Study Guide

Rules of the Game Quotes

  • Family

    I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. (1)

    For a story about a strained relationship, things start out on a positive note. Mom tells Waverly how to be strong, a tool Waverly clearly uses in chess and in the rest of her life. We might see this opening as tempering the harsher stuff Waverly's mom puts her through later on, but it might also suggest that the conflict with Waverly's mom isn't as clear-cut as it seems—Waverly gains things from her mom's harsh ways, too.

    My mother imparted her daily truths so she could help my older brothers and me rise above our circumstances. (3)

    Again Tan muddies the waters early on when it comes to Mom, setting us up to understand that she's trying to help her kids. By putting this at the beginning—before Mom really starts getting under everyone's skin—we are able to trust that Waverly's mother has good intentions.

    My family called me Meimei, "Little Sister." (9)

    Waverly's nickname has a specific family meaning, connecting her to her brothers and parents. This is important because it binds her identity to her family—and it's only more important since her official name is Waverly Place, a.k.a. the street they live on. Both on official documents and in family conversation, then, Waverly's identity is constantly bound to her family and their home.

    "Let me! Let me!" I begged between games when one brother or the other would sit back with a deep sigh of relief and victory, the other annoyed, unable to let go of the outcome. (18)

    Waverly's love of chess starts out as a family thing: She's interested in what her brothers are doing and she wants in. And of course, once her mom realizes she's good at it, chess only becomes more of a family affair.

    She sat proudly on the bench, telling my admirers with proper Chinese humility, "Is luck." (34)

    Waverly might call it "Chinese humility," but what's happening is that her mom is putting down her skills. And Waverly's mom does this a lot, disguising passive aggressive put-downs as humility.

    My mother placed my first trophy next to a new plastic chess set that the neighborhood Tao society had given to me. As she wiped each piece with a soft cloth, she said, "Next time win more, lose less." (41)

    Mom actually takes pride in what her daughter's doing, but at the same time she can't resist stinging her kid, too. Here Waverly's winning, but she's not winning enough. This relentlessness from her mom—her inability to let her daughter enjoy her accomplishments—eventually undoes their relationship.

    That's when my mother decided I no longer had to do the dishes. Winston and Vincent had to do my chores. (46)

    Gee Mom, we're certainly not playing favorites here, are we?

    My mother had a habit of standing over me while I plotted out my games. I think she thought of herself as my protective ally. Her lips would be sealed tight, and after each move I made, a soft "Hmmmmph" would escape from her nose. (52)

    Waverly's mom ends up crushing her daughter through micromanaging, endlessly demanding that she do better and never letting her enjoy the fruits of her labor. Here we see this in action. Mom hovers, making disapproving sounds and generally making it impossible for Waverly to do her thing. Again Waverly colors it with some "best intentions" comments, but it's very clear that their relationship is growing tense.

    My mother would proudly walk with me, visiting many shops, buying very little. "This my daughter Wave-ly Jong," she said to whoever looked her way. (54)

    This is the breaking point for Waverly, when she finally has enough of what her Mom's up to. First she wants to throw the chess set away, then she tells everyone Waverly wins through luck, then she tells Waverly she's not winning enough, then she takes her out and parades her around like a show pony. And the kid's resentful for some reason? Wow…

    Everything below me disappeared and I was alone. (69)

    It's funny how Waverly's final dream of escape leaves her alone, with no family around her. Is this what she really wants? Or is it something she's afraid of? Hard to say, since the story ends in the next sentence, but clearly Waverly is thinking about her connection to her family here.

  • Manipulation

    The next week I bit back my tongue as we entered the store with the forbidden candies. When my mother finished her shopping, she quietly plucked a small bag of plums from the rack and put it on the counter with the rest of the items. (2)

    Mom fires the opening salvo by teaching her daughter to not cry to get what she wants. Waverly later applies this principle to her chess games, helping her to win. Mom's manipulations start before Waverly's interest in chess does, but Waverly learns how to make good use of her mom's lessons.

    My mother imparted her daily truths so she could help my older brothers and me rise above our circumstances. (3)

    Here we're reminded that Mom's not acting the way she does because she's evil—she wants a better life for his kids and is trying to give them the tools to get it. Is she succeeding? Does she need to be so harsh? Over to you, Shmoopers.

