Sometimes you just have to play a game.
It was about 9 a.m. the day of my preliminary Ph.D. oral examination. I had been studying for months and was over-prepared. I hadn’t been able to sleep for a few nights and was sick to my stomach with nerves. I couldn’t eat. The oral exam wasn’t until 4 p.m. that day, seven tortuous hours away.
Walking through the mathematics building, I heard this clicking noise coming from one of the graduate student offices. I investigated. Two students were playing chess, using a clock to keep track of the time left for the game – five minutes per game for each side – speed chess.
I sat down to play and couldn’t stop. The rush of the clock and moves leading from idea to execution. The consuming mental energy of surprise and strategy, luck and blunders. The need to play just one more game at the expense of food or rest.
Games have always been a part of the college experience. It might seem that today, with the frenzy over No Limit Hold’em, that the obsession is greater than it’s ever been. The last time tantamount passion over a single game swept college life was when the Fisher-Spassky chess match took place in 1972. But the passion for games has always been there for students. Before chess, it was bridge. When I was an undergraduate, bridge games would start early in the evening and last until 4 a.m. (or later). A party would be going on in the other room as students came and went from the games. Sound familiar?
Between chess, bridge, backgammon, go, pinochle, and now poker, there is a long history of game playing in student life. The common denominator is that these are games of skill, games that require sobriety and thought, strategy and study. There is something satisfying about applying the same sort of mental discipline that earns good grades in the classroom to a game. And so, students invest themselves in game-playing at the expense of solving another calculus problem or writing a paper, but it is a necessary release, one that can help students succeed.
There is another level of game-playing that we sometimes dream about while socializing with our friends across a poker table, or playing online poker, or reading poker books, or attending a lecture from a computer science teacher. I know many professional game players. Not just professional poker players, but people who make their living beating games across the broad spectrum. Recently, I met three-time world champion Bridge player, Alan Sontag. He radiated a life full of fun, travel and adventure as he related stories from a world most cannot imagine. He gave me a signed copy of his best-selling book, “The Bridge Bum.” It was inscribed “from one degenerate to another.” Those words have resonated with me since he first wrote them.
The Bridge world champion views himself as a degenerate. Why? Maybe he thinks he is not producing anything for the good of society. Maybe it’s because he is not working a 9 to 5 job, raising a family and saving for retirement. Maybe it’s that he just wants one thing in his life – to play bridge at the highest level he is capable of playing. But to me, his genius allows the word “degenerate” to mean praise for achieving a lifestyle that allows one to do exactly what one loves to do. I think we are all searching for that level of excellence. All game players want to be degenerates. That’s our common goal.
After 25 years as a college professor, researcher and teacher, I am certainly no degenerate (some of my students might disagree). But somewhere inside, that is still my longing. Sontag touched that deep place inside of me that loves games in a way that only someone who knows the soul of the game-player could.
Which is the real world? Is it that research paper on the French Revolution that’s due tomorrow or that king-queen offsuit you’re holding behind an early raise? That’s the decision you have to make for yourself. The day of my oral exam, long ago, I stopped playing chess just in time to make it to the examination. With clear and rested nerves, I easily passed and went on to earn my Ph.D. My decision was a very close call.
Eliot Jacobsen is a Computer Science professor at UCSB and author of “The Blackjack Zone.”