Every sports fan–of whatever sport–has heard an announcer observe: They’re playing not to lose rather than to win. This remark being uniformly intended as criticism. After all valor is the greater part of discretion, and if you aren’t flossing your teeth with an opponent’s spine then you may as well eat nachos in a silent room. And for those with bouncy balls under their belt, the admonishment does have a certain motivational appeal. Of course that appeal is largely one designed to trigger a burst of aggression and not always as a feasible strategic premise. It’s one thing to deploy such a philosophy in trivial contexts–such as a country’s foreign policy. Though quite another where the measure of a man is truly taken. Like Poker.
I haven’t played in quite some time, though at one point suffered an addiction to the game that cost me dearly–mostly in the form of back pain from sitting on wads of freshly acquired $100s. The varieties are practically endless though little exceeds the focus required for one-on-one matches. I once won 20 consecutive of these “heads up” games, which may or may not sound impressive until one attempts to replicate the feat against competent opposition. Though competent does not mean elite, and the thought of attempting to grind out an actual living against such players is not the hallmark of a sound mind.
But there are valuable lessons to be mined from a felt table, whether it is you or your opponents who ultimately subsidize the tuition. And one of the first to rudely intrude upon any player’s ego is that “playing to win” is the surest path to a comfortably lean wallet. When in a tournament a player rarely has a sense of who will survive, but an immediate one of who will not: those who are overly aggressive, play too many hands, and seek to always dominate the action. That is to say those who “splash around” injudiciously.
Their aggression, periodically combined with fortuitous draws, often results in sizable early chip leads. This having the opposite of a moderating effect on their play. An already assured demeanor turns positively quixotic in the quest to let no chip escape their jurisdiction. They begin to badly overextend themselves, getting involved in hand scenarios with little hope for positive payout. They ignore pot odds (hint: don’t pay 50 for a 25% chance to win 100), do not manage their finite resources studiously, and become frequently trapped in costly entanglements. And before the next blind increase, off these former chip leaders shuffle, mumbling to themselves about the horrendous bad beat that jettisoned them from the tournament. What could have happened, they plaintively ask their beer? They played to win instead of not to lose.
They misunderstood the terms of victory. It is not in generating awe, admiration, or fear in those at your table. It is in holding your place at that table as others merge and fade from it. Just as a nation’s victory is not in forcefully disseminating its comically transient values to others, but in bequeathing a secure sustainable inheritance to its posterity. The win occurs in persisting not performing.
A fact made clear by an aboriginal bushman gazing into some distant night sky at a moon still bearing the faded relics of a people no longer below. Though I’m sure our ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy,’ and ‘equality’ will be right where we left them. And that scenario is a suck out indeed.