To play, or not to play?

by Dan Richardson

Not a few families gathering at the holidays have a flash point, something they alternately feud over, fuss about and unite around. Maybe it's opening presents on Christmas Eve versus Christmas morn, or the color of tree lights.

Ours has been board games.

Now there are traditions aplenty in the Richardson household that arouse nothing but delight, like holiday cookie-making, and the trip to manfully saw down some young tree for two weeks of festive greenery.

But nothing brought out the same passions -- the darting eyes, the gnashing of teeth -- as the board games. We've played Risk and Carom, cards and dice. My sister, bless her heart, uttered her first swear, over a game of Sorry!, her tiny child's clenched fist when a brother knocked off one of her pieces. To hear a five-year-old say Damn it! with perfect aplomb was to invite an immediate and open-mouthed silence at the Richardson household. Ah, the memories!

But these are mere trifles. The flash point has been, and will remain as long as tradition reigns, Monopoly.

For one thing, Mom plays it wrong. Perhaps propelled by some maternal protection or else motherly guilt, she simply lacks the edge necessary to play competitively. Is sister too poor to pay the rent on Baltic Avenue? Mom lets her pass for free. Does brother want to buy her Park Place at bargain basement rates? Why, sure -- she can't stick her son with a steep bill. She kills us all with kindness.

We all have our faults around the board. Dad is too distracted with TV or fixing things to stand playing for long. Sister takes a dislike to some slight, real or imagined, then dedicates the rest of her gaming evening to impoverishing that person. Brother becomes fixated on victory, with wild mood swings, pouting when someone won't sell him the third property he needs for a monopoly, grinning like a simpleton when some poor slob lands on his hotel-laden property for the second time in a row.

And I? Surely, I have no discernible quirks that should irritate anyone, though when an opponent teeters at the brink of fake financial ruin, I feel my lips curling upward and my eyes begin to shine. For some reason, the merriment sets the other would-be landlords on edge, especially one poised at the edge of a long strip of my properties.

Everything else becomes a sideshow when brother and I are in full form, I fear, with one's vast accumulation of colored paper wealth foreshadowing the other's doom, and glowers and grins accordingly. As the match progresses, brother and I grate against each other like sandpaper. With sister or mom or some hapless in-law, all is well, but with each other, we wrest rent money and driving bargains like the most merciless of slum lords, gesticulating like hagglers in the bazaar, scheming like miniature Donald Trumps.

The pressure is, occasionally, too much. One must walk away for a breath of air or else burst, as brother did most famously one wintry holiday evening. Miserly, he refused all reasonable offers for a piece of property I needed -- Indiana Avenue, I think it was. Offer and counteroffer got us no closer to a deal until, stricken with a run of bad luck, brother faced paper money penury. It will all work out, I assured him, I won't collect the rent from that hotel property you just landed on, in exchange for Indiana. It's a fair trade, bro.

Perhaps it was the late hour or his impending Monopoly bankruptcy, but he'd been pushed too far. Brother's hand slammed the kitchen table where our traditional tournaments take place. I believe a fleck of foam flew from his lips.

"You're just like Mr. Potter," brother shouted. "You're Mr. Potter!"

For a time thereafter, the Monopoly tradition waned. Had brother gone too far in comparing me to the grasping, greedy banker from It's a Wonderful Life? Had one holiday tradition been slain by a slanderous reference to another?

Yes, for a season or two.

Then a confluence of events landed brother, his wife and me in the far hills of rural New England one Christmas. My wife was gone on family matters. Meanwhile, the weather had conspired to deprive us of that powdery landscape made famous by Currier & amp; Ives. The skies spat frozen granules somewhere between rain and hail, and the roads slicked over with ice. My poorly insulated apartment grew cold, and we gathered in the evenings in the circle of warmth cast by the gas fireplace. A day or two passed in chilly boredom before we broke down and scooped up a Monopoly set during the next trip into town.

It was a seven-dollar Wal-Mart gamble to find something to do -- and it paid off handsomely.

Somehow, the irritants and board-game passions that seemed to bloom at those holidays where the house was warm, the company large and the food plenteous, failed to take root that frozen, faraway Christmas. We played as hard as ever, but shared joy in victory, even -- especially, it seemed -- if it was not our own. If brother won monopolies that staggered me, I accepted defeat with a smile, and if it was my night, he toasted my good fortune.

The next time our family gathered back at home, brother brought not one but several Monopoly games. We played Star Wars Monopoly one night, national parks the next.

The rest of the family played tentatively that first game, though, waiting for some outburst or pout. When the competition was fiercest, with sister winning this time, brother didn't say a thing. Instead, he reached under his chair and produced a green baseball cap to place on her head.

In white lettering it said, "Mr. Potter."