Saturday, July 20, 2013

Exploring My Need to Win

I recall feeling virtuous, even brilliant, back in my college days, playing whist and pinochle with "the big boys," older boys who had learned to play cards in the service and were returned, going to college on the GI bill. I was proud of myself, holding my own with them, drinking and playing cards long into the night, studies forgotten, every cell in my brain focused on winning, counting and remembering what cards had been played.

In graduate school, I recall playing bridge and later duplicate bridge with the same drive to win, the same steady focus of my attention on the cards and reading subtle nuances of my opponents' facial expression. It was all about winning. I needed to win, and win I mostly did.

This eight-year obsession with cards ended as I developed work-place friends who weren't interested in playing. But the need to win stayed with me, and is still with me, as I discovered in the past few weeks.

A friend called, saying she and her sister wanted me to join them for a card game, "Hand & Foot," a version of Canasta. Mostly a game of luck, winning based on the cards you are dealt and draw, it seems to be played as a social thing, something to do, background "music" to a gathering, time to be and talk with friends, while pleasantly engaged in a light-hearted game; at least that's how it seems to be with them.

We played that first time, and I won. Yay! Fun, I thought, this is quite fun. The next time, my luck was down and I didn't do so well. I heard myself complaining whining about my cards, getting grumpier, not enjoying myself as much as the first time. And the third time we played, a couple of days ago, my luck was horrible. I lost miserably, my score only about a third of the winner's score.

Even KNOWING my face and comments showed my displeasure with every card I drew, with every hand I lost, and with every time the scores were read aloud (after each hand), I couldn't stop myself from exuding negativity. Near the end of the last hand it was inevitable that my friend was the hands-down winner. I put my cards down and declared the game over, she the winner. Nope. Wasn't to be. They play to the end, they told me, and count the points. It's only a game, they said, and we finish the game no matter what.

Why? I didn't understand why they wanted to keep playing or add up the scores when the outcome, the winner, was already known. I guess the answer is that winning isn't the objective of the play for them. What is the objective? I should ask them.

I've been thinking about it a lot, recalling opportunities to play games, such as Trivial Pursuits, which I won't play, EVER, because I know I'm no good at remembering facts and would not win, recalling other times when I was a "poor sport," embarrassing myself as I just did with my friends, recalling getting angry and tearful playing board games as a child whenever luck failed me, recalling how gleeful and smart-ass I can be when winning.

What does this tell me about my life, this compulsion to win, to win or not to play at all? What opportunities have I lost by choosing to not play for fear of losing? How can I retrain myself to be a better sport, to let go of winning, playing more light-heartedly? How did I get this way? Why am I such a poor sport about not winning (and sometimes an equally poor sport about winning)?

I am looking far back in my childhood for clues of understanding. I remember being about 4 or 5 years old at a family gathering with grandma, grandpa, and several of the great aunts and uncles. One of the uncles did magic tricks and staged competitions for me, my 2nd cousin, and my brother. He'd give us each a balloon, telling us to blow it up until it popped, offering a new and shiny fifty cent piece (a lot of money in the 1940s) to whichever of us first popped their balloon. Being afraid of the noise and the explosion of the popping balloon, I couldn't do it. Every time there was a family gathering, we played this same game; every time I lost, didn't get the much-desired coin.

That's my earliest memory of a game. I see a vague picture of the two boys, my brother and cousin, huddled together admiring the coin, my uncle beaming at them, maybe a few other relatives standing around to watch the game, smiling at them. Did I feel abandoned, ignored, worthless? Did my immature brain decide then and there to never play a game unless I could win? Did resentment begin to build, resentment that I still carry to a card game with friends, resentment about not being a winner, and therefore not important, not worthwhile, nearly invisible?

Here is the bigger question: Do I see LIFE as a game that must be won? Do I miss life opportunities for fear I won't win? Am I a poor sport when I can't be in control, when life deals me a "bad hand?" Do I cast a cloud of resentment over myself and others whenever I'm in a no-win situation? Do I fear the invisibility of players who do not stand on the winning platform?

I continue to ponder, trying to understand, trying to change.