Happy Childhood, Draconian Mother
Tan starts out with the basic set-up, giving us the things we need to know before anything happens. Waverly lives in Chinatown with her family. They are poor but happy, and while Mom can be a pain in the butt, she's no monster. Waverly takes the time to fill us in on the details of her life, like what the bakery under her apartment smells like and how she and her brothers think bad people come out of the restaurant at night.
The Titles Gets its Double Meaning
The first real signs of conflict arise when Waverly starts playing with her brother's chess set. She gets good, then very good, then super-amazing good, then awesome-national-champion good. Mom transfers her passive-aggressive meddling strictly to Waverly's chess game, leaving Waverly to do her darndest to master not only chess, but her mother's head games, too. Checkmate, kid.
This isn't a book with a concrete crisis—there's no big battle and Darth Vader doesn't cut off anyone's hand—but there definitely is a dramatic break. Waverly steadily improves at chess, and in return receives perks, such as never having to do chores. Too bad she also doesn't get to be a kid anymore, thanks to her mom's obsession with her success.
The situation isn't helped by the fact that Mom introduces Waverly as her own personal chess champion trophy to everyone. Finally Waverly wigs out at Mom, Mom freaks out at Waverly, and one unfortunate old lady's groceries take a dive.
Run, Waverly, Run
After blowing her stack at Mom, Waverly runs away. The joke's on her, however, since she's nine years old and can't really go anywhere except the alley. The big break has happened, we've hit the climax, and now we just need to find out about the ramifications. We'll have to wait until Waverly stops running first.
When Tan brings the story to a close, it doesn't end with a neat little bow. Waverly heads home, but Mom gives her the cold shoulder. No soup for her—literally—and she has to imagine a life alone up in her room. Where does she go from here? We're not sure. The rest of The Joy Luck Club can tell us, but "Rules of the Game" is happy to let the mystery be.