It's too bad it's so hard to see good polo anymore. A thousand years ago in Persia it must have been quite a show: thundering steeds, flashing mallets, whacked balls flashing through the air dangerously close to one's noggin--in short, total pounding mayhem. Before it became the province of Ralph Lauren and royal fops, polo was "the emperor of games," as Winston Churchill called it. Or so one learns at Asian Games: The Art of Contest, at the Asia Society in Manhattan, on view until Jan. 16.
The sublime and understated exhibition of paintings, boards, game pieces and esoterica seeks to explore Asia's 9,000-year obsession with sport, an interest that dates to depictions of board games found on cave walls--testimony that the playing of games predates many other human pursuits, even writing. The Asian contribution to the world's games is impressive. In addition to polo, thought to have originated 2,000 years ago in Persia, there were the strategic games of chess (believed to have originated in northern India before 600) and go (from about 200 B.C. in China). Asians claim credit for the invention of playing cards, dominoes, mah-jongg, backgammon and even kickball.
Colin Mackenzie, curator of the exhibition, thinks the urge to play boils down to something elemental. "Without games," he says, "people would be unendurably bored." Polo, anyone? --Kevin Kerr