Monday, February 3, 2014


It seems lately that most of my posts begin as responses to someone's commment. This is no exception. Ozzie Pippenger, in this long comment, argues (among other things) that D&D has to become more competitive, like the chess and bridge I discuss in the post The Day Is Coming.  Ozzie begins with the statement that "It's primarily competition that makes people take some things seriously ..."

I could not disagree more strongly.

Perhaps it is an American thing.  Certainly, people take competition seriously.  I am not certain, however, if this seriousness derives FROM the competition or if it is simply enabled by it.  There are a considerable number of people out there, it must be admitted, that are awfully serious about 'winning,' even though the situation may in fact not include any formal competition at all.  But let's leave this aside, and address ourselves to the subjects, once again, of chess and bridge, in terms of their competitiveness.

Beginning with Chess.  The structure of the game makes it undeniable that one side is going to win over the other - I wouldn't suggest otherwise.  I do not dispute that within a chess game there is a winner and a loser.  I do argue, however, that the value of chess is not found in competing to win.

The desire to win, or more commonly, the desire not to lose, is inherent in an individual's introduction to chess.  Most who have never learned the game have an intuitive understanding that if they were to play it, they would absolutely lose.  They watch others play, they are baffled by the moves of the pieces, and often the rapidity by which they are moved, and tend to conceive that people who play chess are really smart.  Of course, chess and 'intelligence' have very little to do with one another, but the acquisition and success at anything that seems complex suggests the opposite.  I have taught many people to play, including many children, and the initial association new players make between playing and succeeding to win is without question one of feeling inadequate in the face of achieving something intellectually 'impossible.'

Those with a strong desire to play mark their achievement according to whom they can beat at the game.  My father taught me, and it wasn't long before I could beat him; my brother was better at the game, so it took longer before I could consistently beat him also.  I played through school and university, gaining ability, and so there were more and more people I could win against.  In those days, I did not really understand chess.  I never became devoted to the game ... and because of that, who won or who lost seemed to matter.

I had glimpses, however, in my 20s.  There was a fellow, Dan, who I would get together with and play chess for five or six hours at a sitting.  Game after game, all afternoon and through dinner.  And who won began to matter less and less.  I played literally hundreds of games with Dan over a period of about three years.  I do not know how many I won.  I do not care.  I don't remember the winning or the losing.  I only remember that we played.

Take the group of chessplayers that I used to know.  If I wished, I could set out this evening, find them, get them to remember me, and sit down to play with them.  I would almost certainly lose.  These fellows are frighteningly good.  But I've played them in the past and they know I will offer them a game of at least passing decency.  Try to keep that in mind as I finish this paragraph.  Two of those players, Charles and Paul, are two of the best players in the province.  Right now, I assure you, as I am writing this in the early evening, they are playing chess.  They play every night.  This is all they do.  Sometimes Charles will win, and sometimes Paul will.  That doesn't matter.  What matters is not the competition of the game - these two have played so often that they've ceased to think of the structure of chess in relation to the course of a mere game.  The structure of chess is in the inherent structure of each precise combination and the possible responses to that combination.  These two have seen virtually every combination possible, and have in their lives tried out the various responses to each; within the game, they understand the difficulty - and the satisfaction - is in finding the response that they do not know.  To hell with who wins the game.  The comprehension of that one move that produces enlightenment in a puzzle that has endless variables ... THAT is the purpose of the game.

You and I do not understand it at that level because we do not play at that level.  We are distracted by the winning and the losing because that is the most we are capable of understanding.  My ability to offer them a game is in my ability to produce a combination they haven't seen recently - most players cannot produce ANY set of moves that has the slightest complexity in it for these players.  I am imaginative; relatively crappy at chess compared to these fellows, but I am inventive and I think 'differently' than typically mediocre players. Thus, while they are destroying me, they have to do it by moving the pieces in a way with which they're unfamiliar. It doesn't matter that they'll win.  It matters that they can do it against a surprising opponent.

