Monday, May 16, 2016

Lessons from Games

All my life I have been a game player.  Begging my siblings or parents to play a game, when I was a kid, was fairly common for me. I have no doubt that I was annoying. Every family has the stories they like to tell. One of the stories told in my family was how I beat my uncle in chess when I was only three years old. I doubt if it is true. For one, I doubt I could have understood the subtleties of chess at that age, not only to play but to win. I am told that my opponent called me a "freak," but memories are poor arbiters of truth, so I'll never know what happened. One thing I can confirm, I don't remember anyone ever teaching me chess. So it must have been at an early age. I cherish the life lessons I have learned from playing this game. If you are interested in playing me, I have been using Chess With Friends on my smart phone and my record is 51 Wins and 13 Losses.  So challenge me, my user is Manofwow44. Humble me!

In the movie, War Games, the computer that is about to destroy the world is introduced to the game of Tic Tac Toe. When asked what it was doing, Matthew Broderick's character simply states:  "Learning." What the computer was learning from Tic Tac Toe was that some games cannot be won, like a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. It is a very simple game with simple lessons. Once you get good at this particular game, the best you can do with an equally skilled opponent is a draw.  Lesson learned. Earth was saved!

The biggest lesson I've learned from chess is to plan ahead. When I play chess on-line, I can almost immediately tell when I am playing an inexperienced player. They go into attack mode almost immediately.  I usually spend the first four or five turns setting up my defenses, pushing pawns and moving bishops and knights to control the center of the board. I might give my opponent the impression that I am going after their pieces, but really, I am just planning for the future. Putting off the immediate desire to attack for the long term goal of taking their king. When I was in college and I had a paper to write and someone invited me to a party, I used to think of the chess board. I have to put the immediate desire aside for now. I once had a housemate, a great chess player, who used to plan seven moves ahead. Seven is difficult. I probably do five, but not often. This is probably why he used to beat me more often than not.

Chess also taught me about sacrifice. I'd give up a pawn if it lead me to take my opponent's knight or bishop et al. I'd even push a pawn into danger to trap an opponent. I've even given up pawns for better positions. The important thing about sacrifices is that you give up something small or lesser, for something large or greater. If you give up a queen but then win the game five turns later, then the sacrifice was worth it. So I will sacrifice a Saturday of doing road clean up if it means contributing to a town with clean water and that is aesthetically pleasing. The key to a successful sacrifice is that you give small for something larger. These don't have to be material goods.  You can sacrifice time and effort to help make a better world. We all have a different definition of what winning the game means.

I recently taught my niece to play Cribbage, one of my favorite card games popular in the UK and their ex-colonies. My family emigrated from Canada so this explains my father teaching me to play when I was a kid. We'd sit on our screen porch in Ashaway, RI, on summer nights with the bugs hitting the screen, the frogs croaking by the river and watching the Red Sox on the black and white, we played cribbage. Of the things I learned from Crib, decision making is probably the best skill. When we make decisions we sometimes have to choose between bad and less bad. In Crib you have to decide which cards you give to the dealer. The dealer gets an extra hand called the crib, made up of your rejected cards of all the players. This can be a very taxing decision if you are not the dealer.  You have to choose between the best hand for yourself while not providing anything good for the dealer. Sometimes there are no good choices which is a lot like voting. When your choice is between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I have no problem voting for the less bad hand, regardless of how much I dislike her. Thank you Cribbage for this important life lesson.

Another lesson you learn from card games in general is that you learn to deal with the hand you were dealt. I know people who really stew over a bad hand. I am talking metaphorically and literally here. They just whine over, "I wanted to play baseball today but it rained." They are stifled by the cards they were dealt instead of turning it into an opportunity. In cards, you are forced to deal with the cards you were dealt. You make do. In poker, often, you can win with a bad hand simply by bluffing; an inexperienced player, who hadn't learned this lesson, would simply fold when they saw a bad hand. In life, bad situations can often lead to opportunities. Once, back in the 90's, I was laid off from one of my software jobs. Instead of stressing about it, I saw it as an opportunity to spend time work on my writing and dedicate some time to a paper I was writing on Kurt Vonnegut. I also spent a lot of time with my future wife, while she was a nanny, doing day trips with the kids. I really enjoyed this time off. Because I did this, I ended up being extremely relaxed and once I started interviewing, I really rocked the interviews. I ended getting one of the best jobs I've ever had and that excelled at for the next decade.  I have to wonder if I had stressed over finding a job, if I wouldn't have found the right one. I was dealt a bad hand and I played it well.

Every card game requires you to read your opponent. Whether it is trying to determine if they are bluffing in a poker or if they have the low trump card in pitch (aka high, low, jack), it is a skill that is learned.  This skill can be used throughout your life whether you are in interviewing for a job, interviewing someone else for a job, on a sales call or buying a car. Reading their tone or body language is invaluable and you get better at it with practice.

Like sports and musicianship, in game playing, practise makes perfect or close to perfect. Most games have an element of luck, so regardless of how much you practice, you may not get the cards or the dice that you need to win. Practice gives you the ability to seize the opportunity when you do get good cards. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell states that it take 10,000 hours of practise to master a task.  Gladwell rejects the idea of prodigy, The Beatles became great because they practiced. They took every gig they could find for little-to-no money and played everyday. I am not sure if I have that much time playing cribbage. 10,000 hours? Maybe. But I've been playing for over 40 years and I have never seen a perfect hand (the highest hand of 29 points). Practice, practice, practice.

In many card games, you can play partners, like pitch, pinochle, euchre, whist, bridge, spades, hearts and cribbage. My mother used to go to whist parties at the church with my dad when I was young and when he couldn't make it, I'd sometimes go in his place. I was a teenager the last time I went. By playing with a partner, you learn collaborative skills. In teamwork, you learn how to compete with someone as opposed to against them. You feed them points or set them up to win, so that both of you win. This can be important whether you work in an office, play sports competitively or act in a theater company. It is a skill we all start learning in pre-school. Playing well with others is one of the more important skills in success doing anything.

In playing Scrabble, I have improved my vocabulary. I've been playing Scrabble for decades. Two letter words are very helpful. I've been playing the word "aa" for years. It is a volcanic rock.  A few years ago, when I visited Hawaii, I got my first look at aa rock. That was pretty cool.

In playing games, I learned that I can learn from better players. This has helped me as a professional. Every computer programmer comes across someone who is better than they are. The best way to approach this is to cast aside your pride and ego, and ask questions. If they are amenable to teaching then ask questions, if not, then sit back and observe. My chess game improves when every time I lose because I learned something. I cannot say that about winning.

I have become less risk averse by playing games. You don't have to bid to win in the game of pitch, but you are far more likely to win if you do. You can live you life averse to risk, but you won't get far. Whether it is asking out that cute girl in your Math class or taking a chance on a new career, you have to take the risk and believe in your abilities to get it going.

Lesser games have lesser lessons. The game Monopoly is what I would call a lesser game. While chess promotes logic, planning and concentration, Monopoly promotes greed. If you want to see the worst in your friends and family, play Monopoly. Most successful people I know are game players. So if you have kids, choose their games wisely, for they are learning life skills after all.

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