Rules of the Game by Amy Tan

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What is the theme of the story "Rules of the Game" by Amy Tan?

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The themes of "Rules of the Game" are all about conflict—first the eternal conflict between generations, then the equally well-established yet less clear-cut conflict between authority and and intelligence. There is also the more equal and cerebral conflict involved in a game of chess.

In the first few lines, Waverly says that when she was six years old, her mother taught her the art of invisible strength, which involves biting back her tongue. Waverly is rewarded when she does this, but it is always she who has to do it in conflicts with her mother. It is no strategy for winning arguments against Lindo. Indeed, it becomes clear that no such strategy exists. Waverly can use her intelligence to outwit her brothers and her opponents at chess but never her mother, who crushes her with the weight of authority. It does not matter that Waverly is right or that she is cleverer than her mother. Lindo scolds her for losing pieces in a chess game, even though she wins the game and a trophy.

"Next time win more, lose less."

"Ma, it's not how many pieces you lose," I said. "Sometimes you need to lose pieces to get ahead."

"Better to lose less, see if you really need." At the next tournament, I won again, but it was my mother who wore the triumphant grin.

"Lost eight piece this time. Last time was eleven. What I tell you? Better off lose less!" I was annoyed, but I couldn't say anything.

This displays the pattern for Waverly's relationship with her mother, who supports her in her chess career but wins every domestic argument, despite Waverly's superior intelligence and understanding, by using her maternal authority to have the last word. This is the fundamental unfairness of the conflicts between youth and age and between authority and intelligence, an unfairness which is prevalent throughout life except in the artificial equality of a chess game, where only intelligence counts.

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There are many themes in the story "Rules of the Game." However, the main theme is power. The opening lines of the work introduce the theme with these words:

I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though neither of us knew it at the time, chess games.

Waverly Jong uses what she learns about power and applies it to chess. She does very well and becomes a national sensation. From this perspective, she uses the art of "invisible strength" to defeat her opponents. 

As the story progresses, she also has conflicts with her mother. This is where the story becomes more interesting, because there is a contest of wit and will with her mother. Will Waverly admit that she is dependent on her mother and do what she is told or will she assert her independence? The question is who will win. 

At the end of the story, as the tension escalates, the reader is not given an answer of who will win (but it is implied that her mother was winning). More importantly, everything has morphed into a chess game of power. 

Her black men advanced across the plane, slowly marching to each successive level as a single unit. My white pieces screamed as they scurried and fell off the board one by one. As her men drew closer to my edge, I felt myself growing light. I rose up into the air and flew out the window. Higher and higher, above the alley, over the tops of tiled roofs, where I was gathered up by the wind and pushed up toward the night sky until everything below me disappeared and I was alone. I closed my eyes and pondered my next move.

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Throughout the short story "Rules of the Game," Amy Tan examines the theme of coping with high expectations and performing under extreme pressure. Waverly Jong is a child prodigy. She is revered throughout her neighborhood for her accomplishments in the field of chess. Despite the fact that she receives high praise from her community and family, Waverly is forced to deal with the high expectations of her mother. Waverly's mother lives vicariously through her child and challenges her daughter to improve her performance after each chess match. Waverly begins to experience the pressure from her mother, particularly when she is practicing at home. Waverly's mother watches over her shoulder while she practices and forces her daughter into the community's limelight by making Waverly go to the market on Saturdays. Waverly begins to resent her mother's treatment and no longer wishes to play chess by the end of the story. Waverly is not able to cope with her mother's additional pressure and high expectations. She chooses to abandon her dreams of earning grand master status in order to escape her mother's oppressive nature.

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“Rules of the Game” is from The Joy Luck Club.  The story recounts Waverly’s time as a chess prodigy.  As a small child, Waverly had a predilection for chess.  However, after her mother and family focused too heavily on winning, she begins to feel embarrassed by being singled out.  She gets into an argument with her mother that results in her inability to play chess.

Chess is often described as a metaphor for life.  One theme of “Rules of the Game” is that no person should be defined by one single thing.  Another theme is that when parents try to live vicariously through their children, it is usually disastrous for both parent and child.


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There are many themes within "rules of the game" by Amy Tan. The one that interests me the most, however, is that of the relationship between mother and daughter. Waverly and her mother have a good relationship towards the beginning of the novel, however as Waverly gets more Americanized, the their relationship seems to fade. Waverly is moving on, whereas her mother wants to stay in the Chinese traditions. That is the theme that intrigues me the most, however others in the novel include but aren't limited to, being a CHinese American, poverty, and chess.

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