    One day, as she struggled to weave a hard-toothed comb through my disobedient hair, I had a sly thought. (9)

    Her sly thought is to ask about Chinese torture, probably as a way of getting under her mother's skin in revenge for all that painful hair-combing. It's also a sign that Waverly can play the manipulation game in her own right. She knows what she's doing and she knows what her goal is.

    "Chinese people do many things," she said simply. "Chinese people do business, do medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture." (12)

    This is a very funny line, but it might have ulterior motives. Waverly's mom is addressing a perceived insult about the Chinese—that they're torturers—and she responds by turning the insult into a selling point, which demonstrates her ability to rethink what she's been presented and reframe it.

    Having watched the older children opening their gifts, I already knew that the big gifts were not necessarily the nicest ones. (14)

    Waverly is only a kid, but she already knows that what she sees on the surface may not be what's really going on. We know she can be strategic while playing chess, but here we see her being strategic in life.

    She sat proudly on the bench, telling my admirers with proper Chinese humility, "Is luck." (34)

    This sounds like a put-down, right? Waverly's mom is saying she isn't good; she's just lucky. But this might also be an attempt to get people to underestimate Waverly. Even if it isn't, though, Mom probably doesn't think her daughter is just lucky—she probably just wants her daughter to prove her wrong.

    As we walked home I said in a small voice that I didn't want to play in the local tournament. They would have American rules. If I lost, I would bring shame on my family. (35)

    Check out this reverse psychology in action. Looks like the student is becoming the master…

    My mother unwrapped something in her lap. It was her chang, a small tablet of red jade which held the sun's fire. "Is luck," she whispered, and tucked it into my dress pocket. (37)

    Now we see just how deep Mom's head games go. After the perceived put-down of chalking Waverly's success up to luck, she gives her daughter a form of "luck" to boost her confidence. Say what? No wonder Waverly feels a little overwhelmed by the woman.

    One day after we left a shop I said under my breath, "I wish you wouldn't do that, telling everybody I'm your daughter." My mother stopped walking. (55)

    Waverly expresses an honest desire here, stripped of any secondary meanings or head games. What does it say about their relationship that her honest comments end up causing a fundamental break?

    "We not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us." (66)

    Mom often uses manipulation to gain control, and here we see the byproduct: She tells everyone else to ignore Waverly, and without missing a beat, they fall in line. Ouch.

  • Youth

    Like most of the other Chinese children who played in the back alleys of restaurants and curio shops, I didn't think we were poor. (3)

    Waverly begins without any real knowledge of the world around her. More importantly, she's "like most of the other Chinese children," meaning that there's nothing different or special about her. This changes once she finds chess—not only does she become different, her childhood starts slipping away.

    At the end of our two-block alley was a small sandlot playground with swings and slides well-shined down the middle with use. The play area was bordered by wood-slat benches where old-country people sat cracking roasted watermelon seeds with their golden teeth and scattering the husks to an impatient gathering of gurgling pigeons. (5)

    Look closely at the voice here. This isn't a little girl telling you what she sees; this is a grown-up woman looking back at her childhood. She sees details that wouldn't register with a kid, like noticing that old people are at the playground as well as children. The narrator's aware of the innocence she had as a little girl, which an actual little girl would be unaware of.

    My brothers and I believed the bad people emerged from this door at night. (8)

    Innocence and youth comes through here as an act of imagination. "Bad people" sounds like fairy tale monster here, something kind of fun and cool to be marveled at, rather than anyone really scary. The paragraphs around this one are littered with these kinds of description, showing the world through a little girl's eyes. Those descriptions change subtly as the story goes on, though, marking Waverly's maturation.

    "Little sister, been a long time since I play with dolls," he said, smiling benevolently. (31)

    Lau Po is a key point in Waverly's youth, a quiet step from childhood to adulthood. He treats her like a child when he first meets her, but he's impressed by her chess-playing skills and teaches her to play. He beats her regularly, but he also helps her change from a pretty good chess player (kid) to a great chess player (grown-up).

    She sat proudly on the bench, telling my admirers with proper Chinese humility, "Is luck." (34)

    This is such a loaded and important moment in the story. Looked at from the theme of youth, is it possible that Waverly's mom is trying to protect her a bit? You know, trying to maintain her youthful innocence by saying she's really not that good? What do you think?

