To stand in giants’ shadows

Imagine being guided by an old yet firm hand into a living room and then sat before a growling fire and a bowl of ice cream. The hand pats you on the back after sitting you down and leaves momentarily to retrieve something: a circular wooden board, with semi-spherical divots bored out of it in a first-aid symbol pattern. The marbles — some quartz, some amethyst and others minerals you don’t recognize — rest like clay soldiers awaiting a general’s hand in the grooves. The hand removes one marble from the center and then leapfrogs another marble over an adjacent one, removing the hopped-over crystal sphere. It motions for you to do the same. Bewildered, you look down and reach, uncertain, while the hand guides yours.

This was my first introduction to games.

I remember childhood visits to my grandparents’ house in the Pacific Palisades as opportunities for my brother and me to stuff our faces and fall asleep in front of the fire after going for a swim. This was all fine and good, but the real meat and potatoes of our visits, our raisons d’être, were the times spent hunched over the marble solitaire board like miniature Rodin sculptures.

I never knew much about my grandfather — he was tall, handsome in his youth and was stationed in Southeast Asia during World War II — but I did know he was a master of this particular game. He would ceaselessly eliminate the marbles, one by one, without mercy or hesitation. He seemed to just know how it worked. I recall picking more difficult starting points (normally the center marble is removed), and he still managed to decimate the poor things like they were disobedient legionnaires.

Like most solitaire games, patience and planning are key to winning. One can’t expect to pick marbles out willy-nilly like a heron at a sardine farm and succeed — that is a recipe for disaster. The few times I have managed to get down to three or four marbles have been the result of carefully calculated moves and persistence. A healthy dose of dumb luck never hurts, either.

I myself never managed to reach the one-marble endzone before my grandfather passed away, but the game remains with my grandmother, who often chides me playfully when I insist that this time, I’ve got it. I never do. But the importance of the game is that it is something passed on, something I am beholden to as a token of my grandfather’s influence on my early life.

Older people seem to have an uncanny ability to dominate games of skill. Whether it is the pith-helmeted man playing chess and shouting nonsense or the crusty old veteran of the beach volleyball courts, often the most expert competitors are those who have seen all the moves.

My grandfather was surely one of these people. But these people do not simply punish you for losing by kicking sand in your face or jamming bishops up your nose — many masters of games are more than willing to pass on their wisdom to young upstarts.

These days the closest thing I have to a mentor is Cal’s club volleyball coach. At first glance Omar might not seem a font of wisdom — he is strong but chubby, smart but physically slow due to his age, and he speaks with a nearly indecipherable Cuban accent.

“Jou godda flotate de serf, adawaise de atha team, dey can pass de boll more eassier.”

“When jou are blocking, turn de ousside han into de cour and ge ih frrron ohf dem.”

Yet he remains well loved because of his willingness to take the youngest players aside during practice and show them what he learned playing for the Cuban national team years ago. Even off the court, he has demonstrated knowledge that helps a bunch of lanky boys become men; to date, he has instructed us on how best to compliment women, taught us how to salsa dance and given marriage advice to prospective husbands.

Mentors can teach us fundamental lessons about winning and losing that we often take for granted. They teach us that life has certain rules and that to succeed in this world we must play by them yet use them to their fullest advantage. Especially in the realm of gaming, the advice mentors give is often applicable beyond the game.

When the gentleman across from you warns you not to bring your queen out too early, he’s really telling you not to be so impetuous. When the beach player tells you to float serve because the wind will make it difficult to pass, he’s telling you to watch your surroundings. The lessons we glean from mentors transcend games themselves, if we pay close enough attention.

Without them, we would just pick marbles at random and hope to succeed. Instead, I will endeavor to choose my moves in life carefully and imagine a guiding hand helping me pick the best move.

It just gets a little weirder when I imagine a phantom Omar helping me suavely talk about babies while salsa dancing.