It was the fall the NFL players went on strike, asking that their wage scale be calculated as a function of gross revenue—a demand the team owners recoiled from as if someone had upended a pitcher of urine across each vast mahogany desk. So my father had no Patriots game to watch on television and he flipped on the Wide World of Sports to endure, in his words, “whatever arcane bullshit Jim McKay feels like blathering on about. It’s probably gonna be cross-country skiing, or curling, or goddamn table tennis.”
“Want to play Mastermind?” I said.
My father looked at me and then back to the TV, where coverage had relocated to a synchronized swimming competition, trying to figure out which option was less unbearable.
“Fine.” But he left the TV on.
Invented by an Israeli postmaster, Mastermind was essentially a game of code-breaking where one player arranged four pegs of different colors behind a shield and the other player had twelve turns to guess the correct sequence. To make matters more difficult, there were six different peg colors and repetition was permitted, meaning there were 64 or 1,296 potential combinations. The code-breaker made his guess and then the code-maker would use even smaller black or white pegs to indicate how far off it was. A black peg meant correct color, correct position. A white peg meant correct color, incorrect position. No peg meant neither. The code-breaker used this information to make the next guess. Failed attempts generated cumulative data, applied in series. Games of this variety generally drove my father batshit, but my mother felt they fostered early cognitive development.
“I’ll be code-maker,” I said.
“Balls,” said my father. He spun the board around to face him and chuckled, which seemed to make him cough. He glanced toward the TV again, as if the NFL strike might have been settled in the past few moments to spare him this tedium.
“Don’t just put four of the same color,” I said. “It’s too easy.”
“Don’t tell me how to play. Now, look away while I do this.”
He set four pegs behind the shield and awaited my first guess.