“Let’s RummiKub!” read the email blast from my friend Hedy. She and her husband Harvey loved playing the game, and she decided to start a club in our community.
RummiKub! The last time I had played the popular tiled game was with my mother, Frances Cohen, over seven years ago. She had played weekly with a group of women friends when she lived in Florida. When she and my father moved to an independent living community four miles from our home in Upstate New York, her game set came with her. Within a month, she had found another RummiKub group. She loved the socializing, challenging her mind—and winning. My mother was very good at finding ways to dispose of all her tiles by adding to other accepted combinations of straights and matching numbers on the game table.
Before cell phones, before computers, adults and children played games —card games, board games—with real people. My siblings and I gathered around the old oak dining room table and played Old Maid, Go Fish, War, and—my favorite—Gin Rummy. We also enjoyed beating each other at board game as Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land gave way to Clue, Scrabble, and Monopoly.
Once my parents purchased their cottage on Lake Champlain in 1966, those games became even more important. When bad weather kept us inside, my mother would pull out a deck of cards or the Scrabble set to keep us—and eventually—the grandchildren busy. One Monopoly game was good for an entire rainy afternoon.
In college, my friends and I would gather a few times a week for pinocle. We would sit around the round table in the common area outside our suites in Paine Hall at SUNY Albany. I left college and pinocle behind, but games were still in the cards for me.
The first time I met my future husband Larry’s family, his Bubbe Rose challenged me to a game of gin rummy. She let me win almost every time those first few months.Once Larry and I were engaged, the gloves were off. I rarely won again.
Playing card and board games against each other have always been part of our marriage—with varying levels of success. When we first were married, we tried Mille Bourne, but Larry always won, and I refused to play anymore. We played Scrabble on snowy nights while the children were asleep. He once put down four tiles to spell “oije.” When I challenged him, he said it was a popular word in New Jersey as in “I had the oije to go out for a hamburger.” I urged him to remove the tiles. He still won the game.
Yahtzee is hands down our long-time favorite. The game, which requires the players to roll five die three times each turn to get one of the eleven required combinations is part chance, part luck. Larry usually wins. (Do you see the pattern here?) No matter. I pack Yahtzee into my suitcase every time we go on vacation. If the need arises to fill in some free time, we can resort to an activity together, infinitely better than burying our heads into computers and playing Solitaire (me) or Angry Birds (Larry).
We also played games with our children. By age four, Julie was so good at Memory that Larry was the only one who enjoyed losing to her. Clue, Uno and Sorry! dominated our lives for many years. Adam and Julie pulled out Monopoly to play with friends and each other until the sets literally fell apart.
The tradition continues. Larry and I joined Julie and her husband Sam for an overnight stay in a hut buried in the woods at ten thousand feet in the Rockies. The hut had no running water, a wood stove, and an outdoor bathroom but —it had Monopoly. Julie gleefully proclaimed victory after a two-hour marathon game. Over one Thanksgiving, I taught Adam gin rummy, and after the first hand he won the next four games against me. (Do you now see the pattern?)
When I lived in Upstate New York, several of my friends were in Mah Jongg groups. “Do you Mahj?” they would ask. No, I didn’t. My mother-in-law Doris had played, but I didn’t have a “Clue” as to what the game entailed.
It wasn’t until I moved to Florida and was asked again if I “Mahjed,” did I give the ancient Chinese game a try. I loved it! It had, in my mind, the best elements of every game I had had ever loved: Go Fish, Gin Rummy, Yahtzee, and RummiKub. As my sister-in-law inherited her mother’s set, I quickly purchased my own. I even brought the set with me—along with Yahtzee—on a recent cruise. I played with friends four mornings while at sea, so it was worth schlepping the three pound tote on board.
Initially, Larry and I took Hedy up on her offer. About forty people meet every other Sunday in a community room to play RummiKub. Larry and I realized after we had played a couple of games that Mom’s set was missing a tile, a blue three. A friend lent me her unused set, but it didn’t have the same meaning as playing with the same tiles that my mother had used for so many years. (If anyone has an incomplete RummiKub game with a blue three still in the bag, send it my way please! My mom and I will thank you! ) Alas, I had been spoiled by Mah Jongg. It challenged me more than Rummikub, and we haven’t returned since the pandemic closed the meetings down.
Surprisingly, Larry and I didn’t resort to games to get us through the pandemic. For the first month, we played Yahtzee every night. I was losing too many matches, however, so we switched to crossword puzzles. Larry would print out two copies of the same puzzle; we would work solo. Larry often finished first, but if we were both stuck, we worked together to complete it.
My Colorado granddaughter has also developed an early love for games. She has played with her Gammy and Zayde Pete the Cat, Fish, War, Old Maid, and Candy Land. When she turned seven, we gave her Sorry!, the the most adult game we have played with her. We love the challenge, and she is good! I recently asked her if she would like to learn Mah Jongg, and she said no. Considering I don’t have a set up here in the Rockies, that will have to wait. Maybe we can start with Rummikub?
In the end, just like my mother and my mother-in-law, I love meeting regularly with friends and family to share a game, food, and conversation. Games not only bring people together but also bring back memories of time spent with those you love and with whom you share a history. As they say in New Jersey, I “oije” everyone to give games a try.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.