Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I enjoyed my foray into basketball on Sunday so much that last night, spotting an empty basketball court, I asked Egemen to indulge me by shooting a few hoops. (I believe that's the term of art, isn't it? I know even less about basketball than I do about the martial arts.) I realized within about thirty seconds that it would be no fun at all to play with him -- certainly not one-on-one, anyway -- because we're so completely mismatched in athletic ability. I wouldn't have a chance of winning, ever, not even with outrageously good luck.

It's easier for me to accept the gross disparity in our athletic skill and talent in the martial arts because in some larger sense, it's not just a game. The point isn't just to win in any given encounter, it's to improve your skill to the point where you might be able to win in the encounter that really counts. That, at least, is how it sort of plays out in my mind.

The only real point of basketball is winning right there and then; if there's no hope of that, well, it's not as if you can tell yourself that at least you're improving your emergency dribbling reflexes and your chances of beating a crackhead home-invader bent on a pick-up game.

It made me wonder just what level of competition is required for a competitive pursuit to be maximally addictive. It's not particularly addictive to play with someone you can always beat, unless you take your pleasure in pedagogy, score-settling or sadism. (Those are real pleasures, don't get me wrong, but as I'm sure you'll all agree, it speaks well for my character that I only enjoy humiliating an easy target a few times before I get bored with it.)

"Evenly matched" isn't quite the right solution, either. I'm thinking now of my most depraved online Scrabble binges. They never occurred because I was winning as much as I was losing. They always happened because I was winning, against the odds, against progressively more highly-ranked opponents.

I suspect that for a competition to be maximally addictive, the opponent probably has to be about 15-20 percent more skilled than you. If you have a minor run of good luck, it produces the exhilarating temporary illusion that you're in fact better at something than you really are. The inevitable setback leaves you desperate for a rematch. If Scrabble is anything to go by, it takes losing about eight games in a row, at a level higher than your real ability, to produce total demoralization and the suspicion that perhaps you have something better to do with your life than play game after game of online Scrabble.

I'll bet there's been quite a bit of research into this. Casinos must have the algorithms pretty well worked out.

I expect the maximally addictive level of competition varies depending how deeply emotionally invested you are in the pursuit. It's not unbearably ego-dystonic for me to lose at things like basketball and Scrabble -- basically, I don't really care -- so I can accept losing quite often in exchange for the hope of winning occasionally.

It is not anywhere near so amusing when old college rivals write books that sell better than mine.

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