In Praise of Games

In Playing Games I offered my definition of game play, and suggested how that definition might help explain how it is that some games are good and others are not. In Kissing and Contract Bridge, I used that interpretive framework to show why a hypothetical kissing game was not a good game, and why contract bridge was, at least as played by my mother’s generation, also a bad game.

I’m concerned that, by focussing on those examples of bad games, I might be suggesting that playing games is a bad thing. It’s not, of course. If I didn’t have a deep affection for games and game play, I wouldn’t bother with this blog. I like to think that tourneygeek is, at its heart, my way of expressing thanks for the benefit of a lifetime of playing games.

I know many people who feel this way about a particular game or sport. One reason that I’m trying to make tourneygeek relevant to a wide range of games is that I have, at different times, benefited from playing a lot of different ones. Chess, fencing, darts, bowling, golf, bridge, cribbage, backgammon … at one time or another, each of these has been important to me.

Chess

My experience with chess is, I think, one that many can relate to. I was an awkward and unsocial teenager. And despite there being so many of us, my high school was not a welcoming place for the awkward and unsocial.

The chess club was a haven for the awkward and unsocial. If you could play a decent game of chess, you would be accepted. You had a chance to develop a few social skills in an environment where you already belonged. And in the chess club, it was OK to be smart. You could channel your frustrations with the rest of your life into an effort to beat other people at chess. The very behavior that got me bullied and shunned in the wider school community was what established my place in the chess club. And, ultimately, it gave me a recognized, if not particularly esteemed, place in the school. As president of the chess club and first board on the chess team, I was someone who belonged at the school. I wasn’t dating a cheerleader, but the cheerleaders knew who I was, and once they actually came and cheered (quietly) at one of our chess matches.

I was never really good at chess. The high point of my chess career was, I think, when I was one of six players invited to play a round robin for the title of state high school champion. I went 0 and 5. But didn’t completely embarrass myself – all five of my opponents submitted the game against me for the tourney’s “best game” award. And, frankly, I never liked chess all that much. Since I left high school, I’ve rarely played.

Golf

Many years later, another game again helped me find my place in a potentially threatening society. I left academe, and entered the corporate world. I have anything but a typical corporate outlook, and I was worried that I wouldn’t last long at the company. So, I bought a bag of golf clubs – the finest that Kmart had to offer. And found that a few lessons and the physical discipline I’d learned as a fencer made it possible for me to play a minimally acceptable game of golf.

There were several different golf leagues at the company, but I was fortunate to join the right one. It was called the “Type B” league. In the Type B league, we rarely kept score. Judicious use of the “foot wedge” was not only tolerated, but encouraged. Conspicuous skill, on the other hand, was tolerated only when coupled with a winning personality. In the league, I connected with a lot of other

I made it at the company. I don’t really know if golf had anything to do with it, but I suspect that it helped – the fact that I was a known golfer put executive minds a little more at ease in entrusting a crucial bet-the-company project to a pointy-headed former professor. When my project prospered, so did I. I was promoted into the executive ranks, where I’d periodically be invited to an executive retreat which featured a very  different kind of golf – type B antics would have been career threatening.

After a few years, my position at the company was secure, and I stopped playing golf. Which is a shame – I had grown to enjoy the game.

Backgammon

Late in my corporate career, I was posted to the company’s office in Switzerland. The Swiss are famously polite people, but they are not friendly to the many expats who live among them. I lived in Switzerland for eight years, and only once was I invited into the residence of a Swiss.

Here’s another way of grasping this: in the time I lived in Switzerland, I met about 15 couples where one partner was American, and the other Swiss. Now, since I met all of these couples in Switzerland, you might expect that most of them would have been couples who met there. But, with only one exception, every Swiss/American couple I came across had met and married in the U.S. The Swiss are polite to the foreigners living among them, but most of them wouldn’t dream of dating one.

Playing backgammon was the only way I had of interacting socially with the Swiss. It was still not easy – we spoke English in the office, and my Swiss-German never got beyond the basic politeness needed at the train station or the grocery store. But playing backgammon with a Swiss allowed me to share an experience with one. The game itself provided the narrative of our time together. I still didn’t feel close to my Swiss opponents, but I felt we’d shared something.

I didn’t realize how much I’d been accepted until one year at the Swiss Open Championship. I got into an argument with one of my opponents, who happened to be a French-speaker from the western side of the country. I couldn’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure now that he was cheating by manipulating the dice.

This dust-up happened late at night. The Swiss have a well-deserved reputation for efficiency and orderliness, but their backgammon tournaments are as chaotic as anyone else’s, and I was having to play my match after 2:00 in the morning.

The next day, as people heard about what had happened, several of the German-speaking Swiss I knew best from tournaments in Zurich, and Basel, and Thun, let me know that they were on my side. I was a foreigner among them in Zurich, but in Montreux, at a tournament with lots of Francophones, I was one of them.

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