Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1105
Waverly Jong: Lindo’s only daughter and youngest child; narrator
Vincent and Winston Jong: Lindo’s older brothers
Lao Po: an old man in the park who helps Waverly learn chess
The adult Waverly looking back on her childhood tells this story. An incident with her mother and some salted plums teaches her “the art of invisible strength,” encapsuled in two sayings: “Bite back your tongue” and “Strongest wind cannot be seen.”
One year at a Christmas celebration at the First Chinese Baptist Church, Vincent gets a used chess set; Waverly selects a box of Life Savers; and Winston receives a kit for a model submarine. Once home, Waverly offers two of her Life Savers to substitute for the missing two chessmen if Vincent will let her play. The winner could eat both Life Savers.
When Waverly starts asking too many questions, Vincent hands her the manual and tells her to read the rules for herself. Her mother encourages this, saying that immigrants are often not told all the rules so that they don’t get ahead of the local people. Waverly begins to study chess seriously.
In addition to learning each piece and the different moves, she comes to understand the importance of strategy and the value of not revealing her plans. She becomes so involved in chess that she makes a chessboard, hangs it on the wall in her bedroom, and stares at it for hours, playing imaginary games. Soon her brothers no longer play with her.
Waverly begins playing chess in the playground at the end of the alley with an old man named Lao Po. At first she loses, but Lao Po teaches her both strategies and chess etiquette. On weekends small crowds gather as Waverly defeats opponent after opponent. Even Lindo comes to watch, sitting proudly on the bench while humbly declaring, “Is luck.”
Someone suggests that Waverly compete in area chess tournaments. Waverly says, “I desperately wanted to go, but I bit back my tongue.” Instead, she tells her mother she doesn’t want to. “They would have American rules. If I lost, I would bring shame on my family.” The technique works just as she wishes; Lindo insists that she try.
Waverly wins at that meet easily. As she continues to compete, Lindo encourages her all she can. The Chinese community also encourages her, and by the time she is nine, Waverly has become a national chess champion. On Saturday morning shopping expeditions, Lindo proudly tells everyone, “This my daughter Wave-ly Jong.”
One Saturday Waverly expresses embarrassment at Lindo’s pride. Her mother has nothing to say; the angry expression on her face says it all. Waverly runs away.
After a couple of hours, realizing she has nowhere else to go, she comes home. The family is having dinner, and Lindo has little to say. Waverly walks into her room, lies down, and tries to figure out what to do next.
The title of this story, “Rules of the Game,” works on three levels. Most obviously it refers to Waverly’s learning the rules of chess. It also refers to Lindo’s observation that immigrants must learn the rules of their adopted country for themselves, because the locals will not share them. Finally, it refers to Waverly’s relationship with Lindo, which becomes a power struggle between the two. Learning the rules of chess takes up much of the plot of this story, but learning to get along with her mother will occupy the rest of the novel.
The theme of this story, “strongest wind cannot be seen” or “the greatest power lies in the unexpected,” also works on multiple levels. In the opening paragraphs Waverly says this way of thinking helped her win arguments, respect, and chess games. “I discovered that for the whole game one must gather invisible strengths and see the endgame before the game begins.” Waverly also learns to keep her strategy a secret. “A little knowledge withheld is a great advantage one should store for future use.” At her first chess tournament Waverly keeps her secrets so well that her opponent never sees defeat coming.
Waverly’s failure to “bite back [her] tongue,” issuing her challenge to Lindo even though she “knew it was a mistake to say anything more,” has disastrous consequences. Lindo cannot tolerate such disrespect as a mother and especially as a Chinese mother dealing with a daughter. She switches from “protective ally” to opponent. Waverly is about to learn that her mother does indeed know how to play chess, how to be the “strongest wind.”
Tan underscores the analogy of Waverly and Lindo’s relationship to a chess game subtly. Vincent explains that there are 16 chess pieces per player. When Waverly returns home after running away, she says, “I climbed the 16 steps to the door. . ..” The apartment thus becomes a metaphoric chess board on which Waverly and Lindo play out their game.
When Waverly runs away, she envisions Lindo walking through the streets looking for her, then going home to wait. She does not foresee that Lindo gathers invisible strengths. She is calmly eating supper with the family when Waverly appears at the door. Like a good chess player, Lindo does not reveal her strategy. She bites back her tongue and says only, “We not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us.” No scolding, no punishment: Waverly has no idea what will happen next. The reader, however, may well suspect that she will have a hard time outmanipulating this opponent. From “The Red Candle” we already know that Lindo knows how to use secrets to her advantage.
Like the woman with the swan feather in the first vignette, Lindo wants a better life for her daughter. Waverly grows up in a warm, loving home in a supportive community. She does not appreciate what she has, though: She thinks her success is due entirely to her own efforts. While she certainly has dedicated a great deal of time and effort to the game, she has not been alone in her pursuit. She owes a debt to her brothers, who sleep in the living room and do her chores so she can study chess; to Lau Po, who has taught her his secrets; and to her mother, who has shown her love, pride, and support in many ways. Unfortunately, Waverly does not recognize this. Her comment, “If you want to show off, then why don’t you learn to play chess?” reveals self-centeredness, an attitude Lindo had not envisioned in her daughter. In the power struggle between the two, Lindo has the next move.
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