Summary, Analysis and Themes of “Rules of the Game” by Amy Tan

This is one of the stories from The Joy Luck Clubpublished in 1989. It can be read in the preview of Growing Up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction About Learning to Be American(65% in)

Summary of “Rules of the Game”

The narrator, Waverly, learned the art of invisible strength at the age of six from her mother. It was a strategy for winning, which involved refraining from speaking.

Waverly grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in a two-bedroom flat over a Chinese Bakery. The alley led to a small playground, but Waverly and her older brothers preferred the alley for playing. Down the street was a fish market and a café.

The narrator was named after the street she lived on, Waverly Place. Her family called her Meimei, which means “Little Sister”. She is the youngest child, and only daughter. Waverly’s mother believed in Chinese people’s ability to excel in anything.

When she was seven, Waverly’s family attended a church-sponsored Christmas party. All the children received a present. The gifts weren’t all equally desirable, and some of the children were disappointed with what they got. Waverly got a twelve pack of Life Savers, which she was happy with. Her brother Vincent got a used chess set with two missing pieces. The mother was gracious in public, but told the kids to throw it away. They used it anyway.

Waverly watches her brothers, Vincent and Winston, play over Christmas week. She’s intrigued by the power of the pieces. After a while, they let her play. Vincent explains the rules. Waverly looks deeply into the game, reading the rules and learning unfamiliar words, reading chess books, and pondering the pieces. She learns opening theory, middle game tactics, endgame strategy, gathering invisible strengths, and the value of withholding knowledge. Her brothers eventually stop playing with her.

One spring afternoon after school, Waverly sees a group of old men playing chess in the playground. She starts playing regularly with a man, Lau Po, who’s an accomplished player. She learns many secrets of the game and some chess etiquette. Her level of play rises considerably.

Waverly starts playing weekend exhibition matches, defeating all her opponents. Next, she plays in local chess tournaments. She wins them all. The Chinese bakery starts displaying her trophies. Local businesses start sponsoring her. Waverly’s mother gives her chores to her brothers.

By age nine, she’s a national champion, closing in on grand-master status. Her photo appears in Life magazine. She develops a distinctive style of posing, sitting, and moving the pieces.

Waverly stops playing in the alley and playground. She goes to school and studies chess. Her mother stands over her as she practices and makes small noises. Her parents cater to her at home. She gets her own room and she can leave the table without finishing all her food.

When there’s no tournament, she has to accompany her mother to the market on Saturdays. They go to many shops. Waverly’s mother tells whoever is nearby that Waverly is her daughter. Waverly finds it obvious and embarrassing. She tells her mother she’s using her to show off, and that if she wants to show off she should learn to play chess herself. Waverly pulls away from her mother and runs off down alleys and through streets until she’s worn out. She sits on a plastic pail for two hours before heading home.

The door is locked, but Vincent hears her and lets her in. He says she’s in trouble. The family is eating. They ignore Waverly. She goes to her room and lies on her bed. She imagines a chess board. Her mother is the opponent. Her mother’s black pieces advance. Her white pieces scream and fall off the board.

Waverly feels herself getting light. She floats into the air and flies out the window. She flies over the alley, the roofs, and up into the sky until everything disappears. Waverly closes her eyes and thinks about her next move.

Theme: Culture Clash

Waverly is an American born girl with a Chinese born mother. As such, she feels the force of both cultural influences.

The earliest lesson she relates to us, “the art of invisible strength”, is based on a Chinese proverb about a strong wind being unseen. Her mother instructs her to hold her tongue. This is different from the American way of asserting yourself that Waverly would be exposed to elsewhere.

Every day starts with the smell of “fragrant red beans”, “fried sesame balls”, and “sweet curried chicken crescents” from the Chinese bakery.

Her family lives in Chinatown, so they’re surrounded by Chinese shops, including one that deals in Chinese herbal cures—an alternative to Western medical treatment. We also see a contrast to it later when Waverly finds the chessmen to be “more powerful than old Li’s magic herbs.” The fish market is full of live produce that is prepped right in front of the customer, which is a contrast to the more behind-the-scenes workings of an American shop.

Waverly’s experience in front of the Chinese restaurant with a Caucasian tourist—she and her playmates posed in front of a restaurant with a roasted duck and had their picture taken—highlights her Chinese background.

She’s named after the street the family lives on—Waverly, her American name highlights her individuality. At home, she’s called Meimei, which means “Little Sister”, highlighting her role in the traditional family.

Waverly’s dual culture is evident when Santa Claus asks her age. She’s seven on the American calendar and eight by the Chinese calendar. She reconciles the duality by giving her date of birth. This exchange also includes a question about whether she believes in Jesus. She “knows the only answer to that”, which is the American answer.

A bridge between the two cultures is seen in Lau Po, the man who takes Waverly’s chess play to the next level. He instructs her in a game popular in America, but uses Chinese names for the strategies.

We see Waverly symbolically being pulled from her Chinese background as she makes progress playing a popular American game in tournaments, “each one farther away from home.”

Another blending of the two influences is seen in Waverly’s mannerisms during game play. She poses in the way her mother taught her, but moves her pieces with flair and a triumphant smile at her opponent.

Theme: Mother and Daughter Dynamics

Waverly has a “sly thought” and says she’s being wicked when she intentionally brings up something she knows could bother her mother—Chinese torture.

Waverly manipulates her mother into letting her enter the chess competitions by saying she doesn’t want to compete with American rules. As her mother is all about learning the rules so you can succeed, she wants Waverly to compete.

When her mother critiques her play, Waverly is annoyed but can’t say anything. This is a big contrast to her outburst while shopping. Her annoyance has built up enough to overcome her “invisible strength”, and make her feelings known. This point also fits into the culture clash section.

After this outburst, Waverly is ignored by her family. They’re using “invisible strength” on her, and she feels outmatched. She’s not yet ready to assert her independence. This is represented by the fish on the dinner table that was “swimming upstream in vain escape.” Waverly’s outburst and subsequent flight were also in vain. She has to return to her mother.

1. What is the significance of the title?

The literal meaning is obvious. Waverly has to learn the rules of the game of chess. She also learns the figurative “rules”—strategies and etiquette that allow her to succeed.

The other meaning is also made very clear. Waverly’s mother talks about learning the American rules to succeed as an immigrant. Waverly also learns the “rules” balancing of her cultures and dealing with her mother. These are the “rules” of life.

2. Waverly’s mother uses both of her names in the story. What is the significance of the change?

Her mother calls her Meimei, her Chinese name, most of the time. The exception is on their Saturday market outings. She tells everyone in earshot that this is her daughter “Wave-ly”. In public, she uses her American name, the name the community knows her by, and the name that’s associated with accomplishment. Her mother wants some credit for Waverly’s achievement, so she can’t call her Meimei. No one knows a chess champion by that name.