Competition and Chess
On the 4th of April, 2021, I won a tournament. It wasn't for a sport, just an online video game that I play with friends. It wasn't a big tournament, just me and 7 friends. Yet, despite that, the excitement and relief I felt after winning was incomparable. I exulted in the joy of that triumph for weeks, and in that moment winning meant more to me than really it probably should have.
That joy I felt there wasn't really about the game itself, although the game in question, Starcraft 2, is a fun game that I still play from time to time. Deep down, it wasn't really about spending time with friends either. I elated in the unique thrill I only experience after being triumphant in some kind of competition or tournament. Some situation where I set my mind on defeating something or someone, train for it, and succeed after great hardship; these are what awakens the beast in me.
In fact, this is precisely what happened in the Starcraft 2 tournament. It was in fact the second such tournament we had held; in the first one a few months before this I made it to the finals but lost in the last game of a best of 5 after trying my hardest. It was this experience that steeled my resolve and motivated me to practice hard for this tournament. In the end I reached the finals again facing the same person, and I managed to defeat them without losing a single game. It was certainly a satisfying victory.
What this whole saga made me realize is that I am quite a competitive person. I had already kind of known it beforehand,but this brought that fact into startling clarity. A year before I won my tournament I'd never heard of Starcraft 2. I was introduced by a friend, and it was largely his influence that awakened my competitive instinct. The key here was that he was just a passionate as I was.
Starcraft 2 is a difficult game. It involves controlling an army that can consist of hundreds of individual units, and is a true test of your reaction speed and multitasking abilities. I wouldn't have dedicated so much time into learning it if I didn't have a good reason, but luckily I did. My friend is also very competitive and he frequently challenged me to games from the moment I learned how to play. At first it might have just been because he enjoyed beating me at something, but our matches grew less and less one-sided until we both fought hard for victory every time.
Each time one of us would become slightly better, the new streak of losses would motivate the other to practice until we were roughly equally skilled. We were in a relentless but virtuous cycle of competition and self-improvement that took me from someone who'd never even heard of the game all the way to the best in the friend group. We both refused to lose to the other, and with each win would come a series of (friendly) taunts which only steeled our resolves to improve.
I find learning and improving to be one of the most satisfying feelings in life, and this was no different. I fondly recall the first time I was able to beat each one of my friends, as if I was some bounty hunter ticking each one off my list. This wasn't an easy process, and I had to work for each victory, but that made it all the more rewarding. Ultimately, winning that tournament was a culmination of everything I had worked towards which made it intensely gratifying.
Any kind of sport or competitive activity can create this rush. This time, it happened to be Starcraft 2. But I don't intend for it to be the last.
Friendship and Teamwork
Being competitive is not always a solo activity. In fact, I think some of the best moments are when you're a member of a tightly knit team, working together to do the impossible. There's a saying about how some friendships are made face to face and others are made shoulder to shoulder, the idea being that some of the strongest bonds are forged when you and your friends stand side by side, ready to take on the world. I have to say, it's intoxicating give something your all with a group of peers who care just as much as you do.
If you've never experienced this, I highly recommend you try it. Find a group of like-minded friends, set aside a weekend or two, and conquer the world. Or just some tiny piece of the world. Shoot a film, climb a mountain, cook a feast. These are all difficult but transformative experiences that will not only cause you to grow, but you will get closer to your friends and see them in a new light. This is why I always enjoyed hackathons - a weekend dedicated to building a piece of software from scratch, with nothing but teamwork and willpower.
I think that's one of the best parts of traveling in a group as well. Seeing new places together is nice, but the shared experience of solving issues that come up and dealing with logistics brings a group closer together. I've noticed this when traveling with my family. Somehow, in one week of doing things everyday and making plans and working together we learn more about each other than in 6 months of living at home, coexisting in the same household but not truly leaving our comfort zones. Again, highly recommended if you haven't tried it yet.
One of the most important themes of all the ideas I suggested, and something that is core to a good competitive experience, is facing a good amount of difficulty. I think that's something that's sometimes overlooked when planning what to do, why willingly choose to make things difficult for yourself? Perhaps this is a matter of personal preference, but doing hard things, conquering them, is so vastly rewarding. There is a sweet spot of difficulty to be sure (and I think video games typically do a good job of landing right in the middle of that range) but right in that sweet spot where the competitive spirit shines. That's when I feel most alive.
These don't have to be intensely difficult either. In fact, setting unreachable goals does the opposite of a good competition; it shuts down the part of you that schemes and strategizes because the goal seems too far away. Something just within the bounds of your ability, but barely, is the most thrilling to attempt and satisfying to succeed at. Taking the bus to a new part of down or even making a scary phone could be the highlight of someone's week, and I think that's amazing.
On the converse, something too easy doesn't work either. I've been asked to learn dances before, and I was advised to start with the easy stuff to get used to it. The problem was that the easy dances weren't interesting at all. When I dance I want to exude energy like a spinning ball of fire, not to endlessly repeat 4 basic moves. Despite the greater difficulty, if doing the hard thing awakens the competitive beast within then I say to do it.
So of course finding something right in the sweet spot is a wonderful feeling. Even seeing others who land on the sweet spot can be beautiful to watch. I saw a documentary about :Inspiration 4, the mission to send four civilians to space. These were four complete strangers, only one of whom had any experience with aeronautics whatsoever. In the span of a year, they went from not knowing each other to trusting each other with their lives. Through a grueling battery of exercises and tests, they lived together and supported each other and grew closer than even some families do. All for a mission that they sincerely believed in. One that awakened each of their competitive spirits. It was absolutely mesmerizing to watch.
It takes some experimentation to find the perfect combination of factors that can turn an otherwise tedious task into a wonderfully dynamic competition. It takes even more to find one that works for everybody in the team. But if you do, it will create memories that last a lifetime.
