Author Ryan Macdonald knows it's out of his hands as he plays yunnori. Photo by Darren Southcott
On an otherwise quiet night in Jeju, one small apartment is brimming with excitement. Grown men are tossing small sticks in the air and intently watching them fall to the floor, cheering as if their enthusiasm will influence how they land. Small amounts of money and the odd bottle of soju are being wagered, with the latter also being consumed. English and Korean have been abandoned in favour of grunts and screams of elation and agony. What’s causing the commotion? Yunnori!
A traditional Korean game enjoyed primarily over Seollal, but also during Chuseok and at other family gatherings, yunnori is played with sticks, a game board, and tokens. (The name combines “yut,” stick, with “nori,” game - pronounced “yunnori.”) Opposing players or teams take turns throwing four sticks into the air and, based on how they land, moving their tokens around the board. The sticks are rounded on one side and flat on the other.
If one of the four sticks lands flat side up - “do” - the player moves one space; for two flat sides - “gae” - two spaces are moved; three flat sides - “geol” - equal three spaces; while four flat sides - “yut” - equal four. If all flat sides are down it is known as a “mo” and players advance five spaces. Whoever is the first to move all of their tokens, or “mal,” around the board and back to the starting point wins.
The spaces on the board form an outer square with an inner diagonal cross. The diagonal lines share a spot at dead center. Each piece must find its way from start to finish either by taking the long outer route, or by taking a shortcut along one or both of the diagonal lines.
Throughout Korea slightly different variations of the game are played. In Jeju, the sticks used are shorter than those on the mainland, and are held in a cup when thrown. The sticks also must be thrown across a line down the middle of the game board, which is typically a straw mat. Though at a glance it seems substantially different, in principle it’s the same game.
Wherever and however yunnori is played, the potential for pandemonium is present. Often there are several people participating and many more spectating, and - since there’s usually money on the line - things tend to get noisy.
Native Korean and seasoned yunnori player Lee Keun Jae showed me and a friend, Julien Hulet, how to play. After a brief explanation and a few practice turns, we were off and running. When Julien and I quickly lost the first few rounds, fattening Keun Jae’s pockets, I asked him to comment on our progress.
“It took you guys a while to get the hang of it, so I took your money easily, but you seem to know how to play now.”
One game hit fever pitch when I landed my last token at the starting space, “cham-meoki,” one move from home. Though I had been in the lead for most of the game, much to my chagrin, Keun Jae was able to catch up and win on his next turn.
A little while later, Julien, upon hitting a lucky streak of several yut and a mo, simply had this to say about the game: “I love yunnori!”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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