Are You Playing to Win?

When I was a kid, we used to play poker.  It was a dime ante, and no one ever lost more than five bucks in an evening.

Maybe it was the low stakes that encouraged one particularly silly adaptation of the game:

Twos, threes, sevens, one-eyed jacks, and suicide king were wild.

With such a formulation, any hand less than four-of-a-kind didn’t warrant calling a serious raise.

Whenever the dealer announced this mutation, one player, Steve, declared, “I’m out.  I came to play poker.”

At the time, I was annoyed.  There was a thrill to winning a hand with a straight flush that couldn’t be matched by winning a hand with two pairs.

But as I got older, I realized that Steve was right.  While there wasn’t anything dishonest about the game, it wasn’t poker.  Making it too easy compromised the soul of the game.  Artificially inflating the value of the cards devalued the skill and strategy that made the game worth playing.  Redefining the rules to ensure that everyone got a winning hand destroyed all of poker’s tension, drama, and nuance, trading away subtle electricity for a cheap buzz.

Whether in games of chance, the game of business, or the game of life, there have to be rules.  Over time–or, to meet new circumstances in a changing world–it sometimes makes sense to modify the rules.  But those changes have to make sense, lest we compromise the integrity of the game.

And even when the rules do make sense, the way we play will determine our experience more than the nature of the game itself.

Because, ultimately, the purpose of the game is the game.  If we play only to win, we inevitably lose.  Only if we play to play are we guaranteed to win no matter who comes out ahead when the dealing’s done.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Each game has rules, and has a meaning, that is, it is not an action performed for the pure purpose of surviving; it is not an instinct, but not a spiritual principle either. What is the purpose of it is a question that still lacks a definitive answer. The game in its essence is fun, a reaction to multiple inputs: from the need to express oneself, to that of using our repressed energy.
    If we refer in particular to poker, which is mentioned in the article, in our life we ​​play poker all the time. We choose projects that we believe will make us happy, such as a course of study, a job, a partner or a house, and we invest entire years of our existence in them. Then one bad day, we happen to make the terrible discovery. We were wrong: we bet on the wrong hand, we can’t win! And here we see the true champion who knows how to throw the losing cards as soon as possible and wait for a better hand. The loser, on the other hand, remains “psychologically attached” to his bet. He will enter a vicious mental circle, and in order to take back what he still considers of him, he will continue to risk more and more, ending up losing everything.