Sam Venable 

Department of Irony


Never Give a Sucker  (Or a Grandfather) an Even BreakI will be having alpha-and-omega feelings on September 11 this year.

“Nine-Eleven (or 9/11),” as it has come to be called, marks one of the most tragic days in American history. Even now, 21 years after the fact, images of ash, smoke, fire and terror flash anew in my mind.

Fortunately, there’s an opposite, happier, side of September 11 in 2022. It’s National Grandparents Day. Officially declared by presidential proclamation in 1979 by Jimmy Carter, Grandparents Day falls on the first Sunday after Labor Day.

This gives me yet another opportunity to repeat a universal truth: As much as you love your children, just wait until you have grandkids. Mary Ann and I have three, all of whom live within 20 miles of our house. What a blessing!

This summer, I’ve been letting them run the outboard on my bass boat—with kill switch firmly snapped to their wrists and just-to-make-sure Pippy seated alongside.

They know only one speed, of course: full bore, straight down the channel. Looking at those grins, caps backward, hair in the wind, I invariably start humming Alan Jackson’s country classic, “When Daddy Let Me Drive.” If you’re not familiar with that song, Google it and smile. This tune oughta be declared the National Anthem of Growing Up.

Ah, but there’s also a devious side of grandchildren. I discovered it from granddaughter Lucy when she was a sweet, innocent 11-year-old. It was the day she introduced me to a new form of insanity called “mancala.”

New to me, that is. Mancala itself is ancient, dating to the Seventh Century. It’s the generic name for a complicated board game. Mancala has something like 800 specific names, depending on where in the world you happen to be playing. In any location, I would call it “that %$#!&# smarty-pants nightmare.”

I never turn down an opportunity to play any game with my grandkids. Thus, I agreed immediately when Lucy said, “C’mon, Pippy. It’s easy to learn.”

Sure it’s easy—if you have a mathematical mind, which Lucy does. She inherited this trait via her electrical engineer father and computer guru grandmother.

Me? You gotta be kidding. I still have trouble with basic jock math.

This game involves a series of parallel, cupped depressions. It can be played on the bare ground or with a board that looks like an elongated muffin tin. At the start, each cup is filled with an equal number of tokens: beans, seeds, rocks, whatever’s handy. Lucy and I used colorful river pebbles.

The action moves in a circular rotation. The object is to capture as many of your opponent’s tokens as possible, while losing as few of yours. Each player starts with an equal number and doles them out, one per cup.

If the last token lands in a cup filled with others, that player gets possession of the entire cache and then keeps rotating and doling until he or she inevitably winds up on an empty cup. Then it’s the other player’s turn. The person with the most tokens at the end wins.

Doesn’t sound all that complicated, right? Be not fooled.

I thought this was a completely random affair, pure chance. Little did I realize it’s an analytical game. Like chess, it requires that you anticipate moves in advance.

After five or six games, all of which Lucy won handily, she took pity.

It was my move.

“Start with those pebbles,” she said, pointing to a certain cup.

I did. It seemed like a prudent choice. But then a few cups later, I landed on empty and was out.

“I thought you were giving me good advice,” I complained.

Lucy smiled devilishly and raised her eyebrows.

Several games later I faced a similar quandary.

“Start there,” she said, pointing to another cup.

“Yeah, right,” I replied sarcastically. “Just like you led me astray before.”

“Noooo,” she cooed sweetly. “It’ll work this time.”

Yes, of course, I was out in the blink of an eye.

“You tricked me again!” I spat.

Lucy just shrugged as she counted her winning pebbles. “It’s your own fault, Pippy. You’re the one who listened to me.”

Kid’s got a great future in politics.

Sam Venable is an author, comedic entertainer, and humor columnist for the Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel. His latest book is
“The Joke’s on YOU! (All I Did Was Clean Out My Files).” He may be reached at