I don't know what else I can say to get that across.  If you haven't played enough chess, or you're unable to understand how or why you continue to lose against great players, then this is going to fall with a thud.  All I can suggest is that you try to play a lot of chess against a player who is slightly better than you are.  And I mean, dedicate six months of your life or so to doing only that and nothing else.

Bridge, then.  Bridge, unlike chess, is not a set arrangement in which players are free to make whatever moves they like.  Once the cards are dealt, there is in fact a 'correct' way to bid and play them.  The game, then, is not in who 'wins,' but who most often successfully bids in a manner that defines exactly what the goal is, followed by the ability to produce that exact goal by managing the cards correctly.  This, I admit, will fall short of explaining this to people who have never played bridge.

I should like, in the interest of expanding the consciousness of the reader, discuss the principles of something called Duplicate Bridge.  Duplicate bridge is a favorite form of competitive bridge, the reason for which will become apparent as I continue.  I would like to emphasize, however, that of the tens of thousands of people who are playing duplicate bridge at this moment, very few of them are doing it 'competitively.'  Bridge, like chess, is played by participants so intensively that the importance of individual games ceases to matter.

A typical set-up for duplicate bridge in someone's home on a typical Monday night might run as follows. Five card tables are set up in a living room.  Five decks are dealt, one for each table, and the twenty chairs at the tables are then occupied.  Each foursome plays the hand, first bidding on it, then playing it.  The bidding process is a means by which I tell my partner in code what I have, a code which everyone at the table knows.  The code is very complicated and imprecise, however, and while a very good player can be very good at knowing the right code, the partner may not be as good at interpreting the code, while the opposition themselves each are challenged to interpret the code as well.  All four participants can begin bidding, but usually it requires the possession of valuable cards to make bidding worthwhile, so typically only one partnership of the two at the table have enough good cards between them to make a 'contract.'  The contract states that, given the chosen trump (dominant suit) or lack thereof (called 'no-trump') the number of 'tricks' that shall be taken will be six plus whatever the final bid was.  Thus, "4 spades" would mean the partnership will take 10 tricks with spades as the dominant suit.  Most people are familiar with tricks or trump from having played Hearts.

Success comes from defining the exact number of tricks that the partnership will take if all the cards are played perfectly.  Imperfect play, or imperfect bidding, results in a reduction of points gained ... so really, the cards having already been dealt, the perfect play and the perfect bid have BOTH been predetermined.  This is why newspapers that used to print bridge hands could tell what a perfect play was - the hands all laid out, that perfect play can be identified.  Perfect play, however, is stymied by the fact that during a game, you CAN'T see all the cards.  And yet, a really, really good player will know, almost down to the exact composition of each trick that hasn't been played yet, what cards will out at what times.  It's quite marvelous to be able to do this, I assure you.

Once the hand is played in duplicate bridge, the original hands are reassembled at each table, so that the next players will play the exact same cards.  I an my partner, then, move clockwise around the room, while you and your partner move counterclockwise.  We then play hands that someone else played before us, and our success at playing those hands is measured against the success at other persons.  Thus, 'duplicate' bridge.

If you have never had another player that is better than you explain where you went wrong, and how you could have better played a hand, then you haven't lived.  More to the point, you haven't yet grasped that the hands themselves are the thing you compete against - that is to say, against yourself.  In the grander scheme, after much play, you begin to realize that you're doing the best you can, because you are who you are ... and that 'competitiveness' matters far, far less than the pleasure of playing a hand with or against people without letting them down.  The best thing in bridge is not beating an opponent (though some boors continue to think it is, but they're often not invited back), but in SUPPORTING a partner successfully, either in the bidding process or in the opposition play.  This is difficult to describe ... but if you play enough bridge, being a person of empathy and consideration, you will understand what I mean.  Some of my greatest moments have been in playing the 'dummy,' completing the bidding process and being able to lay down a powerhouse set of cards for my partner to then play.  It's quite a warming experience.

