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Playing by the Rules

chickenscrabble.jpgI'm not sure Heather and I can play Scrabble any more. Here's what happened.

So the other week we were playing a friendly game of Scrabble and it was very competitive. We were in a virtual tie. I emptied my rack first at the end of the game and asked how many points she had left so that I could subtract that from her score and add it to mine.

She looked at me weird and protested that she could still play. I looked at her equally weird and said, no, the game is over when the first person empties his or her rack. Uncomfortableness ensued.

The root of it is that, in fact, in her family that's how they play. The play continues until everyone has made every play they can. The way I learned to play (and, I might add, according to the official Scrabble rules) once a person plays all their tiles and there are no tiles to draw, the game's over.

So, according to my rules, I won. But, according to Heather's rules, she actually won.

So, who won?

I've been thinking this over and I think the only real answer is - neither of us - because we were never playing by the same rules. The only way that a game can be properly contested and won is that the players need to consent to the same set of rules and recognize the authority of the interpretation of these rules.

It really didn't matter that I could quote chapter and verse from the boxtop rules. Those weren't the rules she grew up with.

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite books - Finite and Infinite Games - in which the author, James Carse, goes on to speak of most of human experience in terms of games and how we strive for titles and how we define and redefine the parameters of our play.

My take away? In relationships you can't assume that...
1) you are both playing by the same rules,
2) you have the same expectations of play,
3) you respect the same authorities.

All these things need to be discussed in advance of play. What rules are we using? How will we judge between fair and unfair play? When does the game end?


I am with you brother. I have found myself playing games and making a perfectly legitament play, in my book, and then being flogged by others as they felt it was a foul. I think it all stems from my favorite mantra. At all times use your resources to the best of your ability. This will win you a lot of games. It also may cost you some friends.

It's so good to see on my RSS feed that you have a new post. It's been far too long friend.

As far as your game goes, wouldn't it be great if we all knew the rules (of life) before we entered into any game?

Right now I have two children who are hating their new school. My 7-year-old is confused by the dance that is girls interaction with one another. "Today you're my friend, today you're not. You're an at-home playdate friend, but not an acknowledge you in public friend."

Gah! Perhaps the rules should be tattoo'd to our foreheads.

(on a personal note: sorry to have missed your fab par-tay. I meant to email and I didn't. Please accept my apology.)

Lucie--I know what you mean about little girl interaction. My daughter just started 1st grade, and it's more evident now than ever. Our neighbor is in the same grade and plays with Katie only if the other neighbor and her cousin are not available. When they are, she treats Katie like dirt. Katie is so desperate for this girl's company--it's painful to watch. She attaches to people so intensely.Fortunately, this girl will be moving in a couple of months. I've always been an outsider, like my mother before me, and it's not a bad thing to be (although it bites in adolescence), and so I don't always have good advice for her beyond, "well, make sure you don't treat people like that." I keep having to remind myself--"they're just little girls, not the you-know-whats we deal with in high school, or as adults. But it makes me wonder what they're learning from their mothers. This gets crappier in jr. high--I hope that if Emma's still being homeschooled, she's avoiding most of it.

Oh, and Lawrence--great post. Hopefully, if the players keep talking about the rules, even if those rules change over time (which they will--life will change some of them for you), the game can go on forever.

Nice post. Great analogy. I think life is like 1000 simultaneous games, none of which have rules published ahead of time, all of which demand a move with every tick of the clock. At 39, I think I'm up to at least understanding how some of the pieces move and perhaps why I've lost with a fool's mate about 13 trillion times so far.

Just thinking about life and relationships as games.... Perhaps the best way to play is counterintuitive--don't play to win (or defeat the other person), and give away as many pieces as you can before you die.

This is what I tell the kids at the homeschool chess club that I organize. We play other games, too, but I tell them that when they play with someone new, first they have to decide between the two of them (not what the grownups say) what the rules are.

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