It’s ‘game on’ for these players

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Carol Sorgen

Nancy Sacks gets together with friends every Monday to play mah jongg. Participating in board and card games not only offers social benefits, but can keep your brain healthier, reduce stress, and possibly even help you find things you’ve lost, according to research.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Since 1974, Nancy Sacks has had a standing Monday evening engagement. The 66-year-old realtor gets together with five other women for a weekly mah jongg game.

When Sacks began this tradition, she and the other women were young mothers who all belonged to the same philanthropic organization. Forty-two years later, some of the players have moved on (Sacks and her friend Sue Belle are the originals), and their kids are now grown. But the Monday night “mahj” tradition lives on.

“The game is fun, and it’s a bond of friendship,” said Sacks. “We’re all girlfriends, and this is a time for us to spend together and share our news.

“Plus, playing games [Sacks also plays in a weekly canasta game] is good for my brain and gives me something to occupy my time,” she added.

Resurgence in popularity

Board games (or to use the broader term, tabletop games) refer to games that are normally played on a table or other flat surface, and can include card games, dice games and tile-based games, such as Scrabble.

Once in a slump because of the proliferation of video games, board games are enjoying a surge in popularity. Sales of board games grew an astonishing 56% from 2014 to 2015, and sales of card and dice games grew 75% in the same period, according to ICv2, which tracks industry sales.

New games are continually being created, but some of them have their inspiration in perennial favorites. The developer of Qwirkle, for example — a tile-laying game in which players lay square wooden tiles directly on to the table to form lines showing matching shapes or colors — was inspired by Scrabble and the players’ ability to score on more than one word with a single move.

Capitalizing on the popularity of these games is the rise in board game cafes — casual restaurants or bars with a modest entry fee that stock a wide variety of board games that patrons can play as long as they like.

The cafes appeal to people who not only enjoy playing games, but are looking for a more in-person connection; something they can’t get from, say, their Words with Friends sessions (a word game played on smartphones, tablets and via Facebook).

While a recent search doesn’t reveal any dedicated board game cafes in Baltimore, many coffee shops and restaurants have board games available for their patrons, or encourage them to bring their own and settle in for a few hours. You can also join existing board game groups at your local senior center, or start your own.

Multiple benefits

Dick Fulton, who is 88 and lives at the Edenwald Retirement Community in Towson, enjoys his twice-weekly backgammon games. For several years, Fulton invited a few other men to his apartment on a weekend afternoon to enjoy an informal game. That group is still ongoing, but now Edenwald itself sponsors a weekly game for anyone who is interested.

Fulton said he has been playing backgammon all his life. “I learned from watching my father and his friends play,” he recalled. Fulton enjoys the fact that backgammon is a quick game that involves both a certain amount of luck as well as strategy. “Although it’s 95 percent luck,” Fulton added, laughing.

According to Fulton, playing games like backgammon, and doing his word jumbles and Sudoku, helps keep his mind sharp.

Research bears this out. A study conducted by the Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology reports that mental activities like reading, writing and playing games can contribute to a healthier brain in older adults.

And Health Fitness Revolution Magazine cites these health benefits of playing board games:

 •          Laughing and sharing good times with others can increase endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals that promote happiness.

•           Playing games is a good way to share family experiences, and also a way to bond across generations.

•           Board games help the brain work harder, which keeps it stronger and healthier, reducing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

•           Scientists have found that people who regularly play board games are quicker at finding lost targets. (Just where are those car keys?!).

•           Distraction is a good way of combatting stress. An online survey by games developer RealNetworks, Inc. found that 64 percent of respondents said they play games as a way to unwind and relax, and 53 percent play for stress relief.

•           Board games can improve fine motor skills, coordination and dexterity as you pick up or move pieces.

A lifetime of enjoyment

For older adults, certain board games also bring with them a feeling of nostalgia. According to AARP, some of the more popular vintage board games are Clue, Life, Candy Land, Monopoly and Scrabble.

Diane Moskowitz learned Scrabble close to 60 years ago and today is a member of two regular Scrabble games. “I played on and off with my kids as they were growing up,” said the 83-year-old Lutherville-Timonium resident. “But I’ve been doing it on a regular basis for the past six or seven years.”

Once a month, Moskowitz plays in a game sponsored by the Brandeis Live and Learn Programs, and every other week she plays in an informal group that meets in a community clubhouse.

“I’ve always enjoyed crossword puzzles,” said Moskowitz, “and Scrabble adds the elements of friendly competition and face-to-face socializing.” She also still plays online Scrabble and Words with Friends. The Scrabble games help solidify her reputation as the “local dictionary,” she laughed.

At Charlestown Retirement Community, retired pastor David Pollitt, 88, has taken his lifelong interest in chess and created the Charlestown Chess Club, which meets every Monday afternoon.

When Pollitt first moved to Charlestown, only two women played on a regular basis. Now there are 14 residents who come together every week for a friendly game.

“I play for the fun of it,” said Pollitt, though admitting that “winning makes me happy.” When he loses, he tries to remember that “someone else is now happy too!”

Chess is a game of strategy, Pollitt observed, that stimulates problem-solving and analytical skills. “You have your strategy, but you also have to watch the other person’s strategy,” he explained.

Besides providing the opportunity to make new friends, Pollitt notes that playing chess offers the opportunity to connect with far-flung family and friends. “One of our members now plays with her grandchild on Skype,” he said.

The Charlestown Chess Club has also bridged the generation gap by playing with local students. This past March, for example, 32 members of the Cross Country Elementary/Middle School chess team played the Charlestown chess team as a way to prepare for the youngsters’ participation in the U.S. National Chess Tournament in Indianapolis.

“They came in second in their age group!” said Pollitt, proudly.

For Pollitt, chess is a game you can “get lost in.” “It takes your mind off things,” he said. “Once a week, for three hours, I forget about everything else. It’s all about the chess.”