LARRY KAHN bent over a felt-covered table and contemplated his
predicament. "O.K., so I can't pot my nurdled wink," he said
smugly. "I sure as heck won't let you piddle free so you can
boondock my red."
Standing nearby, Kahn's opponent, Dave Lockwood, was a study in
intensity. "Go ahead," he challenged. "I'll gromp the double
anyway, and then I'll lunch a blue."
Piddle? Pot? Gromp? Sounds like a debate over bathroom
etiquette. But such banter is part of the game when the two
superstars of competition tiddlywinks meet in one of the most
enduring rivalries in U.S. sporting history. Forget Ali and
Frazier, Chamberlain and Russell, Evert and Navratilova. Kahn
and Lockwood have been dueling one another since the early
1970s, when they met across a six-foot tiddlywink table as
students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since
then the engineers, both of whom now live in the suburbs of
Washington, D.C., have won 70% of the U.S. tiddlywink
championships and half of the world titles.
Last month they took their rivalry to a Cleveland mansion for
the 1995 U.S. pairs championship. But when they and 20 other
"winkers" squared off, the event was overshadowed by another
local attraction--something to do with a team called the Indians.
"We had hoped the mayor would toss out the first wink," says
Lockwood, "but he was busy."
Tiddlywinks is believed to have been invented in 1888 in
England, and with its formal rules and strange terms such as
"squidger," "nurdle" and "squop," the game seems indelibly
British. Joseph Assheton Fincher, a London shop owner, came up
with the idea of flipping disks into a cup as a way to keep pub
customers happy. Tiddly fever spread like crazy during the
1890s. On both sides of the Atlantic, winks parties were the
rage. But soon the fad faded, and the game was banished to
children's playrooms. Then, in 1955, some Cambridge University
students organized the first official tiddlywinks tournament.
Seven years later a winks team from Oxford University toured the
U.S., trouncing every American in its path. "We were not going
to take it lying down," says Alexandria, Va., engineer Rick
Tucker, another MIT grad and self-appointed tiddlywink
historian. In 1966 a group of college students formed the North
American Tiddlywinks Association to attract players and perfect
the U.S. game. International play began in earnest when the MIT
team traveled to England in 1972 and crushed the British champs.
"I think the American winkers have more of a killer instinct.
Winning seems to matter more to them than to us," says Charles
Relle, a Cambridge grad who at 54 may be the world's oldest
In competition tiddlywinks, the best shots are not always those
that land in the pot but rather the ones that mess up an
opponent's game. These include "squops," with which a player
immobilizes his opponent's winks by covering them with his own.
"It's a probabilistic decision-theory game," says Lockwood. Say
what? "It's like chess, only you have to shoot your piece where
you want it," says Kahn.
Many winks players have science or engineering backgrounds. "The
game requires an unusual combination of mental and physical
skills," says Relle. Or as Kahn puts it, "In what other game do
players take into account the coefficients of friction and
Hooke's law?" (The latter is a theory of physics stating that
the amount that an elastic body bends out of shape is in direct
proportion to the force acting on it.)
Perhaps that's why the competitors in Cleveland didn't look like
hulking jocks. Lockwood's partner was Brad Schaefer, a Yale
physics professor. Kahn was paired with Tucker, a 23-year winks
veteran. As expected, the tournament came down to these teams.
"Dave and I are very good friends, but each of us wants to beat
the other more than anything in the world," says Kahn, who has
won more titles than any winker ever.
"It's always intriguing when Larry plays Dave--it's like a very
skilled boxer against a very hard puncher," says Andy Purvis, a
British Royal Society Research Fellow and one of England's top
winkers. "Larry wins through skill," adds Tucker, "whereas Dave
wins through the force of his will."
On this day Lockwood's will won out, and he breathed a sigh of
relief. "At least when you win," he says, "it's easier to go
home and rationalize to your wife why you were out again playing
National Wildlife editor Mark Wexler admits that he's a klutz
when it comes to winking.
COLOR PHOTO: RICK TUCKER Kahn (left) and Lockwood have, ahem, one of the most enduring sports rivalries in U.S. history. [Larry Kahn and Dave Lockwood playing tiddlywinks]