Way more competitive than YOU are

Photo by Stephen Hyun

It took me five or six years to figure out that other couples don’t play games the way my wife and I do. We’ve got a massive collection of pretty much every game either of us has ever owned, and when we get together with another couple, reaching for one of them is still one of our favorite things to do. But over the years we’ve noticed that with some of our friends, one partner will like to play games and the other won’t. Sometimes we’ve noticed something even weirder:

Couples that play nice.

We don’t play nice. We’re nice to each other, mind you, in the sense of not (generally) being disrespectful or anything like that. And we’re not making strategically poor choices just to mess each other up or anything like that.

But we each play to win. If one of us is on a winning streak of several games, we don’t hold back to spare the other’s feelings. If you want to feel better about yourself, play better. We don’t hold back when we play with the kids either. We might play with a handicap, but then we still do our damnedest to win. If you beat either of us at anything, you know you really beat us.

I think both of us figure that to give anything less than your best in a friendly competition is to disrespect the other. My wife’s better than I am at Scrabble, but I win my fair share of games. Those wins would feel empty if I thought she was holding back.

What was that notion that got all the buzz in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers a couple years ago? To become world class at something, you need to put in the time, with 10,000 hours or more of practice. But specifically you need focused practice, geared toward getting better. I’ve gotten better at Scrabble since I’ve known Lisa, because nothing less than my best is enough for me to win a game.

It applies to writing, too. We’ve both harbored dreams of becoming published writers for years, but one of the things that has kept us motivated is each of us seeing the other chasing that dream. How many words are you up to? You’ve got fifty thousand now? Crap. Guess I better get the laptop out.

There are tons of blog posts out there on how very destructive it is as a writer to be competitive, to be looking at what kind of deal someone else got, or how someone else’s book is selling. And I don’t disagree that there’s a lot of truth in that sentiment. But I think there’s good competitive and there’s bad competitive.

And there’s being a sore loser, which is an entirely different thing.

I’m not a big fan of that T-shirt that says “Second place is the first loser.” It’s a cute phrase, but ultimately it’s a destructive sentiment. Trying to win doesn’t preclude being gracious in defeat as in victory, and winning is not so important that it’s worth achieving at the cost of being dishonest–or rather, winning dishonestly is not actually winning at all.

I guess good competitive is when seeing what someone else can achieve makes you aware of what it’s possible to achieve, and makes you try harder to get better.

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6 Responses to Way more competitive than YOU are

  1. Tom Emmons says:

    Well said. My wife and I seem to enjoy different games. When we do converge on a game, like cribbage, I often take her by surprise as she doesn’t seem to remember at first that I’ve logged more than a few hours at this time-waster.

    Once she remembers that, it’s no mercy time. Did I tell you my wife is a card shark?

    Another game we tried recently was Mille Bornes. This is funny because they discovered it recently, and I’ve been playing since the… well, a really long time ago.

    “What’s this green light thingy?” and “Oh, is laying down 200 milestones good?” are two of my favorite subterfuges. By the end of the first round, I’d played three safeties and one of them, Right of Way was a coup fouree. It’s the easiest one, but they were coming to terms.

    Now in my old gaming circle, these tricks have no meaning. Firstly, we don’t let up on new players. Sink or swim. Secondly, they’d all become quite accustomed to my guile, and even when I’m nice to you in a game, there’s a reason.

    Fun topic.

  2. Joe Iriarte says:

    Heh heh.

    I haven’t heard of Mille Bornes. There are a lot of really cool games out these days, though some of them have a steep learning curve. I’ve been introduced to quite a few at Hatracker gatherings.

    One that I found by chance three years or so ago that has become a new favorite is Quiddler, which is like a faster-paced cousin to Scrabble.

  3. Tom Emmons says:

    I tend to the strategic in gaming. I have a fair vocabulary, but I’m constantly finding others with a much larger one.

    Lately it’s been mostly beer and pretzels when I game. Simple in concept, complex in combinations. I have to be in the mood lately to do lots of math. This precludes epic strategic games like “Stellar Conquest” or even the old “Star Fleet Battles” series.

    Nine times out of ten when I play lately, it’s been “Settlers of Catain” with all the expansions.

  4. Lisa Iriarte says:

    I’m still not playing Trivial Pursuit with you! ;P

    Nicely written, as always!

    Hmm, maybe I should go update my blog . . .


  5. Tom Emmons says:

    Yes, you should.

    You also need a gravatar. 😛

  6. David Flor says:

    Lisa, I don’t recall ever getting you to play Trivial Pursuit.

    We don’t play many games at home, but when we do it’s brutal. We play Monopoly so viciously that one would think we were playing with real money. Afterwords we hardly speak to each other until the rage subsides.

    And my wife tried to play chess with me once… Once…

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