Empowerment. Engagement. Authenticity.

More than a Chess Game

Setting binds a collection of characters and events to concrete places and social structure. Amy Tan’s “The Rules of the Game” becomes more than a young girl’s success at playing chess when juxtaposed against the humility of immigrant life in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Readers are drawn into a culture clash which challenges the mother-child relationship. Cultural tradition, physical surroundings and the game of chess are all elements of the physical and social setting which contribute to the meaning of the story.

Waverly Jong belongs to a culture rich in traditional values. Waverly's mother “imparted her daily truths” at every opportunity to ensure that her children succeeded. Snippets of this advice run through Waverly’s mind like mantras. Readers see a close-knit community with family supper routines and community businesses eager to support their own. While Waverly’s success at chess is a result of her “mathematical understanding of all possible moves”, she holds a deep respect for those who teach her. It is important for readers to grasp this concept of a cultural whole because it is Waverly’s attempt to pull away from that community which precipitates her crisis.

Observing the shifts in physical setting throughout a story is another channel through which readers derive meaning. From the “warm, clean two-bedroom flat” where Waverly lives, to the “small, sandlot playground” and the “First Chinese Baptist Church at the end of the alley” the setting depicts Waverly as a typical child, prone to mischief but tempered by discipline. Ironically, straying from this discipline leads to Waverly’s success in chess. Her brother is told to throw the chess set away but he doesn’t. A detour on the way home from school results in Waverly meeting Lau Po, who teaches her the finer points of the game. As Waverly gets involved in tournaments further from home, her trophy displays move from her home to the bakery window, symbolizing her progress away from familiarity toward popularity. Waverly abandons her childhood haunts surrounded by other children for time with her chessboard. This change further emphasizes her integration into a larger world. Looking at these transitions from alley to living room and church Christmas party to tournament auditorium, readers see not only Waverly’s growth and struggle for independence, but also her mother’s determination to preserve Waverly's pride in her heritage.

The role of chess as a setting in the story is an important one. Staring at the chessboard pinned to her wall, Waverly is transported to a world of adversaries and strategy. The chessboard becomes an analogy for her life. Waverly uses her new knowledge of “weaknesses and advantages” to goad her mother into allowing her to compete for the first time. She continues to press her advantage, getting the bedroom to herself and berating her mother for watching her practice. In the chess game of life, however, Waverly underestimates her opponent. In the final battle with her mother, Waverly’s “white pieces fell off the board one by one” It is her mother’s teaching that corners her and she must return to the reality of her apartment; “the alleys contained no escape routes”.

As demonstrated in this essay, a story is a product of more than characters’ actions, conflicts and resolutions. Where and when a story takes place, the culture and customs in which the characters are immersed and the mental journeys in which they engage add meaning to a story. Waverly’s success is even more incredible given her socio-economic background and her immersion in a non-English environment. By understanding the anti-American attitudes of her mother, readers realize how Waverly’s integration into that world would have made her proud but frightened her as well. “The Rules of the Game” can be read like a rule book of chess. There are opening moves, opponent assessments, strategies and the endgame. This interpretation of the story leads readers to analyze their own life experiences. Through the physical and social setting, “The Rules of the Game” emerges as more than the birth of a child prodigy.

(c) Kristy Kassie, September 26, 2008


Amy Tan, "The Rules of the Game"

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