If You Want to Win, Stop Conceding

Author’s note: This is the first in what I sup­pose might be a se­ries of posts with re­spect to things I learned from play­ing tra­di­tional games com­pet­i­tively that I think might have broader ap­pli­ca­tions. I write this as a pri­vate in­di­vi­d­ual, not on be­half of CFAR or any other or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Tra­di­tional games—card games, board games, mi­ni­a­tures, etc. are a lot of fun, and I’ve played sev­eral of them at quite a com­pet­i­tive level. [1]

The #1 piece of ad­vice that I can give if you want to get bet­ter at these games—a piece of ad­vice that ap­plies across es­sen­tially ev­ery game or sport I’ve played and a lot of “real world” stuff as well—is “if you want to win, stop con­ced­ing.”

On the sur­face that doesn’t sound su­per deep or in­ter­est­ing, but there’s more to it than the ob­vi­ous mean­ing—not all con­cedes are for­mal res­ig­na­tions, and in­deed the ones that aren’t are of­ten more im­por­tant.

Some time ago I read a book—ei­ther “The In­ner Game of Ten­nis” or “Bonds that Make Us Free” or maybe both—that taught me that very many peo­ple con­cede games well be­fore they need to be over, ei­ther be­cause they in­cor­rectly es­ti­mate their chances or be­cause they make a men­tal mo­tion away from try­ing to win and to­wards try­ing to make ex­cuses for los­ing.

Here are some ex­am­ples of what ex­cuse-mak­ing thoughts might sound like:

  • “The dice are against me, there’s noth­ing I can do.”

  • “I didn’t get a good night’s sleep or eat break­fast this morn­ing, oth­er­wise I would be win­ning—I just can’t fo­cus.”

  • “This guy’s bad but he got lucky.” [2]

  • “This guy’s way bet­ter than me, I shouldn’t even be matched up against him.” [3]

  • “I don’t know how she even got this far ahead, there must be some bug.”

  • “This is pointless, why play it out?”

  • “This is just for fun any­way, I’ve ba­si­cally lost, may as well wind things down.”

Once you have moved from try­ing to win and to­wards try­ing to ex­cuse los­ing, you have more or less already lost. Some­times an op­po­nent might snatch defeat from the jaws of vic­tory, but that’s rare. Most of the time, as­sum­ing you’ve lost is the same as ac­tu­ally los­ing, it just takes longer.

If you want to get bet­ter, stop it. Force your­self to keep play­ing and keep look­ing for outs. Learn to rec­og­nize these men­tal pat­terns and sup­press them. Don’t con­cede games un­less there’s noth­ing you can do any­more. Fight un­til the bit­ter end.

That’s a real ‘if’, be­cause if you don’t want to get bet­ter I cer­tainly don’t recom­mend do­ing this! There is a sense in which it is viscer­ally un­pleas­ant to force your­self to be in a los­ing po­si­tion, des­per­ately scrab­bling for any­thing that can get you out.

When you get in that po­si­tion and es­cape, it feels great—but there are also go­ing to be times when you don’t es­cape, you strug­gle for ten or fif­teen or thirty min­utes but still lose, the whole thing feels bad, and you might wish you had con­ceded in the first place. If you aren’t pre­pared to face that, maybe don’t bother.

But what I’ve found is that a prac­tice of fac­ing the nega­tive thoughts and push­ing through seems to have been quite benefi­cial to me across a wide range of games and ar­eas, so I would give se­ri­ous thought to the no­tion that—at least in ar­eas that you care about and want to be bet­ter at—you should con­sider this ap­proach.

A few days be­fore writ­ing this, I played a card game where around two to five times through­out the course of an ~hour-long game I was struck by thoughts along the lines of “Wow, my po­si­tion is hor­rible. I’ve been re­ally un­lucky. I should con­cede.”

I didn’t con­cede, and I won the game. This is not a par­tic­u­larly un­usual ex­pe­rience to have once you ac­quire the in­cli­na­tion and abil­ity to push through.

[1] For cal­ibra­tion:

At var­i­ous times I have been world #1 by Elo rat­ing at a few differ­ent games I’ve played (not all at the same time!). I came in third at the World Cham­pi­onships of L5R this year de­spite be­ing out of prac­tice (though to be fair I had some good luck).

I have flown to a card game tour­na­ment in an­other state in large part be­cause I calcu­lated I was likely to win enough in prizes that I would net gain money from the trip; I haven’t eBayed all the pro­mo­tional items I won yet but I be­lieve I in­deed made hun­dreds of dol­lars from that ven­ture.

I don’t say this to boast but rather to give an in­di­ca­tion of where I am com­ing from. In or­der to “deflate the sails” a bit, I should say that I do not make a ca­reer out of gam­ing and I don’t play poker or Magic: the Gather­ing com­pet­i­tively, which have a sig­nifi­cantly higher level of play than most games I play; there are many peo­ple who are bet­ter at games than I am.

[2] This thought pat­tern is es­pe­cially bad be­cause it pre­vents you from learn­ing from the game af­ter the fact. Sure, some games do come down to luck in the end, but prob­a­bly there were de­ci­sions you could have made prior to that that would in­fluence the odds.

[3] A joke say­ing goes: “Any­one worse than me at this game is ca­sual n00b trash. Any­one bet­ter than me at this game is a no-life try­hard.” Nei­ther of the thoughts in that di­chotomy is very use­ful to have, even in their less straw forms.