I learned early on not to play games of chance. My name was never picked from the hat, the dice never rolled in my favor, I rarely picked the good cards. I wasn’t oddly unlucky; I didn’t have random horrible things happen to me, but I was not a winner.
At eighteen I went with a group to Atlantic City. Unfortunately, you have to be twenty-one before you can be on the gambling floor. I spent the time looking into the casino shop windows instead of playing. I suppose that was lucky for my wallet.
Games of skill weren’t my forte either. My father and sister were my most often partners, whether it was Monopoly or HORSE on the basketball court. I would get out early in the game and sit around waiting for the winners to finish. This is how I came to learn completely useless skills like braiding intricate patterns into rug tassels, blowing spit bubbles, how low can I keep the basketball to the ground while still dribbling, etc.
I was a practiced loser, and would smile and shrug, despite the lump in my throat at yet another defeat. I tried to steer play-dates towards creative pursuits like putting on a show in the backyard. But if everyone wanted to play Parcheesi, I never put up a fight since that would be a form of competition, but instead spent my energy making jokes and trying to enjoy game time in a different way. I do remember winning a few rounds of “Dinosaurs Alive!,” a board game with cool figurines and volcanic tile pieces. Amazingly, I couldn’t find it on the web. My sister and I used to play a no-mercy version with our friends, Leon and Jason, where the object was to take every opportunity to crush your opponents.
Wait, you are wondering, isn’t that the object of most games? Yes, but in my house, people’s feelings got hurt if you were “mean” in a game. It was only when we made a pact to all be equally mean, that it was fiercely and entertainingly competitive. We laughed a lot. Maybe that’s why I had a shot in that game, I wasn’t afraid of winning.
Being a life long loser and a psychology major at one point, I started wondering when I not just accepted my loser status, but was comfortable in it. Perhaps it all started with my older sister. I adored her as a child, but she cried a lot. I wanted her to be happy. Winning made her happy. Did I not want to compete and possibly make her cry? Maybe.
Or maybe it started when I was around six and a family member caught me cheating at a card game (hey, maybe I could win) and then way until my teen years would inform everyone I ever sat down to play a game, “Watch out! She’s a cheater!” And not in a kidding way. Perhaps it was easier to lose than to win under suspicion? Maybe.
I do know my comfort with losing escalated to a fear of winning the first year of high school. There was an end of year ceremony where they awarded those who had the top grades in each subject. Unfortunately, I had the highest score in every subject, so I had to keep going up on that stage, cross it, take my award, go down the steps, sit down, hear my name, and go through the process again. After the third award, my sister and her friends started teasing me every time I walked past. I fully understood how ridiculous it all was, and they were having fun with it, but I was humiliated and vowed to never be in that position again.
I was able to keep that vow because the one game I was good at was The Game of School. I kept my average high enough to get into college, but never enough for unwanted attention. I knew how to be on good terms with my teachers, but never teacher’s pet. Not especially popular, yet avoided any negative labels. However, I was known as someone who hated competition. I refused to do my best when a prize was on the line, would bow out quickly if any kind of debate came up, and avoided people who took anything seriously. At graduation I was shocked to hear my name called for the Theology award (’cause I’m so deep, yo). I raced up the steps, grabbed the thing and went back to my seat, confused and embarrassed.
This continued into adulthood. My fencing instructor (a great way to relieve the stress of new motherhood) quickly understood that she could never point out I was winning, “because if I mention you are winning, you lose.” If I focused on the bout without keeping track, I often trounced my opponent with my gorilla-reach arms and quick foot work. But then they would take off their mask and look sad, or mad, or in the case of one person, would illegally stab me after the bout when the coach looked away–to purposely leave a bruise. The competitiveness made me quit the sport.
Then I met my friend Tim. He’s a gamer. He is the one who pleaded with me for two years to try RPGs until I finally tried a game and loved it. Cooperative play! Everyone won or lost together! I found other Cooperative Games to play with my kids and started really enjoying games for the first time in my life.
Strangely, this led to play other games–ones of skill and complexity from obscure companies gamers found at conventions. I realized that I learned by doing. My first time playing a game would be how I learned the rules. The second time I would figure out strategy. The third time, I might even win. And I was proud of it because, like “Dinosaurs Alive!,” everyone was both trying their best, and having a good time.
I learned that gamers are thrilled to teach a newbie games they love. And they will play it many times until you are up to a level to really have a healthy competition, where even if you lose, it was a good time. My odds of winning started going up in life.
Perhaps it’s not coincidence that this is also around the time I started performing music by myself. I had to get over my fear of attention, of getting praise. I learned how to look someone in the eye and say, “Thank you.”
I recently won my first ever Monopoly game. I posted it on Facebook with many exclamation points!!! When I received that Theology award, I threw it out the same day. Two years ago I won second place in a Chili Cook-Off competition. I still have my trophy in the kitchen.
I still lose a lot. But I try my best, and sometimes I win.
I thought of this post while playing Munchkin with my family. I won.
A version of this article originally appeared on GeekMom in 2011.