Sarah Smiley Credit: Sarah Smiley

There are a few things I could reasonably assume I’d never do in my lifetime: Climb Mt. Everest, find out who shot JFK and play the board game Risk.

Until August 1999, Risk might have been among the possibilities, but an unfortunate episode playing Monopoly with my husband, Dustin, right after our honeymoon, banned me from strategy games “for life.” Back then, I had pouted and cried because I thought there was nothing worse than having your new husband make you pay rent on one of his properties. As it turns out there is something worse: Having one of your children break up your hold, and therefore ruin your bonuses, in Asia.

For more than a decade I refused to play Risk or, worse, Axis and Allies, with my children. Dustin introduced each of them to these games (and also Monopoly, which we had already agreed I was not allowed to play) as soon as they could read. Usually, he started with chess to get them thinking about strategy. And he never ever let them win.

From the kitchen I’d hear our toddlers crying and pounding their fists on pillows because they couldn’t win at chess, and then my conversation with Dustin would go like this:

Me: Just let one of them win for once!

Dustin: They love to play because they are trying to win.

Me: So let them do it.

Dustin: No. Someday they will beat me for real, and it will be life-changing for them.

Sure enough, each one of them, in turn, beat their dad at chess — fair and square — and all of them remember exactly when it happened. Once they had beaten Dustin at chess, he introduced them to Risk. And once they could beat him fairly at Risk, he brought out Axis and Allies.

I, of course, never participated in any of these games, and whenever the children asked why, we told them about that night long ago, sitting in our first apartment, when I cried because Dustin made me pay rent on Boardwalk.

Just because I didn’t play didn’t mean that I wasn’t loosely involved. I’ve spent a decade picking up tiny blocks and miniature tanks and dice off the floor. I’ve served dinners around game boards that have been set up on the kitchen table, and have been fully active, for two weeks straight. I’ve eaten lunch at the kitchen counter because people were sitting in my usual chair while they were taking over the world. And I’ve heard them say things like “one and one” and “never start a land war in Asia.”

But none of these things had any other relevance to my life besides how they interfered with my usual living.

And then this summer, my youngest son, Lindell, was missing his dad while he was at work, and said, “Will you play Monopoly with me, Mom?”

“I can’t do that,” I said.

“Please,” he begged. “Just play something with me!”

“You won’t like playing board games with me. Trust me.”

“How about Risk?” he said.

His eyes were big and round and earnest, and he was wearing me down emotionally.

“Fine, I’ll play Risk,” I said.

The older boys tried to talk Lindell out of it. They had heard the stories about me and board games longer than he had. They assured him it wouldn’t be fun and that I couldn’t handle the competition. But Lindell persisted. And so did I.

As it turned out, my first mistake playing Risk was when I tried to start a land war in Asia. My second mistake was when I got angry because Lindell invaded me there.

I lost terribly that first game. As soon as it was over, I said, “Let’s play again.”

I’m several games in now, and I have pounded my fists on pillows, yelled at the dice and made people eat their lunches around the game board because I refused to fold it up. The older boys finally played with me, too, and just like their father, they have no mercy. They are in it to win it. They laugh at my attempts in Asia and my tendency to stockpile cubes Australia.

But the day I finally beat them — Man, I will never forget it.

Just a few weeks later, and I think I’m wearing them down at Risk. For more than a decade they’d play it nonstop with their dad, but now that mom has become obsessed and a little fanatical about it, everyone is a bit reluctant to play. Laundry, cleaning, dinner — none of these things matter anymore. I just want to play more Risk, and my children are growing tired of it.

So I texted my 45-year-old friend, and channeling my 8-year-old self, asked, “Wanna come over and play Risk this weekend?”

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