Posted by: Corina Paraschiv | December 8, 2008

Winning

I just saw Searching for Bobby Fisher running on TV tonight and it reminded me of just why I used to love this movie as a kid.  It touches me to see my ideals, and something I can recognize of myself, on a screen, laid out like that, almost poetically.  The most beautiful thing about this is this story, about the little chess champion?  It’s a true story.

So let’s have a word or two about competitions. I love competitions.  I am very competitive, and I am forced to admit it.  When I play I don’t play to lose.  And although winning isn’t nothing, I sometimes I have to remind myself it is not everything, either.  These days I am prepping for a national competition.  I’ve gone to a few competitions and awards as a child, and whether they were at the regional, provincial, national or international level, they all felt similar to one another in a way.  And the competitions themselves never felt different, really, from the trainings back home at the local swimming club or in the debate club back home – if it wasn’t for the excitement all around and the amazing athmosphere that you can only find on the days of competition.  And the reason it has never really felt different was because I was doing it for the right reason.

See I don’t play to lose.  I’ve said it already – whoever plays plays to win and will do everything to do so.  But here’s the thing, as long as it remains for the love of whatever it is you are doing, then it’s pleasurable.  It stops being so when it becomes only about winning.

Of course, you’ll think this has been said over and over and it is the most obvious statement you can make.  True.  But, when you’re prepping, it’s easy to forget amidst all the pressure and all the things you feel you must do.  I have spent the last three months almost consummed by the anxiety of perfoming — linking my success to our success in making it to the final round or not.  And truth be told, the day we got the results, I was there in the office, watching that screen flash.  The scores got put up, my team was in the top 6, qualifying us for the finals.  And it did nothing to me — all it did was first an acknowledgement and then second the realization that it meant more work and how in heaven was I going to cope with the work I had to do in school and with dealing with my team mate and so on.  When one of the competition committee members (the same committee that had picked me after seeing my trials and who had contributed to training me) entered the room and saw me he said: “You don’t look like someone who just won.  If I were you and I had won, I’d be jumping up and down with excitement”.  And all I wanted to answer back was: “Winning has drawned out of me any little ounce of energy I would have had left to jump up and down or even feel the excitement run through me”.  I was of marble and after the whole work to do nothing less but win — I felt absolutely no joy in having won.

Because I didn’t join the competition to win.  I joined the competition to learn, to challenge myself, and to enjoy the experience of measuring my progress and engaging in an intellectual game by going to a competition and facing great opponents.  And because of the politics involved in the competition, because of the pressure to perform, because of so many factors that made winning the only thing that mattered, I lost the joy of it.

But now, I have found it back, after speaking with one of those guys from the competition committee.  It takes very little to ambition me – it takes only the promess that I will learn something and the thrill of feeling yourself reach out and make an effort.  And nothing more.  I could totally relate to this scene when I saw it — watch this, two notable things in this scene:

The first thing you’ll hear as a dialogue is his father telling him he doesn’t have to play chess anymore.  And he answers : ” How can I do that?”  So the father says : ”  What do you mean? You just do it.”  ” But I have to win”, the son replies. ” No, that’s what I’m saying– you don’t”. ” But you told me I did” the son insists. ” Well, I’m telling you now that you don’t”.  And there is a moment silence, and then the boy answers back ” But I do.  I“,  and he point to himself,  “do”.  That’s what winning is about.  It’s about winning because you want to.  Not because someone else wants you to – because of some external pressure.  Winning is a calling.  The whole challenge is a calling — you take it on out of passion and you give everything you have for it because you want to do it, because you have to do it.  It is never a sense of duty.

The scene right after is in the park.  The son walks up to his chess-player friend in the park, after having been taught by a classic chess champion for months.  He starts playing again with this old friend on the street and the dialogue starts:
– What’s that?  asks the friend.
– Schleimann attack, answers the son (Josh).
– Where’d you learn that from, a book?
– My teacher taught me.
– Forget it. Play like you used to– from the gut.
Get your pawns rolling on the queen’s side.
Put it out. Josh is playing.
He taught you how not to lose, not how to win.
You got to risk losing. You got to risk everything.
You got to go to the edge of defeat.
–  But–
–  But what? Play.
Never play the board, always the man.
You got to play the man playing the board. Play me.
You have to beat me, not the board.

And it’s like that, really.  Competitions aren’t about what you’re competition about.  It’s not about the chessboard.  It’s not about that particular routine.  It’s not about that particular debate.  It’s not about that particular business case.  It’s about a mind measuring itself up to another mind.  It’s about two people challenging each other.  There is something quite visceral and human about the interaction.   Being in a competition has nothing of being cruel – it is not taking pleasure in someone else’s failure — only in your own successes.  It’s about risking, too.  I see it in myself, this tendency to become more conservative and in-the-box rather than out-of-the-box when it becomes about winning at all costs.  Like prostitution it is taking on an identity of someone who I am not – it becomes about pleasing the judges.  But judges love originality, they recognize the genuine.  Being you takes courage, and playing and competing unconventionally is risky.  But nothing grand has been won by people who have not risked anything.  So play for the thrill of it, and see what happens.  Let’s watch a bit of that scene in action.

And then this last scene.  I want to say this about it: that’s what winning is about.  In this scene, Josh wins the admiration of his teacher.  He wins the satisfaction of having done his best — before he even steps into the competition.  He is already a winner.  He still feels the stress, but he feels the pride of having gotten this far and then it is just the thrill of the game, of the challenge at hand, but it is not his end goal.  This is what competiting should be about.  Playing your best out there and having the satisfaction of a work well done if you win, and having the satisfaction of having given everything you could have and having been your best if you lose – knowing there simply existed someone better than you at whatever it is you were competing.  Our succeess is not determined by the outcome of what we do, I believe.  It is measured in the progress of the road traveled, in how far we arrived and how little we fell short of, and of course how enjoying and enriching the experience was.  That’s what winning should be about.  The instinsic value of competing.

So don’t forget.  If you are competing, or if you are ever in a position to coach a team, never underestimate the human element.  Ambition yourself and others for the experience itself and let it be about the passion you have for whatever it is you love.  Let is be a chance to explore a topic in depth, to develop new skills, to reach beyond what you thoguht were your limits.  Winning is often all in your head.  When you are good at what you do – then it is only a matter of how involved you get and how much extra work you can get in to win — in other words, it becomes about motivation, more than just about skills.  You can be the best goddam champion this planet has ever seen, if you lose your will to play, you’ve just lost the game.

If you feel like reading the Bobby Fisher script you can have a look at it here in its integrity.  If you want to watch the movie it’s a super movie you should try renting it out and if you’re too lazy to get the DVD, try youtubing it – someone actually put the entire movie on in very good quality, part by part.  Definitely a must see 🙂

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