Sunday, December 30, 2007

Games People Play

During my sophomore year at RPI, I had a housing crisis. I’d moved out to some apartments fairly distant from the campus with a couple of guys, both of whom had cars, and I did not. Actually, one of them flunked out before the beginning of the year, so that left just the two of us, me dependent on him for transportation to and from campus. It was possible to walk the distance, but it was definitely not a fun thing to do when the air temp was hovering near zero, as it did a lot in Troy in the winter.

It also turned out that the two of us ceased hitting it off, something that can happen when you go from being a buddy to a roommate. That’s part of the “education” thing that we hear so much about.

Anyway, long, painful, and somewhat embarrassing story short, in mid-winter I moved out, to a place nearer to campus, on Hoosick Street.

The Hoosick house had been a fraternity and some locals had bought it after said fraternity moved out, with the idea of making it into student housing. I’m pretty sure they hadn’t taken the flunkout factor into account, so when I moved in, there was plenty of room. I got what had been a double room all to myself. The other guys in the place had mostly come from my freshman dorm; that’s how I knew them. So it was back to semi-communal living, only this time with kitchen privileges.

There was a fair amount of mischief to be had in a place like that, and I had some of it, and watched some other people engage in it, and formed my opinions as to which mischief was safer than the other sorts. Good stuff to know. Also, that was the spring of 1970, when Kent State happened, and all other sorts of hell broke loose, so no one was paying attention to the more benign ways of being naughty.

So, loud music, soft drugs, alcohol (the legal drinking age was 18 in NY at the time, so that wasn’t even illegal), various girls running around at odd times, (though not nearly as often as salacious or puritanical minds would like to think), those were some of the activities. Also, there were the ice hockey games in the back yard, in which I did not participate, and the card games in the living room, in which I did.

One was the standard collegiate bridge game: the one that starts sometime on Friday afternoon, and finishes up sometime Monday morning, with no break as such, just people shifting in and out of it. I played fairly intensively for a while, then I gave it up.

I gave it up when I realized that, if I continued to play, all that would happen was that I’d become better at bridge. And nothing else. All playing bridge was doing for me was making me better at playing bridge. Bridge is just a game. So I quit.

On the other hand, there were also poker games, and poker isn’t just a game. Poker deals with probability, deception, and money. Poker is like life. Later, I took up poker on a regular basis, in an attempt to improve my skill at deception, to mediocre results. That has nothing to do with my appreciation for poker, however.

The poker games at the Hoosick house did suffer from the fact that “dealer’s choice” often wound up being some wild card game or another, like baseball where threes and nines are wild. It was about that time that I formulated my rule that any game where a royal flush can lose isn’t poker, and I don’t want to play.

I’ve come to divide games into “just games,” “good games” and “great games.” Like I said, bridge is just a game, though there is a social aspect to it, and if the company is good, it can be a good game. To be sure, some bridge terms are common parlance, like “trump,” “finesse,” and “slam,” but those terms are adapted to bridge; they don’t originate there. Contrast that to poker, where “bluff” originates, along with “busted flush” “inside straight” “ace-in-the-hole” and others. Great games leave their mark on the language, and they leave their mark on lives.

There’s a long standing dispute between chess and go enthusiasts over which is the better, or more profound, game. Both are great games. Chess is complicated, while go is complex. That’s the way I’d put it. But learning either (or both) will sharpen your wits as well as teaching you something about yourself, your opponent, and the very idea of opponent.

From out in left field, I came across a game that’s definitely a good game, and it may be a great game, but I haven’t seen enough examples of it to be sure. It’s a variant of Monopoly, sometimes called Auction Monopoly. In this variant, when you land on a piece of property that is un-owned, it goes up for auction, with the minimum bid being the board-listed price.

Oddly enough, the auction rule dates back to the predecessor of Monopoly, which was called The Landlord’s Game. It was designed and patented by one Elizabeth Magie (thank you, Wikipedia!), based on the economic theories of Henry George, old Mr. Single Tax himself.

With the single rule change, you get a vastly different game from standard Monopoly, because the auction sucks all the money out of circulation pretty quickly. At that point, a serious deflation settles into the game, and prices would drop – except for the price controls, which render most property too expensive for purchase. The first time someone lands on Boardwalk, for example, it almost invariably goes without sale. No one has enough money left to buy it. On the other hand, the winner is usually whoever manages to get the monopoly on Baltic and Mediterranean.

If you allow other rule changes, rules that inject money back into the game again have major consequences (re-inflating the currency), and so forth. I’ve often wondered whether there are other rule changes that would allow for things like fraud, corruption, market bubbles, and so forth, but that’s probably more suitable for computer games, which I seldom play, except for the demon-spawn Spider Solitaire.


black dog barking said...

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are both avid bridge players as were the people I knew that flunked out of school playing bridge in the Union. One of those players has made (not inherited!) well into 8 figures in business, never left town. He did graduate, was a Life Master with the ACBL within a couple years.

What *is* the attraction of Spider Solitaire? Pattern matching? I win about 30% at the difficult level by cheating as much as I know how -- not starting a game unless there are at least 3 suited matches, control-Z'ing all the time.

James Killus said...

See my new post on Spider Solitaire.

I've never used the "not starting a game" trick, and I think that the stats call a refused game as a loss.

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