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Suszynski: Joy, luck and the game of Joker

To play the game of Joker, you need a board, marbles and two sets of playing cards. The game is relatively simple. You must move your five marbles from the start, around the perimeter of the board and safely into your home. While you are making your mad dash to home, the other three players can thwart your journey and send your marbles back to the start. The cards help them do this.

I learned how to play Joker with two people that mean a lot to my family. These two people, Nancy and Thor, were my dad’s neighbors when he was a young kid growing up in Maryland.

One Christmas, my grandfather gifted us all beautiful wood Joker boards that he had made himself. At times, I run my fingers over his name on the backside of the board, which to the kids, was always dziadzia, Americanized Polish for grandfather.



Winter reminds me of Joker, especially the holidays. After skiing and before dinner, we would crowd around a very small table into teams so everybody could play, and our objective most often was to beat Thor.

I am sure many people have memories similar to this, maybe with different board games. Amy Tan begins her book “The Joy Luck Club” with a similar story. The main character Jing-Mei says: “My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club. I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah jong table has been empty since she died two months ago.”



Tan depicts a family of women and it extends past the four corners of the mah jong table. In front of and behind each mah jong player is a mother and a daughter: “And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way,” Jing-Mei’s mother says.

The four corners of the mah jong table are occupied by all women from different families; they are friends. And I think much like family, when we find friends that mean something to us, we walk up and down that same flight of stairs together. Sometimes, one looks from the top as their friend trudges up. Other times, it is the opposite. Staying on those stairs and raising each other up is how we make those friends part of our family.

“Each week one of us would host a party to raise money and to raise our spirits. The hostess had to serve special dyansyin foods to bring good fortune of all kinds — dumplings shaped like silver ingots, long rice noodles for long life, boiled peanuts for conceiving sons, and of course, many good-luck oranges for a plentiful, sweet life,” the mother tells her daughter.

“Then we would sit down at the mah jong table. My table was from my family and was of a very fragrant red wood, not what you call rosewood, but hong mu, which is so fine there’s no English word for it,” says Jing-Mei.

Traditions begin in different ways. For our family, these actions started with my mother’s mother and my father’s father. They latched onto something that made them feel warm in a new country. One Latin root of the word tradition is traditionem: “delivery, surrender, a handing down, a giving up.” This implies that deeply rooted in the word tradition, there is sacrifice. This sacrifice is something that began with my grandparents and continues with my delivery of the Joker board to generations to come.

Nancy and Thor welcomed our family into theirs. They gave us a spot at their Joker table. Board games, for centuries, and across cultures, have been a time for people to gather and let go. And when you sit down, the people present are not just the ones beside you; everybody before you, and everybody in front of you are also playing.

“So we decided to hold parties and pretend each week had become the new year. Each week we could forget past wrongs done to us. We weren’t allowed to think a bad thought. We feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy. And that’s how we came to call our little parties Joy Luck,” the mother says.

The Joy Luck tradition is a good one. Each week let’s pretend it’s the new year. I know most of us want this year to be over. It doesn’t have to be a board game. You can bring your Joy Luck club to the mountain, count your luck in inches of fresh snow. You can call it out after a hard day of work by sitting in a comfortable chair, phoning a good friend, and counting the numbers of times you laugh. You can simply sit outside, hoping to see something marvelous.

The great thing about our game of Joker is that when you’re about to win, Thor rounds the final corner with his fifth marble. I always find that there is more joy in watching his smile spread across his face than in securing my last marble to win.


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