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 Characters

The main characters in “Rules of the Game” are Waverly Place Jong, Lindo Jong, and Lau Po.

  • Waverly Place Jong is the story’s narrator and protagonist. As an adult, she looks back on her childhood in San Francisco’s Chinatown and her career as a chess champion.
  • Lindo Jong is Waverly’s mother, who immigrated to the United States from China. Her pride in Waverly’s success ultimately leads to conflict between the two.
  • Lau Po is an elderly man who plays chess against Waverly and teaches her everything he knows about the game.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Waverly Place Jong

Waverly is the protagonist and narrator of the story, in which she describes her childhood experiences as a chess prodigy and the way her success impacted her relationship with her mother, Lindo. As a child, Waverly is attentive to her mother’s lessons, though she is not a naturally obedient or meek individual. For example, when Waverly wants a bag of salted plums from the grocery store, her mother advises her “Bite back your tongue,” implying that the way to get what she wants is to be silent. Next time they go to the store, Waverly does not assert her will and is rewarded with the plums. Because she is a child of immigrants who have to start at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in the United States, Waverly’s mother encourages her to achieve success from an early age. She is named for the street on which she grows up, Waverly Place, and her family calls her by the nickname “Meimei,” or “Little Sister,” since she is the youngest of three. Despite her obedience lessons, Waverly has a mischievous streak. For instance, she knows she is being “wicked” when she goads her mother about Chinese torture.

In public, Waverly knows she must be polite and agreeable, as when she agrees with the Santa Claus at the Chinese Baptist Church when he asks if she has “been a very, very good girl” and obeyed her parents. She understands that there is “only one answer” and agrees. Waverly shows her early skill for strategy when choosing her Christmas present, knowing the biggest gifts are not always the best; however, she ends up with only candy, while her brother picks a prized chess set (albeit an incomplete one). Even though her brothers don’t allow her to play at first, she learns that she can trade candy for the buttons they use to represent the missing pieces of the set. This bargain convinces Vincent to let her play against him, so she is able to learn the basic rules of chess. Waverly is drawn to chess because of its “elaborate secrets waiting to be untangled.” She has an analytical mind and a competitive spirit, sensing “something was at stake” in a chess match.

As she plays chess more and educates herself on the game through reading and a friendship with Lau Po, Waverly begins to understand all facets and phases of a chess match and applies the “invisible strength” taught by Lindo, such as the value of showing but not telling. Waverly becomes very successful in the chess world as she enters and wins tournaments and even garners national attention as the next Bobby Fisher. Her family becomes accommodating, allowing her to spend time at home practicing rather than doing chores like her brothers. However, Waverly begins to feel the added pressure of her mother watching over her practice and study and resents Lindo’s involvement, not to mention her public bragging about her daughter, which Waverly interprets as Lindo trying to take credit for Waverly’s victories. She eventually rebels against her mother by voicing her frustrations and then running off, imagining her mother will be worried about her and will relent. However, she finds that her mother has a better strategy: having the entire family ignore Waverly. Though Waverly feels defeated at the end of the story, she is also determined to continue to fight the opponent she envisions in her mother. Her competitive nature will not allow her to simply give in.

Lindo Jong

Lindo is Waverly’s mother and serves as the main antagonist of the story. Though Lindo sees herself as supportive of her daughter’s chess career, Waverly interprets her mother’s actions as meddling, overbearing, and bombastic. Lindo is credited by her daughter as a master of “the art of invisible strength,” which she passes on to Waverly. She believes that her children must be quiet and obedient in order to succeed, to “rise above [their] circumstances” as the children of immigrants. Lindo and her husband take good care of their children, working to make ends meet, providing food and shelter so that Waverly and her brothers never know they are poor. Despite moving to the United States, Lindo is a believer in Chinese superiority, such as when she tells Waverly that the Chinese are “not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture.” She also seems suspicious of American norms and customs. For instance, when she looks over the chess rules, she dismisses them as “American rules” before critiquing the way in which the US demands that immigrants follow obscure rules in order to fit into society. Lindo is a proud woman, as seen when she wants Vincent to throw away the chess set because it is missing two pieces. Though she said at the church that the gift was “Too good,” when she is with her family, Lindo says that if the woman who donated it doesn’t want it, then “We don’t want it” either. Part of Lindo feels that she is too good to accept a donor’s cast-offs.

When Waverly begins impressing the community by winning matches against men in the neighborhood, Lindo publicly tells everyone, “Is luck.” However, she sees how hard Waverly works to become a great chess player while she is at home. Lindo takes to looking over her daughter’s shoulder while she studies. Waverly resents her mother’s suffocating presence while also recognizing that Lindo thinks she is Waverly’s “protective ally.” Even though Lindo has good intentions, her meddling turns her daughter against her. The tension between them escalates when Lindo tells everyone they come across while shopping that her daughter is “Wave-ly Jong.” When Waverly lashes out and runs off, Lindo calls after her, using her nickname, but when Waverly returns home, Lindo has chosen to ignore her daughter’s outburst. This is a strategic move that gives Lindo the upper hand in the relationship. Lindo proves that she knows her daughter very well and that she is skilled in the arts that she taught her daughter, more skilled than Waverly.

Lau Po

Lau Po is an old man in Waverly’s neighborhood who becomes a mentor and teacher to Waverly. One day Waverly approaches a group of old men and asks Lau Po if he will play against her in a match. He replies that he is too old to “play with dolls,” but he “smil[es] benevolently,” and Waverly knows she has found her opponent. Waverly learns much about chess strategy from Lau Po, a skilled, long-time player of the game. He teaches her the names of moves like “Throwing Stones on the Drowning Man” or “A Double Killing Without Blood.” He also instructs her in “the fine points of chess etiquette.” She channels all of these lessons into her future matches, and it is clear that Lau Po has been a great influence on her strategy and her understanding of the game.

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