sympathy), your uncle Michael was just REALLY lucky this time. Honey, don’t cry, (more fake commiseration) it’s only a silly game.”

Each year, the same board games reappear – relics of the age of Parker Brothers, imagination, 11 television channels and computers the size of city blocks. It was the era of Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble, Parcheesi and Yahtzee.  Later, we expanded our repertoire to include Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit. In fits of adult nostalgia, we re-purchased these games on EBay, at yard sales and on rainy days while on summer vacation assuming that we could vicariously recapture those magic nights through our children. Instead our children balked – bored by the games simplicity and alarmed by our hypocrisy as we espoused sportsmanship while nonchalantly trying to force them into Chapter 11 with hotels on Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana Avenues.

Once a year, the board games are excavated from an all purpose storage cabinet in our family room.  I am immediately on the defensive as my unimaginative teens complain about the games as too long, too boring or too simple. They possess that latent American gene that screams for instant resolution and constant action.

I am difficult to beat in Risk.  I am like the Chinese. While teenagers think in terms of minutes, I think in terms of hours. I fight a guerrilla war of attrition – first seizing the seemingly insignificant continent of Oceania comprised of Australia/Indonesia. I use the continent’s two bonus armies each turn to annoyingly pick away at anyone who tries to control Asia, Africa or the Americas. By the time my hordes of freedom fighters have rid the last continent of my blue, green and yellow opponents’ armies, no one is paying attention. They are watching television, texting or have left the room – indifferent Westerners bored with this protracted analog war of dice, luck and strategy. Perhaps the next American version of Risk should include a “surge” scenario that reduces the game duration to 18 minutes.  This seems to be the maximum amount of time this generation prefers to wage war.

Monopoly holds broader appeal although I always end up being forced to be the boot – which really bothers me. Others get to be the battleship, cannon or even a Yorkshire terrier. I am convinced the boot is jinxed, as I can never seem to land on Boardwalk when it is free to be purchased.  The boot usually lands on the luxury tax space until someone has built a hotel on Park Place and then it seems happy to pay $1500 for a shoeshine.

There are two types of Monopoly players – Main Street and Wall Street.  Wall Streeters buy everything, make deals and forge alliances.  They mortgage their own properties to raise more money to buy more properties and build more hotels. They are always one dice roll from bankruptcy. These risk-addicted individuals take on maximum leverage and seek to create a bubble that will pop in the face of their Main Street opponent.  Main Street is cautious but naive.  They buy properties like Mediterranean and Vermont Avenues because it is cheap to build hotels.  Main Street buys utilities and railroads.  Against the advice of armchair observers, Main Street trustingly trades Park Place to Wall Street for $1000 cash, Connecticut Ave and three free “lands”. An hour later, Main Street has mortgaged his last property and is begging for one last turn so he might pass Go and avoid losing his racecar.   The Wall Street ruthlessly crushes him like a cigarette butt.

In our house, my opponents are subject to constant third party coaching from in-laws and do-gooders who do not want to risk actually competing but loiter like homeless people and shamelessly kibitz. “Watch out for your Dad.” shouts my mother-in-law.  “Don’t do that deal, sweetie,” my wife says to my son. “Don’t you see in one hour, you will land on Park Place and owe him everything?” I look up with a frozen perfunctory grin – “who are you people, regulators? Don’t you have homes? Or perhaps some Christmas cards to write?”

My bloodthirsty competitiveness was borne out of a third child Darwinian struggle for attention in a four-child ecosystem. Competition was everywhere and my father did not necessarily attempt to diffuse it.  He correctly assumed that the youngest would struggle more fiercely and in doing so, perhaps be that much more braced for what lay ahead in the great oceans of life.

There was no mercy when playing games in our male dominated household. Games taught you valuable life skills such as “ the game face”, “ blackmail, extortion and intimidation. Each Christmas competition was a page torn from Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate. “ My brother was the master of blackmail and misinformation.  He understood when Sun Tzu mused, “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. “He could make me choke faster than a large piece of filet mignon. I can remember that fateful Christmas when I finally prevailed over him at Risk. As I harassed his pitiful armies across North America to a last stand in Greenland, I understood the sense of power of Alexander, Genghis Kahn and Caesar.   On this night, I was master of the universe.

Later Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary tested our left and right brains.  Trivial pursuit is more daunting and clearly creates social and generational barriers.  As a sports, history, literature and movie buff, I can adequately vie for 2/3’s of the pie wedges.   However, I am lost in geography and without Bunsen burner in science.  Trivial Pursuit has produced a variety of themed versions that hold more attention from younger family members.  However, the popular culture version has about as much appeal to me as a regular culture – a Petri dish of wriggling micro-celebrity parasites that will only infect and weaken society. If you ever catch me playing a game where the “Octo-Mom” is an answer to anything, please kill me.

Pictionary is very frustrating. As an artist, I am outraged when my wife’s Pictionary partner correctly interprets her Neanderthal hieroglyphic representing “global warming” while my impatient teammate is screaming out names of countries as I am trying to correctly draw the horn of Africa on my brilliant rendition of the earth.  Pictionary was invented by the legions of the artistically challenged that wanted to get back at their more talented right-brained siblings.  Pictionary is hell.

There are card games – hearts, poker, gin and bridge.  All of these games afford opportunities for reprisals, heckling and old-fashioned spirited competition and as the last card falls, the final property flips into foreclosure or the final pie piece is won, there is a great sigh.  Arms stretch and a slow migration occurs – usually to the refrigerator as the vanquished look to food for solace and comfort.  The game accoutrements are collected and carefully returned to their boxes.  It will be another year before we do battle.  However, there are really no losers.  We have huddled together once again like all families since the beginning of time.  A tiny human tribe – loving, fragile and imperfect – drawn together by competition and the chance, perhaps, to proclaim themselves ruler of the holiday.

One thought on “Christmas In Kamchatka

  1. Christina December 31, 2009 / 1:15 pm

    Enjoyed reading your blog. Here’s a suggestion for next year, try Rummikub for the bored pre-teens and young teens. It has strategy that young and old alike can understand and it’s a fairly quick moving game once everyone “gets it”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s