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

Rules of the Game

by Amy Tan

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

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 begins the story by crediting her mother, Lindo, with teaching her “the art of invisible strength.” This is Lindo’s “strategy” for navigating basically any and all aspects of life. Though she originally instructs her daughter to use this strength in everyday situations, Waverly is later able to apply this skill set to chess. Lindo advises her daughter to “Bite back [her] tongue,” or to remain silent, which could be seen as a form of obedience. However, the silence is only a strategy that allows the subject to attack from an unknown, secretive position. As Lindo says, “Strongest wind cannot be seen.” Lindo’s advice to Waverly in this quotation becomes ironic later in the story when both mother and daughter attempt to use this skill to compete with one another. “Neither of [them] knew” that Waverly would apply invisible strength to chess, nor do they know that each will attempt to use it against the other.

I learned why it is essential in the endgame to have foresight, a mathematical understanding of all possible moves, and patience; all weakness and advantages become evident to a strong adversary and are obscured to a tiring opponent. I discovered that for the whole game one must gather invisible strengths and see the endgame before the game begins. . . . A little knowledge withheld is a great advantage one should store for future use. . . . It is a game of secrets in which one must show and never tell.

In this passage, Waverly talks about the elements of chess that capture her attention and interest. She is drawn to the strategy required of chess, and she appreciates that she must plan ahead and “have foresight.” This leads Waverly to spend time in her room imagining potential matches and working out the best moves to beat her opponent. She also seems to enjoy the competitive nature of the game and the possibility that she could best another person at it. Waverly describes the “great advantage” that her mother taught her: “invisible strength.” She can now use that early lesson to win chess games; she can practice and strategize quietly on her own, look unassuming, and silently and steadily wear her opponent out. Waverly thinks of chess in terms of “secrets” that she can know and keep from her opponent. Her perspective that success in chess can be built on “show[ing] and never tell[ing]” allows her to apply her mother’s lessons on invisible strength and channel them into chess victories.

I went to school, then directly home to learn new chess secrets, cleverly concealed advantages, more escape routes. But I found it difficult to concentrate at home. My mother had a habit of standing over me while I plotted out my games. I think she thought of herself as my protective ally.

After her early experiences practicing chess on Waverly Place, Waverly becomes more serious about strategy and spends more time alone. She reads about chess and imagines matches so that she can think through the endgame and plan moves accordingly. Some of the same wording that has recurred throughout the story is present here as well, words like “secrets,” “advantages,” and “escape routes.” She has one key disadvantage at home, though: her mother’s meddling. Lindo has always seemed to take a proprietary role over Waverly’s chess playing, overseeing her practice and bragging about her daughter’s winnings in public, much to Waverly’s embarrassment. Waverly feels...

(This entire section contains 947 words.)

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suffocated by her mother’s surveillance. While Lindo thinks she is Waverly’s “protective ally,” Waverly clearly sees her as an opponent or, at the very least, an obstacle in her way. Their relationship will continue to deteriorate until they truly become opponents, at least in Waverly’s mind.

In my head, I saw a chessboard with sixty-four black and white squares. Opposite me was my opponent, two angry black slits. She wore a triumphant smile. ‘Strongest wind cannot be seen,’ she said. Her black men advanced across the plane. . . . My white pieces screamed as they scurried and fell off the board one by one. . . . I closed my eyes and pondered my next move.

By the end of the story, Waverly has come to see her mother as her enemy. Lindo’s eyes and smile are hinted at in this passage when Waverly describes her “opponent.” This enemy’s smile is also “triumphant” because she feels that she has won the battle between herself and her daughter. Just before this passage, Waverly chided her mother in public for bragging about her chess wins and then ran away, not returning home for several hours. When she does get home, her mother tells the family to ignore her, and Lindo’s refusal to express any concern about Waverly’s disappearance and return leads to Lindo’s sense of victory. Waverly envisions them on either side of a chessboard, with her mother playing the black pieces and she the white. Her mother’s pieces “advance,” gaining ground in a nod to Waverly’s sense that her mother is winning their conflict. In response, Waverly’s pieces “screamed” and “scurried,” which indicates that they are afraid and intimidated by the other side. Her pieces fall off the board, as Lindo’s invisible strength was too much for her. Waverly does not give up, though. She starts to strategize her “next move,” which suggests that their conflict is only just beginning and that Waverly is motivated to keep their competition going.




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