Some colleges dominate a sport for so long that the names become synonymous: like UCLA and basketball, and Alabama and football. And MIT and tiddlywinks.
MIT doesn't just have the best team in the country, it has a legend of being an awesome, almost unbeatable squad for the past 15 years.
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The MIT tiddley training camp is in the Student Center at Tech Square. When I arrived the winkers--as they call themselves--were gathered around some three-by-six double-felt mats that serve as their playing fields. A jock with thumb muscles as taut as steel shot me a cold look from behind his thick glasses. There wasn't another well-toned muscle on his body, but those thumbs were the stuff of awe. Arye Gittleman's thumbs are the biggest and most skilled in the game. For those who don't know already, Gittleman--MIT '83--has a rippling dynamism on the double-felt that can only be compared to what Tony Dorsett does on the gridiron.
"You some reporter?" "Y...Yes," I stammered.
God, he was mean.
Gittleman introduced me around camp. Winkers have nicknames, but not like Bubba or Moose or Sugar Ray. More like Blue or "L" or Moishe or Ferd. Gittleman then handed me a squidger (a large, thick chip used to flip tiddlywinks around) and said, "Kid, how'd you like to play a game with us?"
I was uncertain, I hesitated, and then I thought, "Shit, if George Plimpton can play with the pros, why not me?" I'd probably be embarrassingly bad, but the experience would be worth a Pulitzer."
I became Gittleman's partner in a doubles game against Blue and "L". My palms sweated as I made silly errors early on, forcing Gittleman to make the tough shots. I tried to ease the champ's tension by smiling nervously and asking him why he didn't have a nickname. "My name is so weird I don't need one," he grunted.
God, he was rough.
There are two types of plays in Tiddlywinks. One is potting--what laymen usually consider the object of the game--to get the winks in the cup at the center of the playing field. But tactics depend on squopping--immobilizing other players' winks by landing on them. Points are tallied at the end to determine the winner: one point for every unsquopped wink and three for each potted one.
Harvard formed the first tiddlywinks team in the U.S. in 1962. Organized by the staff of the Harvard Gargoyle--a now-defunct humor magazine--it was a premier potting team, well-stocked with players who could are winks gracefully into the cup.
But Harvard was stopped when the squop came into vogue. In the 1966 Continentals, the hard-squopping Canadian Champion--Waterloo Lutheran University--decimated the Crimson. The team fell into depression and disrepair over the loss--its first ever--and soon disappeared.
At the end of the 25 minutes of regular play, I was totally squopped-out under a horde of other winks. A girl in the audience giggled at my haplessness. But in the decisive four final rounds, Gittleman kept the game close with an awesome display of skill, squopping, potting and squidging amazing shots.
It came down to the last tiddler. I could tie the game and save face if I could pot my only unsquopped piece. A simple five-inch pot. If I sank this one fame and fortune would be mine (sort of), but more importantly, my macho honor was on the line. Plimpton could do it. So could I.
I missed by a mile.
I put a towel over my head and walked toward the showers. "L" turned to me as I shuffled out. He was putting his prized squidgers in a felt-covered case. "Kid," he said, "You're okay, but this game isn't for you. Why don't you try something more your speed, like writing about what it's like being a boxer or something?" MIT and Cornell--the two best collegiate teams in the country--square off in a tourney November 14 in Ithaca. But if you can't wait that long, there's always the Tiddlywinks World Singles Championship on November 7 at Haverford College, near Philadelphia. Larry Kahn (MIT '75) will meet current champ Dave Lockwood (MIT '74).
Make your hotel reservations before the rush.