Sunday, March 15, 2009

Superior

I was in the middle of an eight-man Magic tournament at the local mall when someone mentioned it as an overhand, almost casual remark: "I hope I'm not playing against you next round, because I don't think I'll be able to take on your deck."

Normally I would have laughed that off, perhaps said something about how play skill was a significant factor in addition to the deck, but at that point my opponent (who was one game down in our three-game match) mentioned a similar comment: "Yeah, I didn't want to go up against you either." At that point, the proverbial eyebrow went up.

I get the feeling that my reputation precedes me now. I've been playing the game since 1996, stopping only for a two-year interlude before informally resuming in 2002. I specialize in Limited formats — tournaments where you have to build a deck from a small and random collection of cards — and I have one first-place finish under my belt so far. My ELO rating's a 1757 as of this writing, which indicates that I'm above average in terms of playing skill, and I clock in at #77 out of about 2000 registered Philippine players.

And these remarks surprised me, not because I had hit this certain level of recognition, but because they reminded me of a strange attitude that persists when it comes to competition.

I imagine that a lot of people hate going up against a superior contender, and it's for good reason. I don't think that many of us could last a couple rounds of golf against Tiger Woods, for example, as much as most of us couldn't go twenty moves against Garry Kasparov on the black-and-white board. A superior opponent simply belies the sensation that the odds are stacked against us — we're probably going to end up as just another notch on their belt.

I did hold such thoughts in my mind at one point, I admit; when you're young, it's easy to see your own inferiority when compared to the world's collected resum├ęs. Since then, however, I've come to a bit of an epiphany: Why should we be afraid of going up against those with superior skills? I mean, we're quite likely to lose in the end... but wasn't that the expected outcome in the first place? What do we lose by taking the opportunity, really?

That should be the essence of the whole thing: Just why are we afraid of facing superior opponents in formal competition? I would think that it involves the humiliation of defeat — we don't like the prospect of losing a fight that we're highly likely to lose. It doesn't do any wonders for our ego, it doesn't inspire us to better things, and it doesn't make much of a significant gesture at all.

On the other hand, there's also the question of what we have to lose. And the answer to that, I think, is that we usually stand to lose nothing at all.

For the last few years, I've felt that all the pressure is really on the "superior opponents", as it stands. How do we think Manny Pacquiao feels before each fight, anyway? As much as he can bluster and bluff his way through the media, there's always that single thought crawling through his head every time he faces a fresh opponent: "Will I be able to get through this with my reputation intact?"

The problem with people getting closer and closer to the top, you see, is that it takes less and less effort to push them off.

I may have an ELO rating of 1757 right now, but one loss to a 1500-rated opponent (the standard average) will push me all the way down to the amateur-status 1600s. And if the usual expectations do take their course and I beat this hypothetical 1500-rated opponent, then that means, what, a one-point drop in his rank? That's not even worth any number of sleepless nights.

This is why I welcome matches against superior opponents, really. I may have less of an understanding of the game, perhaps a lower level of experience with the competition as a whole. But I also have less to lose than they do. If they win, then it's no skin off my nose and I walk away from the table with a few more learnings for the next tournament. If it's me who wins, however, then I feel like a million bucks for the week afterwards.

If my deck can only beat your deck about ten percent of the time, then I'll go for that ten percent. If your short story wins nineteen out of every twenty contests out there, then I'll strive for that one-out-of-twenty chance. If a work of the speculative fiction genre will only win a National Writing Award once every hundred years, then every piece I will have notarized and sealed in a dull brown envelope will be with the express intent that this shall be one of those years.

And that opponent I had today who was one game down in our match? He rallied for the next two games to beat me two games to one. Moreover, I was barely able to beat the first speaker in our little conversation — he took the first game before some desperate last-minute maneuvering on my part won the next two games of our match. To say that I'm a "superior opponent" may be a bit premature; it was all I could do today to salvage some of my pride.

But after all that I've said so far, that shouldn't be a surprise, really.

Sometimes we just have to realize that we've got nothing to lose.

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