It is only on the surface that these games are 'competitive.'  And this is true with ALL games and sports.  On the surface, it only seems to be about competition.  The Sochi Olympics are starting Friday.  Every competitor there wants to win.  But these are profoundly aware individuals, who recognize that one small error, one unexpected turn, will mean losing.  And anyone can lose.  Obviously they hope that it won't be them, but they're well aware that the moment of perfection can elude them, and that there's nothing they can do about it. That moment of perfection will elude many.

Only the very stupid, very smug ones will think they're invulnerable.  Some of those will also be lucky, more's the pity.  All the others will recognize that the fact of being there in Sochi in 2014 is more important than winning.  The people they meet and compete against are the best in the world ... and among themselves there is respect that you nor I can comprehend.  To us, it seems phony and ridiculous when we hear them praise one another, or say they are just incredibly happy to be there, whatever happens to them.  It isn't phony.  It is only that these are people who have risen so high in their ability that they no longer view 'competition' as the purpose for their being there.  When you and I say 'competition,' we mean winning.  When they say competition, they mean playing.

Even those readers who have gotten this far will, no doubt, have failed to 'get it.'  In light of the fact that I won't quit trying, I'll propose a completely different argument, that really isn't different.

What are these people doing?

What is the purpose of tapping out sand into a mandala which will ultimately be destroyed?  I can assure you it is not out of boredom.  Nor to achieve an artwork.  Nor to demonstrate their prowess.  I leave it to you, o Gentle Reader, to try to comprehend how, within the apparent outer construction of detail and exactitude, there is meaning.

Only, do not tell me D&D requires greater competition to find it.


Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

Eloquently put and right on the money.

Giordanisti said...

This is a beautiful post, Alexis. I've felt moments of the feeling you describe in a few different contexts, but haven't yet had the skill in any particular area to properly bathe in those waters. Thank you for the small insight into the minds of those higher players.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Alright, I understand what you mean quite a lot better now. The part about the rules of bridge honestly eludes me, probably because I've never played, but I see exactly what you mean with the video and chess.

I think you're right that competition is not a real motivator for people at a very high level. Most people who get very good at something do it for love of the thing itself, and I don't think D&D is any different.

Who I think competition could help are the people who take it less seriously, the players who goof off and the DM's who railroad and come up with uninspired worlds. They could really benefit from the knowledge that the way they play doesn't measure up, that there are much better ways to do it if they just look at other groups.

I think competition could do a great deal in the case of, say, a mediocre garage band getting a gig and realizing that they need to practice much harder not to get booed off the stage. I don't think, however, that the really memorable important composers now or at any time were motivated primarily by competition.

But the thing is, there are quite a lot of people playing the game at a very low level. People who won't even admit that the way someone plays could be looked at competitively or critically. I suppose all I really want is for more people in the community to admit that D&D is something that you can be good or bad at, and that it's profitable to explore why some people are better than others and why certain types of games are better than others. This sounds obvious, but it's a disturbingly controversial thing to say to most people who play this game.

You're right though that overall I've misinterpreted what you said and overstated the usefulness of competition. Point taken.

Alexis Smolensk said...

"Who I think competition could help are the people who take it less seriously, the players who goof off and the DM's who railroad and come up with uninspired worlds."

But Ozzie, seriously, fuck them. They don't matter.

We don't organize the Olympics to give a forum to people who did not take sports seriously, or chess tournaments for people who do not take chess seriously, or ANYTHING for ANYBODY who fails to take a thing seriously.

Please. Let's stop being a charity.

Dave said...

On my worst days, I don't compete. On my best days, I compete against the only person to whom such competition truly matters... myself. If I can be better than I was, I win. If I can do for others better than I could before, then we win.

Another great post, Alexis!

Zrog (ESR) said...


Your stress on the word "SUPPPORT" rang very strongly with me, as I've played a lot of Dota 2 (the online computer game) in the past year, and there is a very interesting feature of the game where there is an actual, labeled role for certain players on the team called "support".

