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—some-thing 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 competitive winker.
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.