Bookworm: ‘Seven Games’ has the play, tips and the history

‘Admissions’ is essential reading for educators

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Seven Games: A Human History”

  • By Oliver Roeder
  • c.2022, Norton
  • $26.95, 306 pages

It’s your turn. Spin the spinner, roll the dice, pick a card. Move your game piece the right number of squares and don’t miscount. And if you think you’ve caught a cheater, well, check the rules. Or, as in the new book “Seven Games” by Oliver Roeder, check with a computer. It’ll surely know what’s going on.

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Rainy Saturday afternoons. Chilly after-supper time. It’s the rare person who doesn’t have fond memories of playing some kind of game with relatives and friends. What we didn’t know, says Oliver Roeder, is that there’s a hidden side to some of the games we played.

“Seven Games: A Human History” by Oliver Roeder.

We might remember playing checkers with a grandpa or older uncle when we were kids, but Roeder says that sometimes, checkers is no mere game. It was an obsession for one man who ultimately became the indisputably best checkers player of all-time, with three losses in his years playing as a professional. And then he met a scientist who became equally obsessed with building a computer that could best the best.

Chess, Roeder says, may have roots that extend back some fifteen-hundred years, and it might have been created as a way to practice military maneuvers. While more modern computers have famously beat highly-rated chess champions over the past few decades, the first chess computer was created in Vienna in 1770.

Go is different, in that the pieces move fluidly and not in a predetermined direction that will equal a win; it’s “a game of creation and effervescence.” King Tut and Queen Nefertari likely both played some version of backgammon. World Series Poker, says Roeder, “comprises five elemental modes: loneliness, boredom, waiting, folding, and, ultimately, devastation.” To be good at Scrabble takes maturity, age, and all the words. And when a long-time bridge column ended in the New York Times, two thousand readers complained, though the column itself was a “strain” on the Times’ employees: the only way to verify the column’s correctness was to actually play the game.

So why do we play games, anyhow? Author Oliver Roeder ponders that question several times inside his book, eventually admitting that experts can’t even put a finger on an answer. Why do we strive to win when it’s just a game?

The deep dive that “Seven Games” takes may make those questions irrelevant, in a way. In picking these particular seven pastimes (and omitting those like the ancient game of Parcheesi or tournament-level Monopoly), Roeder shows that, much like this book, with some rules and plays included, games can be for fun, but they can also be serious business. You can have a great time with these seven and a few good friends on a Saturday night, but you’ll probably never be as talented as the players Roeder profiles.

And there’s a challenge: could you? You’ll ponder that, and the AI aspect of game-playing, as you read this lively, personally-researched, interesting book – especially if you’re a fan of any one of the seven games examined. If you are, get “Seven Games.” It’s your turn.

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“Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School”

  • By Kendra James
  • c. 2022, Grand Central Publishing
  • $29, 304 pages

You had three minutes to get to class. A hundred-eighty seconds to rush from room to room, always on the opposite sides of campus – do-able, as long as you didn’t have to fetch something from a locker or another spot. Do-able, if you could run fast, leap over crouching freshmen, and dodge slow-moving teachers. Do-able, as in the new book “Admissions” by Kendra James, if you didn’t have other frustrations to deal with.

“Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School” by Kendra James.

For three years after college, Kendra James’ Saturday mornings were set: she spent them speaking to low-income parents and prospective students at a private high school on the upper east side of Manhattan, talking about the benefits of private school and the “golden tickets” that would pay for this opportunity. She spoke from experience: James had graduated from Taft, a private high school in Connecticut.

That had been a natural conclusion: after the school began accepting African Americans, James’ father was of the first Black graduates. This made James a legacy student, and she was used to being at Taft, she even knew some of the teachers.

Even so, private school was an adjustment. Making friends was difficult for James then, partly because she was a Black goth nerd who loved Harry Potter and “Xena: Warrior Princess,” and partly because she’d been raised with incorrect perceptions about other Black people. She didn’t know that rap music and intelligence could exist together, or how to “code switch.” It even took a while for her to understand that not all insults were really insults.

By the beginning of her second year, her “mid” or sophomore year, James had a string of friends and plenty of confidence. Her nerdiness had a place at Taft, she’d learned to fit in, and she was mostly happy there with a new best friend and dreams of romance.

But there were things that bothered her, that she didn’t quite have the words for yet. There was quiet racism sometimes, and “microaggressions” that James absolutely noticed – just as she saw the racism in a huge, life-changing accusation for a crime she didn’t do ...

Please don’t give “Admissions” an eye-roll. Author Kendra James concedes, many times and in many ways, that she knew then how privileged she was – an acknowledgment that sometimes appears as guilt. Still, she admits to familial wealth, social blindness, a life of ease, and that sometimes she didn’t know what she didn’t know.

The acceptance of that aside, this book is really quite fun: though she graduated not so long ago, reading James’ book is like stepping back in time to fumble with the combination on your locker between classes. It’s like wishing for an invite to the Cool Kids table in the lunchroom. It’s a love story to that perfect teacher, the ill-conceived “it’ll go on your permanent record” caper, and a BFF you never see again after graduation.

There’s an urgent message inside this book that’s essential reading for educators, but it’s also just plain enjoyable to have. Find “Admissions.” It’s a class act.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com and the-banner.com.