In 1995, Sports Illustrated likened Larry Kahn and David Lockwood to the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier of Tiddlywinks. A fearsome metaphor for two men who, in the parlance of their game, spend their time squopping and potting, rather than bobbing and weaving.
Kahn has won 114 national and world Tiddlywinks titles. Lockwood has won 41. “Larry is the Ali,” Lockwood concedes.
But their rivalry is a friendly one, and when they’re not competing against one another, they make a formidable pair. As a duo, they’ve won five international titles together.
On Friday, they’ll look to snap a 21-year drought when they try for their sixth title together at the annual Tiddlywinks World Championships at the University of Cambridge.
On a recent afternoon in a simply remodeled basement located in the Virginia suburbs, Lockwood paces the perimeter of a regulation 6-by-3-foot table in gym socks and red track pants, calculating his best move.
Colorful, dime-sized discs, or winks, dot the felt-matted surface. In the center lies a traditional plastic red cup no bigger than a shot glass. Kahn, wearing Tevas over his socks, is playing in shorts, as usual, lest he gets too warm circling the tabletop.
Tiddlywinks has a startlingly simple premise: Shoot the most winks into the cup. For all its academic fandom, the very name of the game and its companion slang evokes the lexicon of a nursery rhyme. But Lockwood is quick to blast the game’s reputation as a bygone children’s pastime.
“Tiddlywinks is not what you did when you were 5 years old,” he says. “Tournament tiddlywinks is a fascinating combination of physical skill at a micro level and positional strategy.”
What began as a 19th century adult parlor game in England, first patented in 1888, reemerged in university circles across the United Kingdom and the United States as a tournament game held at Cambridge University in 1955.
Over time, professional winkers, largely recruited from Cambridge, Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped heighten its complexity and strategy.
Probability, physics and dexterity rule the game.
Offensively, potting — or sinking a wink in the cup — depends on how much pressure a player exerts on the squidger, a larger disc used to flick smaller discs, or winks, into the cup. To gauge your potting chances, competitors know that pressure equals distance, Lockwood explains.
To keep opponents from scoring, players use their winks for another purpose: squopping. Translation: they flick their winks on top of their opponent’s discs to effectively take them out of play.
“You need to defend the ones that you’ve got and/or attack the ones that they’ve got,” Lockwood explains.
These days, there’s hardly a market for the niche sport. Several companies don’t even make the equipment anymore.
So committed winkers have had to get creative. Lockwood and Kahn have procured orthopedic felt for their playing surface. They make their own squidgers by sanding down plastic discs molded from spice jar lids. They’re banking on 3-D printing becoming more affordable in the near future to help streamline the process.
It’s not something they could have imagined when they started playing Tiddlywinks during their freshman year at MIT, when Kahn and Lockwood each signed themselves up on a whim. Kahn thought the game sounded fun to learn. Lockwood checked “Tiddlywinks” as a joke, he says, after perusing the list of activities offered in the student handbook.
“I was the last person to make the eight-player team in 1972,” he says.
Dave Lockwood plays tiddlywinks.
Larry Kahn has won 114 national and world titles.
Today, Lockwood says the game has changed his life. “I’ve been to Britain more than 100 times since then, mostly to play Tiddlywinks.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Kahn, who says the game has “enriched my life.”
Kahn and Lockwood both say that one of the best parts of belonging to the winking community has been the friendships they’ve gained.
“Immediately you have a bond with people I’ve never met and it’s continued on, through today. For whatever reason, the game has sort of kept people together to some extent.”
Of course, when talk turns to this week’s tournament, they turn less sentimental.
“It’d be nice to you know, as old as we are compared to the other players, be able to to go in and win a match,” Kahn says. “To show the old guys can still do it.”
Lockwood is blunter. “I really want this,” he says. For him, the victories are addicting.
“If you get a modicum of success, you’re more frequently willing to continue to play, but it’s also a very frustrating game because you miss these things that you’ve made so many times in the past,” he says.
“But only the past is certain.”