ONE of the strangest games of the '90s will never show up on the shelves of Toys * Us. Played by zealous adults, the game, which could be called ``Gotcha!,'' requires no fixed rules. Its only goal is to catch unsuspecting people in largely innocent acts, then declare them guilty of a crime.
The latest round of ``Gotcha!'' took place in New York last week. Four businessmen, commuting home to Westchester County, settled into their seats on the Metro-North train for a routine activity - their daily poker game. Before the train ever left the station, two police officers appeared, looking for illegal smokers. But after spotting a deck of cards and $141 in cash, they arrested the foursome for gambling. Handcuffed and humiliated, the commuters were led through the terminal, placed in holding cells, and fingerprinted and photographed.
Never mind that one of the men, a lawyer, had been playing poker on the train for 28 years. And never mind that the railroad itself runs radio commercials saying, ``You can have card games on the train.'' In a society where lotteries and state-sanctioned gambling exist almost everywhere, the only mistake, apparently, is to play cards with friends rather than the state.
The police officers probably thought they were just doing their job. Yet considering the crimes that occur in New York railroad stations - robberies, rapes, even murders - other passengers could be forgiven for wondering: Is arresting smokers and card players the best use of limited police resources?
The incident recalls another interrupted card game more than a decade ago in Largo, Fla. Eight retired men, playing nickel-and-dime poker one afternoon in their mobile home park, were arrested for violating the state's gambling law. Their trial took two days. Although the judge could have sentenced them to six months in jail and fined them $500, he put the men, quickly dubbed the ``Largo Eight,'' on one month probation and ordered them to pay $75 each in court costs.
In another, far different case two weeks ago, police in St. Paul, Minn., arrested a Muslim woman as she walked through a downtown skywalk. Wearing a veil, she refused to show her face. The officers ticketed her for violating a 30-year-old state law against concealing one's identity in public. Although a later check of the woman's record revealed a prior shoplifting charge, they did not catch her in a criminal act. She is contesting the citation, but if that fails she could be fined $700 and jailed for up to 90 days.
A law is a law, and obedience to the law begins with respect for small details. But incidents like these illustrate ways in which pettiness seems to triumph over reason or apparent innocence, diverting attention, at least briefly, from far more serious crimes.
Law enforcement officials are not the only ones playing ``Gotcha!'' Parents, spouses, bosses, and even readers can play.
The American Library Association recorded nearly 700 incidents of censorship in the nation's libraries last year as residents tried to remove books they found offensive. Among the works banned or challenged in 1993 are ``Huckleberry Finn,'' ``Little House on the Prairie,'' ``Grapes of Wrath,'' and the American Heritage Dictionary.
Yet at a time when television shows and movies - not to mention real-life city streets - are filled with profanity, violence, and crime, going after classics may represent yet another classic example of looking through the wrong end of a telescope, focusing on insignificant details while ignoring larger, more pervasive problems. Then again, perhaps these madly overzealous cases of enforcement serve a useful purpose after all. They offer a reminder that absurdity is a great teacher. The most effective rebuttal may be just to laugh the solemn sticklers out of court.