How You Play the Game

In the front hall my school from Pre-Kindergarten though 12th Grade, there was a bronze plaque in the front hall that we saw every day. It included a famous bit of poetry by Gartland Rice: “For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against your name. He marks—not that you won or lost— / But how you played the game.”

We saw this every day (It was unavoidable.), and while we didn’t stop and ponder the message with great regularity, its message certainly seeped into us—as was intended. Effort, integrity and sportsmanship were drilled into us not just by a passive message on a wall but by a faculty who knew that while winning in whatever we did was sometimes out of our control no matter how hard we tried; how we engaged with the process of everything we did (playing the game) is what makes all the difference.

All this month at, we’re celebrating Family Game Night, and we have great suggestions for games you and your family will love playing. As Jim Silver notes, games provide a great family bonding experience, and he notes people play to win. Of course they do. No one likes to lose, but you can’t have a winner without a loser. And this is where it becomes important to acknowledge the importance of how you play the game.

There are thousands of games out there, but at the end of the day, they really break down into two categories: games of chance and games of skill. Both present amazing learning opportunities for kids.

Games of chance—Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Uno and so forth—depend solely on the luck of the draw or the roll of the dice. Because these are random, the game is different every time it’s played. The fascination and the fun comes from the twists and turns over which a player has very little control. What children learn in these games is that sometimes outcomes in life are unpredictable and certainly uncontrollable. Today’s loss will probably be tomorrow’s win. The fun is in playing and interacting with others. Teaching kids to be a good loser is as important as being a good winner. No one really wants to play with a sore loser or an obnoxious winner. (When they get into higher mathematics, they can learn that what we like to call “luck” is merely statistical probability in action. If the same two people play the same game over enough time, they are likely to win 50 percent of the time. But that’s a conversation for another day.)

Games of skill—Blokus, Othello, Chess, Scrabble, etc.—combines elements of chance with strategy. A player can get better at these over time. My personal favorite game is the card game Bridge. There is always the element of luck in how the cards are dealt, but learning the ins and outs of the games, bidding strategies and so forth can be the play of a lifetime. Games of skill teach kids to keep trying and to know that it takes time and perseverance to develop the skills that can lead to winning.

On everything from testing to performance, there is such an emphasis on winning that it can be demoralizing to kids and prevent them from trying. The cliché, “keep your eyes on the prize,” can be inspiring, but it’s also important to accept that kids are going to stink at things when they first start out. You don’t become a Chess master overnight, or a star athlete or musician. There are also elements of chance in life. For instance, I was never a gifted athlete. I did my best, but I never came up to the level of my classmates who were naturally talented. In fact, kids and coaches consistently ridiculed me for my total lack of athletic skill. Not easy. However, I was a talented musician and outshone my peers who seemed to work harder without getting the same results.

That brings up one of the most important lessons we get from games: Play the hand you’re dealt. By working within the framework of “what is,” we can learn to be the best we can be. Some things may come easily and some not so much. But if we can set goals and work steadily towards them, that is what makes a rich life. Teaching our kids that winning is a bonus but never guaranteed is as essential as teaching them that if they don’t fully engage in the game, the chances of winning are non-existent.

I ran my first marathon when I was in my 30s. I did not win, of course, but I had a respectable time in the middle of the pack. It took over a year to train, and sometimes I wanted to give up, but I wanted to prove something to myself. I learned that I could do something I believed I couldn’t, and that made all the difference.

Scroll to Top