Summary and Analysis Waverly Jong: Rules of the Game


Waverly Jong, the narrator of this section, explains that she was six years old when her mother taught her "the art of invisible strength," a strategy for winning arguments and gaining respect from others in games. Waverly and her two brothers live on Waverly Place in San Francisco's Chinatown. The children delight in the sights, sounds, and smells of Chinatown, the sweetness of the pasty red beans, the pungent smell of the herbs doled out by old Li, and the sight of the blood-slippery fish that the butcher guts with one deft slice.

Waverly's brother Vincent received a chess set at the Baptist Church Christmas party. Waverly took to the game immediately, delighting in its strategy. After her brothers lose interest in the game, Waverly learns complex plays from Lau Po, an old man in the park: She begins to win local tournaments. By her ninth birthday, Waverly is a national chess champion. Her fame spreads; even Life magazine runs an article on her meteoric rise. Waverly is excused from her chores, but there is one task she cannot escape: accompanying her mother to market on Saturdays. Mrs. Jong delights in walking down the busy street, boasting that Waverly is her daughter. One day, mortified by what she perceives as exploitation, Waverly argues with her mother and dashes off. For two hours, she huddles on an upturned plastic pail in an alley. Finally, she slowly walks home.

Taking their lead from Mrs. Jong, the entire family ignores Waverly, so she trudges to her darkened room and lies down on her bed. In her mind, she sees a chess board. Her opponent consists of two angry black slits, marching implacably across the chessboard and sending her white pieces fleeing for cover. As the black pieces get closer, Waverly feels herself getting lighter. She rises above the board and floats over houses. Pushed by the wind, she ascends into the night sky, alone. Waverly closes her eyes and thinks about her next move.

Tan's first short story was "Endgame." It describes a precocious young chess champion who has a stormy relationship with her overprotective Chinese mother. In 1985, Tan used the story to gain admission to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a fiction writer's workshop run by the novelist Oakley Hall. Guided by another novelist and short story writer, Molly Giles, Tan rewrote "Endgame" at the workshop. It was then published in FM magazine and reprinted in Seventeen magazine. Giles sent the story to Sandra Dijkstra, a literary agent in San Francisco, who thought that it was very well written. When Tan learned that an Italian magazine had reprinted "Endgame" without her permission, she asked Dijkstra to be her agent. Dijkstra agreed. She urged Tan to submit other short stories and to turn the series into a book. That book became The Joy Luck Club.

On the surface, "Rules of the Game" applies to the rules of chess, which Waverly masters with astonishing skill. Her success is even more admirable when we realize that she is only eight years old and almost entirely self-taught. Aside from some sessions with old Lau Po in the park, Waverly has taught herself everything that she needs to know about chess in order to become a national champion. She understands the rules of chess. She knows how the game is played, and she knows how to psych-out her opponents.

Look, however, at the title from another perspective. In addition to the game of chess, the title alludes to the "game" of life — knowing the "rules" in order to get what you want. Mrs. Jong calls these rules "the art of invisible strength." Unlike the clear-cut rules of chess, however, the rules of the game of life are ever-changing and brutally difficult to learn.

Waverly and her mother struggle for control. Waverly thinks of her mother as an adversary: "I could see the yellow lights shining from our flat like two tiger's eyes in the night," she says. To Waverly, her mother is like a tiger, waiting to pounce. Predatory, the older woman can destroy with one swipe of her powerful claws. Waverly clearly imagines herself the victim in their struggle. When she reenters the apartment, she sees the "remains of a large fish, its fleshy head still connected to bones swimming upstream in vain escape." Waverly sees herself as the fish, stripped clean by her mother's power, unable to break free.

Waverly, however, is young; she has not realized that as her mother teaches her the "art of invisible strength," Mrs. Jong is equipping Waverly with the very tools she needs to win the battles of life that she will encounter when she grows up. The "art of invisible strength" is self-control. Waverly likens it to the wind, invisible yet powerful beyond belief. The wind can whip up fierce storms and flatten entire communities, yet leave no trace of its presence. In its power and invisibility, it is the strongest of opponents. The "strongest wind cannot be seen," Waverly's chess opponent tells her. Like the human will, it cannot be seen or traced.

In another sense, the "art of invisible strength" represents female power. Women who have been denied conventional paths to power traditionally use their ability to persuade, to shape, and even to control events. If a woman cannot sit in the boardroom, she can shape events from her home — even though a man holds the reins of power. This force is even recognized (and sometimes derided) in the cliche "The woman behind the man."

The "art of invisible strength" is also the power of foreigners, those considered ignorant because they cannot communicate fluently and effectively in the dominant language. For example, Mrs. Jong's fractured English is amusing. When Waverly fears that she will lose a chess match and shame the family, Mrs. Jong says, "Is shame you fall down nobody push you." Under the humor of her syntax, however, her words are powerful and biting — that is, Waverly has no one to blame for her failure but herself. There is nothing humorous in her final comment to Waverly: "We are not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us." With these blunt words, she demonstrates her mastery of the "art of invisible strength." It seems that Mrs. Jong has won this round — or has she?

The struggle for control between Waverly and her mother is symbolized in the dreamlike chess game in the final page of the section. Waverly's opponent in this game is "two angry black slits." When Waverly confronts her mother during their shopping expedition, Mrs. Jong's eyes turn into "dangerous black slits." In the final line of the section, Waverly thinks, "I closed my eyes and pondered my next move." Her mother has taught her to use her will to shape events. She now knows that getting what she wants should not be left to fate; rather, she herself can shape events to serve her purpose.

The theme of heritage is also an important element in this section. Mrs. Jong takes great pride in being Chinese. She explains that "Chinese people do many things. Chinese people do business, do medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture." Her joy in Waverly's accomplishments is evidence of her great pride. Mrs. Jong delights in showing off her daughter to everyone; Waverly is her legacy to the world. Mrs. Jong feels responsible for her daughter's success. Waverly, on the other hand, thinks that she has accomplished everything on her own. She does not yet understand her mother's point of view.


sanddabs any of a number of West Coast flatfish.

Life magazine a large format, pictorial newsmagazine. Founded in 1936, it was widely circulated and imitated through the years. Long celebrated for its outstanding photographs and ability to capture the news as it unfolded, Life ceased publishing on a weekly basis in 1972.