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Wednesday
Oct222008

Beginner's Guide

Introduction

I am here to teach you to win.

Playing to win is the most important and most widely misunderstood concept in all of competitive games. The sad irony is that those who do not already understand the implications I will spell out will probably not believe them to be true at all. In fact, if I were to send this book back in time to my earlier self, even I would have trouble with it. Apparently, these concepts are something one must come to learn through experience, though I hope at least some of you will take my word for it.

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
—Douglas Adams,
Last Chance to See

Why Win at Games?

The great thing about competitive, zero-sum games is that they offer an objective measure of your progress. When you walk the path of continuous self-improvement that a champion must walk, you have a guide. If you are able to win more (that is, more consistently defeat highly skilled players), then you are improving. If not, then not. Imagine trying to measure your success in other forms of life such as your personal life or career. Are you improving or not? To answer that, you have to know exactly what is included within the scope of the “game” and what is not. What are all the factors that go into your professional life? It’s very hard to answer. Even if you did have an answer and created a measure of your progress, others would not agree on your standards. Not to say that the opinion of others is important in your measure of success, but the opinion of others does “keep you honest.” Left to your own definitions, you could (and perhaps subconsciously would) define the scope of your game in a contrived way so as to appear to be doing well at it (or poorly at it). It would just be an exercise in determining whether you are an optimistic or a pessimistic person.

Games are different. The very nature of a game is that it is a collection of rules agreed upon by all players. If players don’t agree on the rules, then they are not even playing the same game. The rules define exactly what is inside the game and what is outside. The rules define which moves are legal and which moves are not. The rules define what constitutes winning, what constitutes losing, and what constitutes a draw. There’s no weaseling out of defeat by redefining what the game is. The game should need no redefining, and a loss is a loss.

In pursing the path of winning, you are likely to learn that concentrating merely on beating the opponent is not enough. In the long run, you will have to improve yourself always, or you will be surpassed. The actual conflict appears to be between you and the opponents, but the best way to win is to bring to the table a mastery of playing to win and a mastery of the game at hand. These things are developed within you and are revealed to others only during conflict.

You never truly know a man . . . until you fight him.
—Seraph, The Matrix: Reloaded

Do You Want to Win?

Before we go on, ask yourself if you really want to win. Most people answer that they do, but they fail to consider that winning takes more than wanting. It takes commitment, extended effort, discipline, and time. It is not for everyone, nor should it be. There are a great many things to be in life other than a champion at competitive games. If your interest lies in other places, I suggest you not continue with this book as it will only upset you. Think carefully if you only say in passing that you want to win, or if you deeply desire to and are prepared to make the sacrifices required. Being a fine chef, a good mother, a doctor, a political activist, or a musician are all noble pursuits that may, due to your finite time and effort, prevent you from focusing on something as trivial as winning games. I am not advising you to play to win, but I am here for you if you do.

There are also those who play games for something known as “fun.” That subject will not be covered here. I believe there is a great deal more of this “fun” to be had while playing to win than while only playing casually, but there is no use in entering that debate now. This “fun” is a subjective thing, hard to pin down, but winning is not. That’s what we have on our side: winning is clear and absolute. When you are playing to win, you have a perfectly clear goal and an objective measure of your progress. Is the master chef really the best in his field? Who can say without bias? The situation is different for the competitive gamer: either he can consistently defeat all of his opponents—or he cannot.

The principles of winning apply equally to all zero-sum competitive games. No matter the game, you must create an environment in which you can improve. You must practice against a wide range of opponents. You must free your mind from self-imposed rules that prevent you from winning. You must develop “mental toughness” and the ability to read the minds of your opponents. You must interact with a community of other players. Whether you play chess, tennis, Quake, Mario Kart, Street Fighter, or poker, the lessons are all the same.

Gaming as a Conversation

Let us look at what it is like to play competitively. A competitive game, to me, is a debate. You argue your points with your opponent, and he argues his. “I think this series of moves is optimal,” you say, and he retorts, “Not when you take this into account.” Debates in real life are highly subjective, but in games we can be absolutely sure who the winner is.

The conflict is between the players; the game itself is merely the medium—the language—of the debate. The game must be expressive enough to allow the debaters to articulate complex thoughts. A skilled debater knows the nuances of the language and common tricks and traps of language he can use against untested opponents, but the language is only his tool. Once he learns the theory of debate, he can apply it to any language. It is common to focus entirely on learning nuances of a language at the expense of gaining a real understanding of how debate should be conducted. Expert debate involves gaining an understanding of the opponent and what he will say, and knowing immediately what you will say back. It involves deception and boldness, risk-taking and conservatism. If you learn to debate (play to win), then learning particular languages (games) become simple in comparison.

A few paragraphs ago I said I would not cover the topic of “fun” in games, but you must learn not to be caught off guard by the unexpected, so the introduction of this book is as good a place as any to throw an early curve ball. The “fun” of the great debate, at least to me, occurs when you push the opponent by arguing your point, then that opponent is able to push back forcefully, yet you are able to withstand this thrust. If you can simply push the opponent over in any of a dozen ways of your choosing, there is no debate to be had. If after your simplest preliminary argument, the opponent can push you over, at least you had a taste of his prowess, but again, there was no real debate to be had. Only when you can each respond to the other’s points and keep a meaningful debate going is there anything truly interesting going on. I would call this “fun.”