Larry Kahn’s LinkedIn profile resembles those of many other accomplished MIT alumni. It mentions his degrees in ocean engineering (a bachelor’s in 1975, a master’s in 1976), his current job advising the National Institutes of Health on IT acquisitions, and his past work writing software for hovercraft simulators. It’s only when you scroll to the bottom of the page that you first spot the word “tiddlywinks.”
If Kahn were a less modest man, his page might include a bit more detail about his interest in the game. It might mention, for example, that he has won over 100 tiddlywinks championships (his closest competitor has 39), or that he is the only player to have held all six major titles at the same time. It might mention that Kahn has dominated tournament tiddlywinks for decades, or that his accomplishments are recorded by Guinness World Records. It might mention, simply, that he is the greatest winker of all time.
Like the children’s version of the game, tournament tiddlywinks involves using a small disc to flip smaller colorful discs (winks) into a little cup (the pot). But flipping winks into the pot is only one way to score. Players also receive points if their winks are left uncovered (or “unsquopped”) by an opponent’s winks at the end of a match. This change to the playground scoring system transforms tiddlywinks into a game of defense and strategy. Players often compare it to chess, with one important difference: in tournament tiddlywinks, it’s not enough to determine the best move among many possibilities. You also need the dexterity to nail the shot.
Kahn, 62, grew up in North Miami Beach. He first discovered tournament tiddlywinks from an MIT handbook that was sent to all incoming students. At the time, the early ’70s, tiddlywinks hadn’t been a competitive sport for long. The game originated in England in the 19th century, but tournament tiddlywinks dates back only to the 1950s. That’s when two Cambridge students, Bill Steen and R.C. Martin, realized it would be useful if they were one day able to mention in an interview that they’d played on a university team. There was just one problem: they weren’t good enough to play any of the sports offered at Cambridge. If Steen and Martin were going to represent their school as student athletes, their school would need a new type of sport. A few months later, in January 1955, they presided over the inaugural meeting of the Cambridge University Tiddlywinks Club.
The Cambridge winkers set about devising official rules, eventually adopting the crucial scoring changes. But even as the new rules took shape, the club was still missing something critically important for every sports team: another team to compete against. They began issuing challenges, and universities across England quickly formed their own clubs. The game crossed the Atlantic in the summer of 1962, when an Oxford team traveled to the United States. But by the mid-’60s, after a flurry of initial interest during which a team was created at Harvard, U.S. tournament tiddlywinks was on the verge of dying out. It was revived by Severin Drix, a Cornell student who had read some of the articles generated by Oxford’s 1962 tour. Drix started a Cornell team and encouraged a friend at MIT, Peter (“Ferd”) Wulkan ’68, to do the same. In the following years, MIT would emerge as a winking powerhouse.
Indeed, Kahn is far from the only world-class winker with ties to MIT. A number of the greatest players shot their first winks at the Institute, including Dave Lockwood ’75, who for many years was Kahn’s arch rival. (Sports Illustrated once likened the Kahn-Lockwood rivalry to that of Ali and Frazier.) But even Lockwood concedes that Kahn is the greatest of them all.
At his suburban home near Washington, D.C., the mantel over the basement fireplace overflows with the tiddlywinks trophies Kahn has collected over the decades. Today, most major tournaments no longer offer trophies, which is something of a relief to him. “I ran out of room,” he says. The current holders of the world singles and pairs titles still take temporary ownership of a championship cup, but though Kahn currently holds the former title, he left the cup behind in England. He’s grown tired of lugging it back and forth.
In the past, other winkers have referred to Kahn as “Horsemeat,” a nickname that stems from an awkward moment at a North American pairs match in 1976. Kahn, frustrated at his own bad shot, was about to use an expletive when, spotting spectators in the room, he caught himself and instead shouted, “I’m playing like horsemeat.” If he wasn’t anticipating a crowd, it’s perhaps because winks, for all the drama of a big shot, isn’t much of a spectator sport. Hunched over a table examining their winks, players can appear less like athletes than like scientists peering at a puzzling specimen. During a lengthy 2013 world singles championship match, even the umpire couldn’t stay until the end, leaving Kahn and his British opponent to battle it out on their own.
Kahn estimates that there are now a few dozen active tournament players, and like him, many of them have inspired nicknames. (Lockwood has been known to go by “The Dragon.” He was born in the Chinese year of the dragon and likes to point out that dragons are “old and wise and merciless.”) The pleasure winkers take in language has led to a remarkable lexicon that may be the most distinctive feature of tournament tiddlywinks. A shot that frees a covered (squopped) wink so that it comes to rest far from the other winks is known as a “boondock.” A shot that frees one wink and simultaneously covers a different wink is a “John Lennon memorial shot.” And top players like Kahn travel to each match with their own set of “squidgers”—the smooth round discs used to flip the winks.
Kahn makes all his own squidgers, most of them from plastics such as PVC, which he slices from a rod and sands down by hand. But he owns a range of squidgers made of materials tailored for specific types of shots. “Some of them I might use once a year because it is such a specialized shot,” he explains—but when that moment comes, “you want to have it.” For example, he uses one he made from a spice jar lid for shooting “nurdled” winks (those very close to the pot). “You are always looking for different interesting plastics that might work,” he says. He once owned a two-inch-wide PVC squidger that was known throughout the winking world as “Big Mama.”
MIT no longer has an active winks team, and while Kahn remains hopeful for a revival, he also recognizes that it isn’t likely to become a mainstream sport anytime soon. “It is the kind of game where you can show it to 1,000 people, and a lot of people say, ‘That’s kind of cool,’” he says. “And maybe one person will say, ‘Oh, I really want to practice and play this.’