What's brilliant about this game, and illustrates the success and satisfaction of "supporting", in a different-but-similar gaming environment, is that the support player(s) often WIN THE GAME for their team. On the surface, there is a scoreboard where certain heroes appear to do better, get higher scores, and more items, but it's not this hero who destroys the enemy team at the end who actually wins the game for his team, but the "lowly" hero, who has little gold or items, but who through brilliant maneuvers, self-sacrifice, and superior decision-making, allowed his team to flourish and triumph.

I should also note that this game is played on a professional level, and what sets those pros apart isn't their manual dexterity and game knowledge (which is very good), but their decisions even before the game is started, where each team "drafts" certain heroes. There are so many heroes to choose from that you can't really draft and "beat" the other team (usually), but rather they select a set of heroes that they use based on some plan, and execute to the best of their abilities.

What I'm saying is that your post pointed out to me that D&D is not the only game that "lacks competitiveness" on a high level of play. It's only on the low level of play where people want "personal glory/gold/reward" instead of the enjoyment of brilliant play.

James said...

This is an excellent post. I can understand what you are referring to; I have played thousands of games of chess and Magic: the Gathering with my friends, and while we all strive to improve, no one keeps track of wins and losses.

But I think you understate a key aspect. Competition drives much of this. Even if the point isn't winning and losing, the competition of going against another person is often what drives people to improve. I think one can reach a point in any competitive pursuit where winning and losing become meaningless. But, even when the final results are meaningless, what gains meaning are the individual battles not only with another person but with yourself.

I mean, even in completely casual and laid back games, I will often curse at myself internally when I notice I made a mistake, no matter how big, small or meaningless the mistake is. It is because I know I could have done better, and if I am not doing my best, or trying to, what is the point?

By the way, the video is absolutely stunning. Sometimes we all forget that there is a satisfaction in simply doing something, even if there are no tangible results of the action.

Alexis Smolensk said...

James, what you speak of used to go by the now archaic term 'sportsmanship,' where one did not value one's importance by the number of persons one beats, but by having played the game well.

As I said, an archaic ideal. It has been replaced by gamesmanship, or "pushing the rules to the limit without getting caught." When someone tells me that D&D (or role-playing) needs more 'competition,' this is what I think of. Because there's already plenty of opportunity for sportsmanship. What we don't need is a measure for how successful we are at the game.

The video is a part of the larger Ron Fricke film, Samsara. Fricke also made the films Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi. I own these. I like to show them to people who come over. With effort you can find them on the net.

Taren said...

“When you and I say 'competition,' we mean winning. When they [Olympic competitors] say competition, they mean playing.”
Well said. Your statement applies across the board to many things, not just sports and games. I see the same quality in the great musicians I have the privilege to work with. We might say that someone at that level of expertise has moved beyond ranking, rating and judgment into the art of it all.
Nice left turn into the mandala video. The two arguments connect artfully.
Sportsmanship is definitely a rare commodity, but not lost. I hold to the view that something I don’t like in another person is an opportunity to hold a mirror to myself. I.e. what is it that I have to learn? If a pushy, competitive jerk bothers me, something inside me is resonating with that behavior. What is it? I am then given the opportunity to learn and grow better. Give something better back to that pushy jerk.
We all create the world we inhabit, we teach people how to treat us, whether consciously or accidentally.
I’ve never played D&D with people who didn’t care about the game. Maybe I’ve been inordinately lucky, but the players I’ve known have been deeply committed to the game going well, to the development of their characters, and to improving the quality of roleplaying, player interactions and FUN.
I’m going to make the case that we who care about the ART of roleplaying or D&D need never play with unserious, uncaring, competitive players. By how we are, they will go.
One little thing…is it just me, or is the comment "Perhaps it is an American thing." a bit of a cheap shot?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Have to remember, Taren; I married an American.

Taren said...

Ah, I hadn't realized. Excellent!

I will apply salt more liberally to your comments, then!

I'm both Canadian & American myself, for better and for worse ;)