Maryland Journal

Gamer plays it forward

Aficionado uses the likes of Scrabble, Parcheesi to bring people together

November 12, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

TAKOMA PARK -- Mary Feldman swore up and down before she moved into senior housing that she would never spend her time exclusively with older people. Stultifies one's thinking, Feldman, 87, said firmly on a recent evening before placing some tiles on a Scrabble board slowly filling up with the likes of retime and hover.

So the motley crew of competitors joining her that night for Scrabble pleased her enormously. Around the table sat Evelyn Cameron, 63, Larry Ravitz, 56, and Julius Morgan, 12.

On the surface, the foursome - a retired librarian, a semiretired real estate developer with three kids, a game enthusiast with a master's degree in medieval studies and a polite middle school student - don't have much in common. But they all love board games, and they're not too cool, too staid or too close-minded for the Intergenerational Strategy Games Club, which has met in the dining room of Victory Tower senior apartments every Tuesday for more than three years.

"I think it's important for older people to have contact with younger people," said Feldman.

The main force behind the gatherings is John Goon, a sort of games-night guru of the Washington suburbs. Convinced of the power of board games to bring people together, he hops from town to town, establishing game nights. He then moves on to the next game-impoverished enclave. Goon has started clubs in Rockville, Wheaton, Beltsville, Long Branch, Greenbelt, Laurel and Hillandale; all but one are still active.

Goon, 58, an engineer for the Army by day and a bit of a fanatic about the strategy game Go, has 40 games at home - a paltry stash compared to some, he says - and often hits four game nights a week. "I'm doing it for a good reason, rather than just doing it obsessively," said Goon, who has the kind of deliberate, calm manner you might want in a bridge partner. "For me, it has to be more than just playing games or it isn't worth all that time."

With financial help from the Takoma Foundation and the Montgomery County Under-21 Activity Fund, Goon purchased about 50 games for the Takoma Park club - a combination of American classics, stylish European games and fantastical, multicolored confections that people born before the 1980s might not recognize.

On a Tuesday in October, clusters of two, three and four gathered, heads bowed, around Lost Cities, Parcheesi, Sleeping Queens, Mille Bornes, a Harry Potter trivia game, Carcassonne, Ingenious, and Fearsome Floors, which one 6-year-old said he likes because "the monster eats people."

The sounds of people playing whirled through the hall.

"I'm going to kill you!" someone shouted. "It's not your turn! ... It's still not your turn!"

"As kids, we do get loud and obnoxious," said Sally Ravitz, 13, slapping Mille Bornes cards on the table. In fact, one group of seniors, overwhelmed by the din, retreated to a nearby room to play Spades and never returned to the main dining hall.

But many of the older people say the evenings bring them back to their childhoods, help them remember what it was like to be 13. Parents love the wholesomeness. And even Xbox-loving boys will admit board games are more social and provocative than video games. "You have to think a little more," Julius said.

Ravitz saw a sign about the games club three years ago and has come almost every Tuesday since then with Sally and his two other children, ages 12 and 16.

"When we're playing games, we all get along," he said. "There's less altercations, more focus. It helps us be more resourceful, and it's calming."

He almost always plays with Feldman and Cameron, though he's lost all but one Scrabble game. Feldman has an encyclopedic knowledge of language, Ravitz says, and Cameron is a shark.

"It's an excuse to connect with people who I wouldn't otherwise connect with," Ravitz said. "We tend to make friends our age or our children's age and we have few blood relatives in the area."

Ravitz recently took Feldman to the doctor to get a new hearing aid. (He had noticed that she was frequently saying things like, "I didn't hear that, but I hope it was complimentary.") He and another elderly games club friend, whose husband was a session trumpet player back in the day, once went to the movies together to see a film about Charlie Parker.

Sally recounted going to visit the same woman when she was in the hospital. Sally brought Rummikub, of course.

The hour drew close to 9 p.m. and people started to pack up games and drift out. A couple girls were talking and texting on cell phones. The middle-schoolers were giggling. Feldman, Cameron and Larry Ravitz were still at it - this time their gazes were flitting back and forth between their Rummikub tiles and the table.

Ravitz was ahead briefly with just one tile left, but then Cameron nabbed a joker and won the game. As usual.

She grinned. Then they swept up the tiles, which made a familiar clacking sound as they clapped against each other and fell into the box.

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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