    "Why does she get to play and we do all the work," complained Vincent. (47)

    Vincent sees Waverly's chess practice as playing—a child's pastime—even though it's much more serious than that. Plus, while Waverly gets out of chores, she also isn't allowed to play anymore. Insofar as kids are expected to do chores, when Waverly is exempted from them, it's kind of a bad sign about the state of her childhood.

    By my ninth birthday, I was a national chess champion. (48)

    Tan draws a contrast here between Waverly's little-kid age and her grown-up accomplishment. Waverly's a girl split between two worlds—kid and adult.

    I no longer played in the alley of Waverly Place. I never visited the playground where the pigeons and old men gathered. I went to school, then directly home to learn new chess secrets, cleverly concealed advantages, more escape routes. (51)

    And now for some consequences. Chess is a trap and Waverly's caught in it, forced to give up all of the things that made up her childhood. That's a pretty steep price to pay, right? Waverly has to confront the fact that her choices (and her mother's) have impacted her life in ways that go far beyond chess.

    I imagined my mother, first walking briskly down one street or another looking for me, then giving up and returning home to await my arrival. (63)

    As a follow-up to the previous quote, Waverly now understands that when she makes a decision—like running away—she's going to have to pay for it in some way. Everyone learns this sooner or later, and part of our childhood goes away once we do.

    "We not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us." (66)

    Yes, Waverly still lives with her folks, and probably will for some time since she's only nine, but here her mother throws down, basically telling her she's on her own. She can't depend on her parents for emotional support anymore. Good luck, kid.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    The best playground, however, was the dark alley itself. It was crammed with daily mysteries and adventures. (5)

    Waverly doesn't let poverty get in the way of having fun. The neighborhood becomes a wonderland, and the stores around her apartment fire her imagination. Does she realize at this point how free she really is? More importantly, why isn't she as bothered by her mother's overbearing qualities at this point?

    The front window displayed a tank crowded with doomed fish and turtles struggling to gain footing on the slimy green-tiled sides. (6)

    Tan may be foreshadowing something here… Not sure what we're talking about? Hop on over to the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section.

    Each morning before school, my mother would twist and yank on my thick black hair until she had formed two tightly wound pigtails. (9)

    Waverly clearly hates the way her mother binds her hair, and Tan describes it in such a way that we can actually feel the tightness closing in around us. More importantly, though, this hair ritual suggests that Waverly didn't enjoy much freedom to begin with—her mother's been wrangling her into submission since before Waverly even knew what chess was. How does this color the later sections when Waverly's a chess wiz and she can feel her confinement more readily?

    Soon I no longer lost any games or Life Savers, but I lost my adversaries. Winston and Vincent decided they were more interested in roaming the streets after school in their Hopalong Cassidy cowboy hats. (28)

    Sometimes when you win, you really lose. Winston and Vincent get to go shoot up imaginary outlaws on the streets of Chinatown, while Waverly gets to sit in her room and plot the queen's gambit. The story makes this point very quietly: Waverly initially loves chess, but it soon starts to entrap her. This is the official opening shot for that idea.

    I desperately wanted to go, but I bit back my tongue. (35)

    Tan likes making comparisons between the game of chess and Waverly's relationship with her mother, and we see a little of this here—"the art of invisible strength" mentioned in the first sentence of the story involves biting your tongue, which is exactly what Waverly does here. She hits mom with reverse psychology and eventually gets what she wants. Game on.

    I no longer played in the alley of Waverly Place. I never visited the playground where the pigeons and old men gathered. I went to school, then directly home to learn new chess secrets, cleverly concealed advantages, more escape routes. (51)

    Waverly's imprisonment has become pretty overt here. She can't play or do any of the things she used to; all she gets to do is play chess. What's interesting is how matter-of-fact she is when explaining it. There's not a lot of self-pity or whining, just a clear statement of what her life is like. This could be because she's taking some responsibility for the changes instead of just blaming her mom, but it could also be because the cage closes so gradually around her that she can't even feel it happening.

    My mother had a habit of standing over me while I plotted out my games. I think she thought of herself as my protective ally. (52)

    Mom probably isn't familiar with the whole concept of personal space—but in her defense, this isn't necessarily a malicious thing, as suggested here. The confinement and entrapment of Waverly is supposed to be good for her, and her mother's smothering overprotectiveness is an effort to help her.

