Call it beginner’s luck, but Mike Rollins is holding his own against Kaipo Jenkins. Rollins, an electrical engineer, has never played kōnane; Jenkins, on the other hand, teaches it as part of a cultural class and has played for fifty years. Their experience levels are as black and white as the stones on the papamū—the board that’s used to play this ancient game of “Hawaiian checkers.”
A test of strategy, kōnane is more similar to chess than checkers in that players must trap their opponents; you remove a stone by “jumping it” much as you would in checkers, but you don’t lose the game by running out of stones—rather, you lose when you run out of moves. It’s a game warriors would play to prep for battle—training their minds to analyze the potential consequences of their moves. Missionaries frowned on the game (for its alleged ties to gambling), and play was discouraged as part of a greater effort to suppress native culture. Much like the Hawaiian language, however, kōnane survived in the home and is today experiencing a revival: You can now buy boards online, and there’s even a kōnane app.
At this year’s annual Celebration of the Arts held at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, Rollins and Jenkins are tangling in the final of the festival’s first-ever tournament. Some of the entrants are 60 years old, while others are only 12, and Jenkins hides his eyes behind sunglasses like he’s at the World Series of Poker. Rollins squeaked through the semifinal by beating 13-year-old Keo, who would have been pitted against Jenkins—his teacher—had he made the final.
With his students at Iao Intermediate School, Jenkins refers to the game as “Choices” because it teaches youth that, much like life, every move or choice you make has a role in determining the outcome. Plan ahead for success—but also don’t look so far down the road that you miss the move in front of you. In the end it’s Jenkins who triumphs over Rollins to claim the prize: a two-night stay at the Ritz-Carlton along with a Sunday buffet. The two swap words of mutual respect and appear to be mentally drained—just a couple of modern-day warriors battling to stay one move ahead.