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.