    I ran until it hurt and I realized I had nowhere to go, that I was not running from anything. The alleys contained no escape routes. (62)

    Waverly realizes she's trapped, but the wording here is really interesting. She uses "escape routes," which she also points out is an important part of chess strategy. Like her chess games, she's playing a match here… and when she runs out of options, she's trapped just like one of her pieces.

    On a platter were the remains of a large fish, its fleshy head still connected to bones swimming upstream in vain escape. (65)

    Boy, it does not go well for the seafood in this story. Also, Tan appears to be drawing a parallel between the fish and her heroine. For more on this, be sure to swing by the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section.

    I felt myself growing light. I rose up into the air and flew out the window. Higher and higher, above the alley, over the tops of tiled roofs, where I was gathered up by the wind and pushed up toward the night sky until everything below me disappeared and I was alone. (69)

    The story ends with Waverly fantasizing about escape. What's interesting is the way she ends the story with the word "alone." Is being alone the same as being free to Waverly? Or is it maybe a mixed bag—free of her mother's micromanaging, but also free of the support and even love that comes with it? We're thinking it's the second option, but feel free to disagree. We love a good argument.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    "Ma, what is Chinese torture?" (10)

    Waverly's causing mischief here as her mother braids her hair, but this little jab also highlights the cultural differences that already exist between mother and daughter. Her mother's status as a person born in China is something Waverly can use against her.

    "Chinese people do business, do medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture." (12)

    And here we get Waverly's mom's response to her question about Chinese torture. From where she's sitting, better to be Chinese than "lazy like American people." Burn.

    I was seven according to the American formula and eight by the Chinese calendar. I said I was born on March 17, 1951. (13)

    This is pretty clever, right? Waverly figures out how to express her age in a way that satisfies both cultures she's a part of. This lets us know that Waverly's balancing between the two cultures and, at least when it comes to birthdays, has found a way to walk that line just fine.

    I think the only children who thought he was the real thing were too young to know that Santa Claus was not Chinese. (13)

    Looks like Santa isn't crossing the boundary between Chinese and American cultures nearly as elegantly as Waverly does. He's awkward and cheap and not fooling anybody with that beard… at least according to Waverly. What do you make of her assessment that Santa can't be Chinese?

    "This American rules," she concluded at last. "Every time people come out from foreign country, must know rules. You not know, judge say, Too bad, go back. They not telling you why so you can use their way go forward. They say, Don't know why, you find out yourself. But they knowing all the time. Better you take it, find out why yourself." (24)

    Waverly's mom claims that these are "American" rules, even though the rules for chess are universal. It's really one big metaphor for Mom's immigrant experience, though—figure out how things work in America on your own, or you're out.

    I turned to my opponent, a fifteen-year-old boy from Oakland. He looked at me, wrinkling his nose. (37)

    Why's he wrinkling his nose? Does he think the little Chinese girl is beneath him? He's got another think coming…

    "Why does she get to play and we do all the work," complained Vincent. "Is new American rules," said my mother. (47)

    It's interesting that Mom "others" Waverly's brothers here by claiming that the new chore arrangement is somehow an American rule. She puts herself and Waverly on the inside of American culture, casting Waverly's brothers to the outside. Plus her American rule seems pretty unfair, though this may be the point. Maybe from where Mom's sitting, America simply isn't fair.

    I was touted as the Great American Hope, a child prodigy and a girl to boot. (48)

    This quote comes a couple of paragraphs after Waverly is proclaimed "Chinatown Chess Champion." Interestingly, her success locally seems to place a burden on her to represent the entire neighborhood. She's like the ambassador for Chinatown.

    Seated across from me was an American man, about the same age as Lau Po, maybe fifty. I remember that his sweaty brow seemed to weep at my every move. He wore a dark, malodorous suit. One of his pockets was stuffed with a great white kerchief on which he wiped his palm before sweeping his hand over the chosen chess piece with great flourish. (49)

    While the Chinese Lau Po is a teacher, this American is an obstacle. Once again, we see Waverly with feet in different worlds, and here it looks like the American side is pretty freaking daunting.