abstract illustration of a chess board with two disembodied eyes above it

Rules of the Game

by Amy Tan

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Rules of the Game Summary

In “Rules of the Game,” chess prodigy Waverly engages in a battle of wills with her domineering mother.

  • Waverly Place Jong grows up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where her mother, Lindo, teaches her the “art of invisible strength.”

  • After watching her brothers play chess, Waverly quickly masters the game and becomes a national chess champion.

  • Lindo’s ostentatious bragging about Waverly’s accomplishments embarrasses Waverly. She briefly runs away but later returns home to consider her next move in her battle of wills with her mother.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

“The Rules of the Game,” a short story by Amy Tan, opens with narrator Waverly Jong recalling moments from her childhood. She reflects that her mother, Lindo, “taught her the art of invisible strength.” This strategy can be used for any everyday circumstance or conflict, but Waverly will later apply it to master the game of chess. From Lindo, Waverly learns to “bite back her tongue” in order to demonstrate strength, and she is rewarded by Lindo when she puts this lesson into practice.

Waverly’s parents immigrated from China and reside in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Despite their small apartment on Waverly Place and Lindo’s notion that her children should “rise above [their] circumstances,” Waverly does not grow up thinking they are poor. Waverly describes the layout of the neighborhood, including the bakery under their apartment, a small playground, and alleys where she and her siblings prefer to play. Waverly and her brothers are afraid of one restaurant at the end of the alley and joke about what kind of bad activities and people are hidden there. One day, she has a conversation with her mother in which she asks slyly what the term “Chinese torture” means. Lindo claims that the Chinese are the best at torture.

The family goes to a Christmas party at the Chinese Baptist Church in their neighborhood, and each of the children receives a present. Waverly ends up with a twelve-pack of Life Savers, but her brother Vincent gets a chess set that is missing a couple of pieces. Lindo persuades Vincent to throw it away when they return home because she is too proud to accept something that is damaged; however, the boys begin to play with the set. Waverly is not allowed to play at first but is intrigued by the “elaborate secrets” that she thinks are hidden in the board. She begins to trade Vincent Life Savers in exchange for a chance to play. Vincent introduces his younger sister to the rules of chess, and she asks probing questions to the point that he loses patience with her. Lindo looks at the rules and dismisses them as American rules; she tells Waverly to “find out why yourself.” Waverly continues to develop her knowledge of each phase of the game and learns the value of keeping secrets, not giving away her next move to her opponent, and, essentially, channeling her invisible strength. Waverly draws her own version of the board to hang in her room so she can stare at it and contemplate strategies.

One day, Waverly brings her chessboard out to the alley and asks some old men if they want to play. One of the men, Lau Po, seems to think playing chess with a child is above him, but they begin a game, and Waverly continues to build her knowledge through these practices. He teaches her the names of strategies and moves and instructs her in the etiquette of the game. After studying under Lau Po all summer, Waverly starts playing matches against other people while crowds gather to watch her best them “one by one.” Lindo publicly attributes her wins to luck.

After Waverly has impressed the neighborhood with her skills, a man tells Waverly and Lindo about competitive chess tournaments, suggesting Waverly should enter one. Waverly is hesitant because she thinks her family will be ashamed if she loses, but Lindo encourages her, noting that it’s only shameful if she never tries. Before Waverly’s first tournament match, Lindo gives her a piece of red jade for luck. Waverly taps into all her preparation, experience, and strategizing to defeat her...

(This entire section contains 930 words.)

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first opponent. She wins first place in the tournament. As her wins pile up, Waverly becomes national chess champion by the age of nine. She is even featured inLife magazine and “touted as the Great American Hope.” Meanwhile, at home, she is excused from chores so she can concentrate on chess.

As she achieves more prominence in the chess world, Waverly no longer plays matches in her neighborhood but goes directly home to practice, study, and imagine matches and moves. She finds herself thrown off by her mother’s constant presence, though. In the house, the family makes “many concessions” so that Waverly has time, space, and quiet in which to train. In public, Lindo praises her daughter and shows her off to the neighbors and shopkeepers, which begins to grate on Waverly. After they leave a shop in which Lindo was bragging about her, Waverly tells her mother she doesn’t want her to keep telling everyone that she is Lindo’s daughter. She admits that she is embarrassed when her mother brags about her to everyone and tells Lindo she should learn chess herself if she wants to take credit for Waverly’s wins. Waverly quickly takes her hand from her mother’s and runs away down the alley while her mother yells after her. Waverly quickly understands that she is not going any particular direction and that she will not be able to escape her conflict with her mother.

Later in the evening, Waverly returns home to find her family at the dinner table. When her brother acknowledges her presence, Waverly’s mother tells everyone to ignore her. The family continues eating and doesn’t look her way, so Waverly goes up to her room and lies in her bed. She imagines a chessboard and her mother as the opponent on the other side. Her mother is winning the match, but Waverly is determined to come up with her “next move.”