Family games [99/100]

Throughout my childhood, I remember a lot of distinct phases of family games with my parents and brother.

I often played Five in a Row or Connect Five with my dad after dinner. It is a simple game (also called wu zi qi in Chinese, or gomoku in Japanese), but involves a lot of thinking ahead 5–10 steps to try to trip up your opponent. Then there was Napoleon, the trick-taking card game. For awhile, almost every night we’d bust out a deck of cards, split into two teams, and play a few rounds.

There was mahjong. For awhile, it was a holiday game — we took out the set when cousins and family were over. My grandmother (waipo) taught me to play at a young age, and I remember sitting next to her, carefully arranging the ceramic tiles. I would point to the one I thought we should get rid of next, and she would purse her lips, shake her head, and flick another tile out. It made no sense to me. Until she won two turns later. “Ah, hu le,” she’d chuckle, announcing her victory. And then she’d explain why she got rid of the tile she had, which involved some convoluted explanation of how she thought my dad was waiting for that tile because he threw out two other tiles that gave him away.

One year, we really got into mahjong — instead of winning being a pretty binary state, we started playing that you have to accumulate enough points through various winning patterns. For example, if you had three “sets” of something and they happened to be consecutive, like 1–3, 4–6, 7–9, you’d get “yi tiao long” or “a whole dragon.” Another possibility was for everything in your hand to be of one type, which is called “qing yi se.” The more points you had when you won, the more chips people had to give you. My parents only rule was that we could never play mahjong for real money — the payment can increase exponentially with points, and people lose houses and lives to it.

And then there was ping pong — I was reminded of this today at Medium’s company ping-pong tournament. Ping pong came into focus at various points in my life, including when I was at Google’s NY office. I met my husband playing doubles in that office’s game room. I’m grateful that my parents bought a ping pong table when I was in middle school.

There was a period when we played doubles a lot at home. Doubles is a very different game — you have to get in the playing field right after your partner returns or serves, but without disrupting them, and then once you hit the ball, you need to bust ass out of there. If I ended up being in the way, I’d definitely hear about it, so I learned to hop in and out pretty quick. My dad taught me to play with the very Chinese “penhold” grip style with lots of topspin (but really not much else). Later in college, I learned that this grip has in recent years been considered to be an inferior playing style because the backhand smashes are limited in strength — I tried to change, but it was incredibly difficult, so I still play with a penhold grip.


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