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Subject: Teaching the Game to my 5-Year-Old Nephew rss

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Tom Russell
United States
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Went to the annual Easter family gathering. In attendance was my brother's son, who I'll call Gammon.

Gammon is a rambunctious sort, very loud and energetic, with the typical attention span of a five-year-old. Wanting something to do, he went to my grandmother's game collection which was composed mostly of mass-market and "traditional" titles (the exception being a pristine copy of Blood on the Alma).

He pulled out Kings in the Corner, started taking it out of the box, decided he didn't want to play it. He put it back and pulled out Cootie, which he got my sister to "play" with him. I put "play" in scare quotes because though she explained the rules, Gammon just did what he wanted anyway, taking two or three turns in a row, declaring that this die roll let him take this thing instead, etc., and, of course, that he had won.

He put Cootie away and got out a double-sided wooden Draughts/Chinese Checkers board. He got my sister and her fiance to "play" Chinese Checkers with him, but in much the same way, he made up rules, switched sides, "exploded" marbles with his bombs. He won.

This was more than a little irritating, because my wife and I had brought three of our games (for those curious: Pandemic (first edition) with Pandemic: On the Brink, Mister X (German version, purchased for $1 at a thrift store), and Chicago Express) to play with my sister and her fiance, who are the closest thing we have at the moment to regular gaming partners. It became increasingly clear that I would not be playing any games tonight.

Then Gammon turned over the board to the Draughts side, and asked, "How do you play this one?"

Said my sister, who had had her fill of it and was leaving for the evening, "Ask Tommy-- I mean Tom-- he'll show you."

I was not precisely thrilled about this, but figured that my sister had suffered enough. "Okay, I will show you how to play, and I will play with you, but only if we're going to play by the rules. This game is over a thousand years old" -- this is actually not accurate, but I didn't exactly have the internet handy-- "and they've tried playing this game a bunch of different ways but found out that this way I'm going to show you is the best." This, also, is not accurate, but the kid is five.

So we played the game. I had to remind him not to move my pieces, and not to move his pieces backwards, and no, his piece isn't a king yet. He seemed particularly perturbed that he couldn't move his pieces onto the red spaces, jump orthogonally, or jump over two or three checkers in a row. Each time he tried to do one of these things, I moved his piece back and said, "no, you can't do that" or "you can't do that yet." Sometimes, he would "help" me, suggesting that I move my piece "there, then I can jump it", and I would say, "well, that's why I'm not going to do that."

All this went down a little bit easier the first game in that I didn't really try; I made some purposefully lousy moves and mocked surprise when he jumped me or I fell into his trap. Even so, I still (sorta) held my own, in that he was down to his last two checkers when he claimed my last one.

He wanted to play again, so we set it up again. He asked if he could set up his pieces one row closer to the center; no, I said, and here I reminded him that the game is very old and people have tried all these different things and found out that this is the best way.

This time, I decided to give it more of an effort, and this is where I ran into a pretty sizable problem, the root of which was two-fold.

First, I can either try or not try, and I can't really do anything in-between. I can't "handicap" myself or "take it easy" on someone; I either play badly on purpose or play well on purpose. If I'm playing Agricola with novice players, for example, and I'm trying to play the game well, I'm going to probably win by a spread of twenty to thirty points. If I'm playing with the same group and I make bad moves on purpose, not only will I lose badly but it will be painfully obvious that I'm letting them win. I can't seem to half-ass it, to play well enough to be competitive without going overboard. So, this is the first part of the problem.

The second part is that I am a thirty-year-old man playing Draughts against a five-year-old.

So, even with both myself and his father assisting him by pointing out which moves were "safe" and which would result in jumps, the game was progressing in a very lopsided manner. Every time he lost a checker, he exclaimed "Aw man" or "Oh no". I had lost about five checkers when he was down to about that many. Gammon crossed his arms on the table and put his head down, and seemed about to cry.

His father told him that you can't always win, that it's just a game, but that just made it worse. I then made a series of obviously stupid moves that gave him two or three jumps a turn.

His father was pretty cross about that: you can't just let him win. And I knew that, of course, but the kid was about to cry, and having no children of my own I don't really know how to handle that. Which is of course exactly how he gets his way.

Gammon wanted to play again, only this time he wanted to be red. And I said sure, but: "This time, I'm going to try my very best to win. And if you lose, you can't get upset. Sometimes I win, sometimes you win, alright? Promise you won't get upset." He promised.

I had two intentions with our third and final game. First, I would try to highlight the core strategic principle of the game-- namely, that you want to force your opponent to take jumps that are disadvantageous to him. My thinking here was that if he thought of getting jumped as an asset instead of a loss he (1) wouldn't be nearly so upset when he lost a man and (2) would start to get a better idea of how to play the game.

My second intention was to play to win. I didn't think he'd like it, or accept it graciously, not this time, but one thing I've learned from playing board games is that if you lose often and badly enough (which I do in most games) you eventually stop being sore about it.

This time, I started with a very safe defensive strategy, moving checkers from back ranks to fill holes created by movement in the front, denying jumps whenever possible. Then, I moved a checker up to provoke a jump. "Now, you have to jump me, but then I'm going to jump your two guys with this guy." Every time I gave him a jump, I let him know why I had done it. At the end of the game, I had several kings in his back row, one man on a3, and one on b2. He moved his last piece, a king, from e3 to d2.

"Now, Gammon," I said, "I'm going to win the game now, and I'm going to show you how. I'm going to move my man here." (I moved the man from b2 to c3.) "Now, you have to jump him." (The king jumped from d2 to b4.) "And now my man jumps your king." (a3 jumps to c5.) "See, I let you jump my man so that I could jump yours."

He put his head down again.

"Gammon," said his father. "Say 'Good game'."

His head stayed down.


Still down.

His father called him by his full name. The kid looked up, clearly upset. "Say 'Good game'."

The kid said the words but didn't mean them. He may have promised not to get upset, but I knew that wouldn't be the case. And I don't think he really grasped the idea of giving your opponent strategic jumps. But, you know, he's only five, and though it's a simple (for adult gamers, too simple) concept, it's a little headier of a strategic principle than, say, "when you play Tic-Tac-Toe, make sure to go first." I didn't really expect him to get the hang of it (again: five), but I tried.

Reflecting on it afterwards as we were heading home, my wife and I thought I did alright. I was patient-- which is not one of my strong suits-- and I didn't let him change the rules.

Before we left, I told him that maybe we'd play again sometime.

"Okay," he said, and he seemed a little happier. "You know, I beat you twice. You only beat me once."

"I know."
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Tim Koppang
United States
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"It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy..."
"For the listener, who listens in the snow, and, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." -- Wallace Stevens
Great story. Thanks for sharing. On balance, I think you taught Gammon a hard lesson, but in the end he seemed take it alright.
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