"Do you think there are 1000 active winkers in the country?” I’m speaking to Rick Tucker, 54, collector, historian, webmaster, and former pairs champion of the North American Tiddlywinks Association (NATwA). Said group is holding their national singles tournament in Washington, D.C., this weekend.
Tucker says, “Active is a key word here. I would say there are probably 100.”
“Twenty minutes of Google was long enough to appreciate that tiddlywinks at your level requires skill, but you must get an odd look or a laugh when people first learn you’re a winker.”
“It’s certainly part of the aura of the game,” Tucker says. “People consider it a childish, simple-minded game without any skill or value.”
“How did you come to it?”
“I started at MIT 35 years ago. I happened to be temporarily housed in what was the center of winking at the time. So, I started winking as well. I’ve played ever since. NATwA was formed in 1966. Basically, it includes all the winkers in the U.S., and there are some in Canada. The British one is ETwA.”
“There have been a number of starts and stops, but in terms of MIT, there were two people who started tiddlywinks,” Tucker says. “One went to Cornell and one went to MIT. The Cornell player, Severin Drix, found a tiddlywinks set in a box of Trix cereal. The enduring team at MIT started in 1966 with Ferd Wulkan, who was Severin Drix’s friend. They decided to form teams and compete against each other.”
And now, 43 years later… “How do you play the game?”
“There are two key elements,” Tucker says. “One is putting your winks into the pot. The other is covering your opponent’s winks — it’s called squopping.
“Modern winkers can reliably pot 90-plus percent anywhere from an inch to the cup to ten inches away. Some people are very natural at potting — particularly new players. Squopping is something they have to learn. Squopping has a variety of different types of shots; it’s not just shooting one wink on top of another. If you already have one wink on another wink, you can manipulate it, you can move it as a group, move it to cover other winks, or move it to free your winks from piles. You can also shoot gromps, bristols, piddles, and boondocks.
“A boondock is sending — usually it’s your opponent — far away. You keep your winks close to the action. The shots that usually win games are squops. But, in the last 15 years there has been more of a push, particularly from some British winkers, to focus on trying to pot out. They take very high risks. They’re usually successful because once you have six winks free — not in piles or squops — and if they’re within ten inches of the cup, some people can make all six straight off. If you’re the opponent and you realize that someone may have that opportunity, you’ve got to go right at them. That’s where the excitement comes in. You have the tension and risking something to get the most points.”
I’m feeling it. “Say, somebody from San Diego is in D.C. and goes to the tournament. What would he see?”
“Since this is a singles championship,” Tucker says, “it will be a competitive tournament. We have our tables, three-by-six foot with felt on them, cups in the middle. As the game progresses, unless there’s an imbalance of skill or errors, people won’t pot; they’ll maintain territory, they’ll start squopping, and piles may build up.”
“So, there’s no advantage to potting out early?”
“Not at all,” Tucker says. “You want to control when you pot out. If you accidentally pot, it’s considered a disadvantage. Once a wink is in the cup it stays there and can’t be used for any tactics or defense. Having a one-wink advantage can be valuable.”
“Boondocking is sending your opponent to the boondocks. A bristol is holding your squidger vertically and shooting, usually two winks or a small collection of winks, causing them to jump and cover another wink. It’s named after Bristol University. A similar shot, called a gromp, is like a bristol, but the squidger is held in a different way — it’s slicing through the winks so that they both move to cover another wink. To piddle is to slice out a wink, usually your own or a friendly wink that’s inside a pile and covered.”
“Tell me you guys have a trophy for this.”
“We have a number of trophies in the United States,” Tucker says. “The British have a variety of trophies. The best known was donated by Prince Phillip — the Prince Phillip Silver Wink.”