Games of Chance

Recently, I downloaded the game Hearts to my phone and iPad. It’s the perfect time-killer for waits that are long enough to be boring, but not really long enough to dip into a book. (And, yes, I almost always have a book with me, in some format. In my car, in my purse, on my iPad, although not in my phone because I simply cannot read on that small a screen.)

Now a few words about probability: I’m good at it. My father taught me the basics when he taught me to play gin, a game at which I excel – as long as the other person plays rationally. (A 10-year-old with a tenuous grasp on the strategies and a reckless affinity for face cards is my gin Kryptonite.) My best hand in Hearts, typically, is the no-pass hand because it is the most strictly mathematical. Odds are – I love using that phrase literally – that no one will be void in a suit early on, high and low cards should be evenly distributed.

But as I played Hearts often enough to, at one point, be awarded the “binge” trophy, I began to notice something new about this game that I have been playing for forty-plus years, starting on the sun-warmed wooden benches of the Hunting Hills Swim Club during Adult Swim, a slowly thawing frozen Milky Way close to hand. I don’t play to win. I play not to lose.

The same thing? Not at all. And it’s a very Lippmanesque quality. As my father once said of his decision to abandon poker, at which he excelled: “I found I mourned a dollar lost more than I ever celebrated a dollar won.” (My first bike was the result of my father winning at poker. Unlike the character I created for “Hardly Knew Her,” I knew only the upside of my dad’s poker games. And how I doted on his revolving tray of chips, how happy I was when my father made a gift of it to my husband.)

I found I mourned a dollar lost more than I ever celebrated a dollar won. That’s me in a nutshell, and the observation suddenly clicked into place alongside other things I have been pondering as I re-read Geneen Roth’s Lost and Found, her account of being one of Bernie Madoff’s victims. Losses hurt more than victories thrill. Perhaps that’s how most people feel. But the epiphany struck me, belatedly to be sure, that if one plays not to lose, then that’s the outcome: Not losing. Which is not the same as winning.

Last night, I played one game of Hearts before bedtime. (Only one! No binge! To me, the binge trophy should be renamed the get-a-life trophy.) I played to win. This meant being more aggressive. It meant not just off-loading points from my hand, but trying to stick them to specific players. It meant sucking it up and taking four points when it became clear that my colleagues would not/could not thwart a player’s attempt to shoot the moon.

I won. It was close, but I won.

But playing to win also means being willing to lose.

Do you play to win or not to lose? Card game of choice? And if anyone knows the rules to Up The River/Down the River, a delightful card game that I have forgotten how to play, please explain in the comments.

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