Before I proceed to the story that I want to tell, let me tell you a little bit about the game called Jenga. It was invented in the early 70s by a Brit named Leslie Scott and the name is derived from the Swahili verb for 'build'. It's simple enough - you have a set of 54 wooden blocks stacked into a tower of 18 layers. Each layer of the tower consists of three wooden rectangular blocks laid side by side to form a square. (A new version, excruciatingly titled Jenga Xtreme, has wacky irregular blocks but they're still basically the same). Every layer is at 90 degrees to the layer below. On your turn, you choose a block, remove it from the tower and add it to the top, thus building the tower higher (the record is 40 tiers) and making it unstable. Whoever causes the tower to fall, loses. (Actually, the official rules have it that the person who had the last successful turn wins.)
Obviously, a big part of this process is selecting which block to remove. Players carefully try to select a block which doesn't have the weight of the tower on it. The boring option is to take the middle block from a layer. More interestingly you can take one from the side. Potentially a layer can lose both sides and be reduced to just its middle block. Finding a brick that can be safely removed is key to Jenga success.
The vigilance of gravity
Last night, I was in a pub having an after-show drink with the rest of the cast and crew from an amateur dramatic production that I'm involved in. The pub had a Jenga set which we set about playing with as soon as we spotted it.
For our first game, the head techie Nicole told us that we should play by her 'first brick touched' rule, whereby one must remove the first brick one touches, rather than the usual approach of gently probing the stack for a loose brick. We protested that this rule was insane, but she insisted, and so the tower collapsed on about the third turn.
The second game was more interesting. Play proceeded around the table and the tower grew a little higher and a little less stable. Nothing dramatic, just an extra couple of layers and a few holes - still the early stages of the game when you are assured of finding a loose brick and the only risk is in a sudden attack of clumsiness.
And then it was Biky's turn. I don't know Biky that well - she's in charge of sales, I believe, so I hadn't met her during rehearsals. She seems very nice - a cheerful, friendly young lady. However, my first impressions of her did not reveal to me her utter disregard for the laws of physics.
Biky examined the stack carefully, and then reached for a brick. Half of the people watching immediately shouted "No!", because they could see that the brick she was reaching for belonged to a layer that was already missing its middle brick. Picture that layer for a second - there's no way the tower can survive that. We all assumed it was a silly oversight on her part and settled down for her to choose another brick.
But it was not to be. "What's wrong?" she asked. There was a pause, and then a babble as several people simultaneously tried to explain to her the unavoidable consequences of placing the tower's centre of gravity over empty space. She shook her head. "No, it's alright, it'll come out, it's loose, I can feel it." Another shocked pause, and then several people more or less in unison - "It's not alright, Biky, it'll fall down"
Biky shook her head again. "No, it'll come out, it's alright." Around about this time I think that there was a group consensus that we would quite like to see Biky pulling out this brick, and the few remaining dissenters were shushed into silence. We watched as the brick was slowly coaxed out of position by Biky, still apparently confident that gravity was looking the other way and would forgive this transgression.
As the brick reached the edge of the tower, I suddenly realised that I wanted to believe, like Biky did, that the tower would remain standing. Just for a split second, as the brick was nearly completely out, I was prepared to believe that maybe she was right - maybe the impossible was possible if you just believed in it enough. The tower would remain standing and it would be a lesson in humility to us all, proving us wrong for doubting Biky and telling us that things don't necessarily have to go the way they've always gone before.
The image that stays with me is the look of total surprise on Biky's face as the tower collapsed off the table.
Jenga is manufactured in the UK by Hasbro.
Jenga history and facts taken from http://www.hasbro.com/jenga/pl/page.history/dn/default.cfm