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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Some squidgers never nurdle

Dru Sefton Newhouse News Service

There’s a whole lot of squidging, squopping and potting going on this week at Cambridge University in England, all part of a prestigious jubilee: the 50th anniversary of tournament tiddlywinks.

Yes, tournament tiddlywinks. No, not just that silly kids’ game. Well, sort of.

There’s more to tiddlywinks than flipping small discs into a little pot. There’s a whole lexicon (to “nurdle” is to “shoot a wink too close to the pot to be pottable or otherwise useful”), 31 categories of official rules, a journal (“Winking World”) and newsletter (“Newswink”) and lively trans-Atlantic competition between the Brits and the Yanks, their two countries the last still containing avid winkers.

One of those is Larry Kahn, widely regarded as one of the best in the world. The mantelpiece in the rec room of his Vienna, Va., home holds 44 tiddlywink trophies. He was world champion in 2001, and featured in Sports Illustrated in 1995.

“It involves physical skill plus strategy as well as a luck factor,” Kahn said while potting winks – fpt-dink! fpt-dink! – on his practice table. “If you only have one of those, you’re going to stink.”

The object is to use a squidger (a larger piece) to flip 24 winks, or smaller, colored discs, into a pot in the middle of a heavy-felt mat – or to keep your opponent from doing so. Generally it’s red and blue vs. green and yellow in doubles play. There are also singles games.

Serious tournaments began at Cambridge University in 1955, and the American sport coalesced at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s and ‘70s. At the height of its popularity back then, Canada and Scotland also had active winking communities; those have since faded.

Most of today’s active players are MIT grads of the ‘70s, including Kahn, Rick Tucker and Dave Lockwood. They were among 25 Americans who flew to Cambridge for the jubilee and six days of competition this week.

“It’s a small community,” said Tucker, of Alexandria, Va. The surburban Washington, D.C., area “is one of the major centers of winking” in North America, along with Ithaca, N.Y., and Boston.

Tucker runs the official website of the North American Tiddlywinks Association ( He’s an avid collector of historic tiddlywink games and has played competitively since 1972.

Dave Lockwood of Silver Spring, Md., traveled to the jubilee with his wife and five children, ages 9 to 21. Lockwood vs. Kahn is one of the great competitive legends of modern winking. Sports Illustrated described it: “Forget Ali and Frazier, Chamberlain and Russell, Evert and Navratilova. Kahn and Lockwood have been dueling one another since the early 1970s.”

Lockwood’s wink nickname is Dragon, Kahn’s is Horsemeat (“I used to say that during tournament play,” he explained.)

“We’ve both been at or near the top for decades,” Lockwood said, pausing while packing for this, his 92nd trans-Atlantic flight to Britain, “mostly for tiddlywinks.”

All this for a simple children’s game? Turns out it’s not so simple at all, as Matt Reed and Jennifer Barnett Reed of Little Rock, Ark., discovered recently.

Jennifer received a tiddlywinks set from her mother for Christmas. (“I’m the child it’s OK to give wacky gifts to,” she said.) She and her husband brought the set to a friend’s house to give winks a try – the operative word being “try.”

“Tiddlywinks went flying all over the room,” Jennifer said. “We kept having to stop and chase them down. They were nowhere near” landing in the pot.

“It was the hardest game I’ve ever tried to play in my life,” Matt said. “We spent more time picking them up off the floor.”

After 45 minutes of practice, Matt managed to pot one wink and his wife landed three.

“It’s mind-bendingly hard,” Matt said.

Potting winks is the basic of play. Strategies including squopping, or flipping a wink atop an opponent’s to keep that piece out of play.

Intricacies of the official rules become as specific as section D.2, subheading Examples of Legal Shots: “A player’s squidger is allowed to hit more than one wink during the act of playing a shot on a pile. However, the first wink played must be unsquopped, and the player’s squidger may then make contact only with those winks that were, at the start of the shot, unsquopped by the first wink played.”

Then there are the winks. Serious players order them from Italy, or handcraft their own. Kahn creates squidgers by using a bandsaw to slice thin pieces from long rods of plastic or nylon, then sanding the discs. “Each takes two to three hours,” he said.

He’s still working to replace a favorite set he’d used for more than 20 years that was stolen with his backpack.

Kahn frets over the outlook for the sport. MIT, once the American bastion of tiddlywinks, no longer has a club. Several dozen Americans participate in tournaments, instead of several hundred decades ago.

“I blame (President) Reagan,” Kahn said. “The kids then got worried about getting jobs and stopped being frivolous. Then they got into computer games.”

There, in his Vienna basement, he squidged a wink, fpt-dink, and another, ftp-dink.

“I just don’t know how to grow the sport,” he said. “We toyed with changing the name officially to Tournament Tiddlywinks, but then if we explained the game to someone they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s just tiddlywinks.’ ”