Getting the Lay of the Land

by F.

My wife and I got a new game the other day. It’s new for us, but not exactly new for the rest of the world. It’s called Abalone. It’s sumo wrestling with marbles.

We sat down to play and both immediately loved it. One thing we both like is games with shifting figure-ground relationships. So, for instance, we both love Go and Pentago. Neither of us is that into chess. I’ve played a good deal of chess, and while I was told I was a good player by good players, I’m not a good player. I learned enough opening theory to get into the middle game, and I know how to finish some basic positions, but chess takes too much time. Memorizing all those long sequences seems to me a waste. It’s domain-specific knowledge that doesn’t generalize.

In the first game of our new game, my wife beat me handily. Which she always does. Whenever we get a new game, she wins at it. Go. Scrabble. Loot. Rook. Pentago. Whatever. I’m slow to catch on. “So you mean I draw after my turn is over?” “YES!” “Are you sure? Because I thought—” “YES! Just DRAW!” (I’m kidding, of course; she’s not Xanthippe, but every story needs a dash of conflict, fabricated if necessary.)

After she’d beaten me at Abalone, she said, “Don’t you think the following is true: I usually win at first, but you get better in the end?” I thought about it. It is true. I don’t think either style, hers or mine, says much about innate ability. It’s more that I don’t worry about winning at first. I’m in for the long haul. The sprint comes at the end of the race. So when I start playing a game, I hang back and get a feel for the territory.

I imagine this is sort of the “naturalist’s” way. If you find a new hunting ground, you don’t run to the first bush and start staring at it, waiting for a bunny to jump out so you can spear it. You get the lay of the land. You look around. Where is the water? Where are the natural exits? Where are the shady spots? Then, after gathering information, you make a plan. As you hunt, you update your knowledge. You don’t want to chase down a squirrel when sleeping under a tree a half mile away is a mastodon that can feed the whole tribe.

This is a cartoon, of course, but there seems to be some truth in it, at least for me when it comes to games and almost everything else. I’m not prone to jump in too early. I want to make sure I understand things conceptually first. But when I do, I tend to relentlessly pursue my goal for as long as it seems worthwhile. Which is why I usually end up better at games in the long run. I study them, practice them, and think about always getting better.

In fact, it’s not even about winning for me. The goal of winning doesn’t sustain me. Win. Lose. Draw. Whatever. I just like improving. As long as I’m moving forward, I’m happy. This also corresponds to the “naturalist” caricature: always looking for new hunting grounds. Stay in one place too long and you starve.

“The secret of life,” said the sculptor Henry Moore, “is to have a task, something you devote your whole life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do!” Why? Because otherwise you’d stop improving.