Recipe for a Good Competition
So what specifically does it take for me to find something to be beautifully competitive? Well, let's walk through the recipe using an example I've recently become quite interested in: chess.
First, we need an activity. It has to be complex enough that strategic depth is possible, and popular enough that there's something like a community surrounding it. That means simple games like tic-tac-toe and obscure games like this fascinating yet hard to find star wars board game are out of the picture. I've only recently noticed how important a community is for jumpstarting my interest in something. It's so much easier to care about something when tons of others care as well.
Luckily, chess fits that perfectly. It's famously strategic, enough that even after thousands of years new tactics and positions are being found. There's a huge community surrounding the game, one that seems to only be growing. It's really fun to follow up on the latest chess drama, pick up some strategic tips and then try to implement those ideas in my own games later that day. Plus, the memes are absolutely hilarious. I wish I could share them here, but they require enough chess knowledge that they'd be incomprehensible.
Ok, so we have a potential activity that could turn into a competitive masterpiece. What's next? I need someone in my life to play it with. Ideally someone who's just as interested as I am, who will motivate me to play and improve, and who's at approximately the same skill level. I've had lots of friends who play chess throughout the years, but this time different. I started a new job recently, and every day at lunch time we squeeze in a few games of chess. Not only are our skill levels close enough that the games are always tense, the key here is our consistency; by playing every single day against the same person at the same time you start to develop your own strategy, your own meta.
Previously I would play a few games of chess here and there but never with enough regularity to improve. Now, I refuse to be beaten by the same person every day for weeks (which is what happened when we started), which has lit a fire under me. What's really fun about doing the same thing with the same person over the span of weeks or months is what you end up learning about them. You need to know them well to eventually beat them. To be able to pick up on the risks they're willing to take, what makes them excited and what doesn't, little pieces of their psyche that only comes out while competing. It's a uniquely intimate process, and one I'm always glad to be a part of.
So now the two of us have been playing chess for a while. I've been improving enough to not lose every game, but my competitive drives have not yet been fully engaged. Now, we come to the last and most important piece. The special sauce, the je ne sais quoi. The part that will compel me to practice and train until I emerge victorious. This factor is hard to predict, and is different for each game. For Starcraft 2, it might have been the moment where I beat my very first friend, and I realized maybe I have a chance at this whole video game thing. But I know exactly what happened for chess.
Some people at my company have organized an interoffice tournament, with some other companies in our industry. At first I wasn't too sure about signing up; the chess we play at lunch is super casual and we play pretty fast. In this tournament, you're playing for points and each game has 1 hour allotted to each player. That means the game could last up to 2 hours! That's a long time sitting in a chair and thinking about moving pieces around on a board. I was pretty nervous before we started, and I wondered if I even had the attention span to think about chess for 2 hours straight. Well, it turns out I had nothing to fear.
I like to take things slow, and I took my tournament game as slow as I could. It was almost a meditative experience; I was worried about my attention wandering but actually thinking through every move to the best of my capability was thrilling! I sure wasn't doing that over my lunchtime games. Time passed faster than it ever did before while playing a game, and that's when I felt it. The thrill of competition rising up once again. That's when I knew I wouldn't be able to put this game down anytime soon.
I lost my game of course. I was playing against a much better player than me, and despite learning a lot I didn't have much of a chance. But, after that, against all expectations I somehow managed to win my next game at the next meet! It was an amazing feeling to emerge triumphant; I felt powerful. Even though the tournament was relatively casual, as tournaments go, I decided I wanted more. Maybe this could be my next Starcraft 2.
For me, this was the pivotal moment where Chess turned from a pastime into a passion. Suddenly, I was willing to study, read, and practice regularly because I really do believe I have potential. That cycle of growth and improvement and victory is intoxicating, and now I'm firmly committed to it. I don't have any illusions of becoming a grandmaster, since chess is a famously hard game, but that's not what this is really about. Every day that I improve even slightly and win slightly more than I lose is a success.
So, that's where I am today. Not only do I plan to see how far I can take this chess thing, now that I know what it feels like I want to try signing up for more tournaments. Maybe get rated, maybe win a few games, or maybe get absolutely crushed by a 10 year old (which I understand is pretty common at my level). Regardless, I'm sure I'll have a great time.
I'm just glad to have something competitive to focus on again. A reason to get up a little earlier or to practice a little harder, because now I'm playing for real. A way for me to start winning everyday at lunch instead of losing. I hope I can report back in a few months about getting an official chess rating, but for now my journey is just beginning.
I didn't want to go on too much of a tangent here, but I'd like to talk a little bit more about the Inspiration 4 documentary. Being a big fan of all things space related I might be a little biased, but I really enjoyed it. More than the underlying premise of the show (watching 4 random people go to space) and all of the juicy bits involved in watching a real orbital mission be planned, what really hooked me were the team dynamics developing between the 4 crew members. These are people who have never met each other before,some of whom were literally picked from a random lottery, but their unity and courage in the face of hardship was mesmerizing. By the end of the documentary it was hard to believe they hadn't known each other for their whole lives.
Watching them grow as a team put into clear focus some of the most important factors in teamwork as well. That the leader is not just a person who's in charge but the glue holding the entire team together, and Inspiration 4 had an excellent leader. How the team members support each other, and thus allow each of them to go further than any of them could have alone.
There were some really nice emotional moments as well. The crew members would not have agreed to such a crazy mission if they had not dreamed of going to space for their whole lives, and we get to see each of them have a transcendant experience looking down on our little blue marble. Being able to realize a goal that you've hoped for since you were a young child is a very special thing, and doing so in such a wholesome and memorable manner was beautiful to watch.