I’ve always been a sore loser. Like my bald head and whipped potato pale skin, a predilection for poor sport was written into my genes. When combined with a competitive streak, it’s a bloody hangnail of a character flaw: self-inflicted, gross, and out there for anything to snag.
I’m not proud. But it does ease the judgment some to know I didn’t choose this path. There’s a famous story in my family: my father, maybe eight years old, beaten at checkers by his grandpa, flipped the board over and ran home. Another time, in a race, Dad (always proud of his speed) realized he wasn’t going to win after a bad start. So he veered off the track, still sprinting, and made for the shadows under the bleachers like some pouty Forrest Gump. There, in the dark, I imagine him red-faced, panting, slowly waking to what he’d done. It’s easy for me to imagine, because it so easily could have been me.
Some contests are worse than others. Chess is thrilling to win, and absolutely rage-inducing to lose. Once—ever my father’s son—I knocked over my king and stood and snarled, “I concede,” after calculating my hopeless position. My opponent: my bewildered then girlfriend, who I’d taught to play the game (and was likely only at the table to humor me). In my defense, that was a long time ago. It’s not much of a defense. I was old enough—to vote, to order a drink, to be hugely embarrassed afterward. As I write this, I remember a long-standing, simmering dispute with my friend Rick, over which of us had beaten the other more times at Madden football. I haven’t thought about that in a long time. Still pretty sure I had your number, Rick.
Then there’s golf. Oh I know, it’s lovely to be outside, and the grounds are so expertly manicured, and it’s just nice to be out with friends, and anyway it’s a hard game. Still, with no history of practice or any reasonable expectation that I will hit anything but turf, I find it absolutely maddening that I cannot send that little dimpled son of a bitch on a perfect, lofted arc toward the flag, like every other polo-wearing back slapper out there seems to do. Every golf outing, I coach myself that this time, it won’t matter. I am not a golfer, what the heck. That works for about three holes. And then I tee up for a mighty swing and miss the ball entirely, and the black snakes of self-loathing start to coil in my gut.
Seriously, fuck golf.
Look, I know better. We all know better, us sore losers. Of course we do. There’s no trope of gamesmanship more celebrated than that of The Good Sport. We’ve all been taught the virtue of honest competition, the gracious laying down of arms after battle. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the football field or the board game table. We know we’re supposed to—I know I’m supposed to—offer a firm handshake and a peppy, “good game!” after a trouncing in chess, or Madden, or Ticket to Ride, or War of the Ring. We know.
In fact, it’s the knowing that compounds the losing, that makes it all worse, that sends me to the very Sarlacc Pit of despair (there’s one for you, nerds). Losing, I confront both my inferiority, the very inadequacy at the core of me—and only us sore losers know that a game of Star Realms has the capacity to provoke such self-reflection—as well as my own lousy character, to let such a small thing bother me. It’s just a game, Jerk. That’s what takes me down, ultimately. It’s not really the losing, though that’s no picnic. It’s the judgment for taking that impending loss, which comes on like a swell of existential nausea, so hard. And for souring everyone’s good time along the way. Simply put, it’s not losing I’m sore about, it’s caring that I’m losing.
Thing is, I love games. I love well-made systems, and handsome components. I like competition. I like to kill things made of cardboard with a roll of dice. So, not playing isn’t an option, or anyway a very distasteful one. So this remains my plight, the plight of all sore losers who love what infuriates them. Forty-four years in, I don’t think I’m going to change the way I invest in games. I don’t think I can. I’ll continue to lose, and continue to care that I’ve lost. But I have learned to own it. That’s one thing I can do. When things don’t go my way at the game table, and I feel that mopey, dour-faced demon overtake me, I can own it. I can poke fun at myself before it happens, and I can apologize for it, soon as I shake it off.
In my game group, it’s not altogether uncommon for someone to get a conciliatory call from me the morning after a bad beat. My friends don’t usually know what to make of those phone calls. Typically, my offenses are much ranker to me than to my fellow players. But it makes me feel better, to hold myself accountable. And in this small way, I have evolved. I am a sore loser, sure. But I am a self-aware sore loser. And I’m sorry about it. Let’s have a beer.
The other day, I taught my nephews a push-your-luck, card-based adventure game called Dungeon of Fortune. (Incidentally, playing games with little guys is delicious: they can’t strategize for shit). Anyway, in this game, players draw cards to explore a dungeon, revealing treasure, enemies, and sometimes dragons. Dragons are bad. Three dragons, you’re a meat snack.
In the first game, Luke—most enamored of games, and most like his uncle—pulled the third dragon. His face reddened, a dawning of outrage I recognized all too well. He threw down the card and marched off. And when he came back, his blue eyes glassy with tears, I told him it was OK. There’d be other dungeons to explore.
“I know, Uncle Craig,” he told me, voice quaking with grief. “But sometimes it’s really hard when dragons come.”
I had to admit, the kid was right. It is hard when dragons come. And nobody knows it like we do, the sore losers of the world, members of a club no one ever asks to join. I watched my nephew mop snot with his sleeve. He’d have to face a few more dragons in his life, and like me, figure out how to handle them.
We reshuffled the cards, and back we went, daring the dragons.