Feature Article

Down with Ties!
by Stephen Sniderman


In college, I lived in a co-op with a bunch of forestry majors. For obvious reasons, they hated ties, the kind men wear around their neck. At the annual forestry dance, no one was allowed to wear anything resembling a suit, a sports jacket, dressy clothes, or a tie, but one person was always designated official scapegoat for the evening, and he wore a particularly gaudy and outrageous tie with his flannel shirt and dungarees. Some time during the festivities, that person became the target of other guys' mock wrath. Wielding scissors, they began chasing him around the room. When they caught him, they (un)ceremoniously snipped off half his tie, to the delight of the rest of us.

Like those forestry majors, I have always hated ties, not the kind men wear around their neck but the kind that are compared to kissing your sister. I hate competitions that end in a tie. In fact, I think that any game that can end inconclusively-in a tie, a draw, a stalemate, or any other kind of no-win situation-has a serious flaw that should be corrected. To me, ties violate the essence of games designed to determine a winner. What's the point of competing if no winner is declared?

No-win, no-lose

Part of me, I hasten to add, loves the idea of games in which no one wins and no one loses. Non-competitive, cooperative, Play-Fair-type activities — and any other kind of play in which everyone comes off feeling like a winner — strike me as a (morally) higher level of fun than the traditional kind of games and sports we teach our kids. Such games are a rich vein that needs to be explored vigorously and thoroughly.

In some ways, I think that competition is detrimental to us as a society. It tends to teach youngsters, girls as well as boys these days, that they have to beat someone to feel good about themselves. Kids that aren't popular, after all, are called "losers," as if they have lost some unspecified social game. Competition often creates artificial hierarchies and undesirable antagonism.

I know that competition has benefits as well, for children, for adults, and for the society. It provides incredible incentive for individuals to excel, gives them goals to reach, teaches them the importance of teamwork — all that rah-rah stuff. But I have no doubt that, in a more enlightened society, the same benefits could be achieved without competition between individuals or groups of people.

If we wanted to, we could put our play-energy into activities that required tremendous skill but were "competing" against non-human forces — such as gravity or time. We already have sports like this, such as mountain-climbing, in which a team tries to conquer a physical object. They win (or lose) together. If they get to the peak, they celebrate — as a group. We also have games, like those of the role-playing variety, in which cooperation takes the place of competition. The group tries to accomplish a goal, and the game itself is the opponent. I believe that any game or sport or skill could be adapted to this model.

Win, lose or draw

Until that happens, most of us are stuck with the "lower" form of play, the kind in which there is at least one loser for every winner, the kind in which I can't win unless you lose, the kind that James Carse calls a "finite" game. Few of us climb mountains or play D & D. Most of us seem to want to pit ourselves against others — to see who is luckier or smarter or more skillful or more talented. Hence the popularity of Monopoly, Scrabble, chess, baseball, football, and basketball.

It is highly ironic, then, that there are very few popular games which inevitably end in triumph for some and defeat for others. Virtually any game you can name has the possibility of an inconclusive ending. Granted, there are very few formal games (those associated with many ties — like a formal social event), but tic-tac-toe comes to mind, and it is probably the most well-known game in the world. However, informal games (those associated with an occasional tie, like an informal party), are surprisingly common and include popular games like chess, checkers, and soccer (sans shootout). And there are plenty of casual games in which ties are rare but not impossible, such as Othello, bridge, and horse-racing.

But there are very, very few forestry games, those associated with the complete exclusion of ties. One that comes to mind is The Game of Y, which is also reviewed in this issue. (If you are aware of others, let me know.)

As a way of emphasizing the paucity of forestry games, let me propose the following scenario. Imagine that you and someone you love are captured by aliens, who have stolen from earth the equipment for a wide variety of well-known games and sports. They insist that the two of you play each game. Whoever loses any game will be killed. Can you both stay alive? The answer is, of course. There is nothing in tennis or checkers or backgammon or almost any other game you have heard of that prevents you from continuing indefinitely or ending in a draw. If you were playing tennis, for example, each of you could deliberately double fault on every point. The game would never end. In the chess game, each of you could move out a knight on one turn and put it back on the next. In checkers, each of you could move a king back and forth between two spaces. (Until you both had kings, you'd have to be careful not to leave your opponent without a move.) And so on with the rest of the games.

This situation strikes me as ludicrous. Here we are, a society that loves competition, that loves winners, but we have hundreds of games which do not eliminate the possibility of ties. How do we explain this phenomenon? Wouldn't you think that in this highly competitive world we'd have at least a few play activities that couldn't end so uninterestingly?

The "firstest" or the "mostest"

To get technical for a moment, there are basically two different kinds of ties —because there are basically two different kinds of objects. (In a later issue, I will discuss the value of categorizing games by their objects.) One set could be called "more" or "most" games, those in which the player or team with more (or the most) points at the end of the game is the winner. The other set could be called "first" or "before" games, those in which the player or team that accomplishes something first (or before anyone else) is the winner. This distinction is useful because the methods for eliminating ties are not identical with respect to the two categories.

In a "more" game, two teams tie because they have the same score at the end of "regulation," what would be the end of the game if the teams were not tied. These games include virtually all the familiar team sports — the big five (baseball, basketball, hockey, football, soccer) and almost all others, like lacrosse, water polo, polo, field hockey, cricket, and so on. (The only well-known team sports that are not "more" games are volleyball and doubles tennis.) Field sports (high jumping, long jumping, javelin throwing, and so on) and bowling also fit in this category. So do various games, such as Scrabble, bridge, Go, Boggle, Othello (Reversi), and Yahtzee.

For the purposes of eliminating ties, a game like golf, in which the object is to get the lowest score, is identical to a "more" game because two players or teams could have the same score at the end of 72 holes (or whatever the designated length of the tournament).

In a "first" game, two teams can't tie in this way because the game is not over after a certain amount of time or after a specified number of innings or periods or chukkers or holes or turns. Instead, the game is over when one team has accomplished something, such as accumulating a certain number of points (or leading by two points after a certain total has been reached), or checkmating the other player's king, or getting to a finish line. All "net" and "racquet" sports — tennis, ping pong, volleyball, badminton, and racquetball — fall into this category, as do all track sports, including sprints, distance running, hurdles, and steeplechase.

All other races — with cars, horses, dogs, or people — are "first" games. Similarly, any game where players race around (or across) a board — like Parcheesi, Sorry, Backgammon, or Chinese Checkers — fit in this category, as do many two-player abstract strategy games, like tic-tac-toe (and its variations), Score Four, nine-men's-morris, and chess. In a "first" game, players or teams tie because they accomplish the task at the same time (such as in a photo finish) or because neither accomplishes the task.

In some games, the object is to be last, not first. In checkers, for example, the player who makes the last move wins. In Horse, Ghost, or log-rolling, the winner is the player remaining when all others have been eliminated. But, again, for the purposes of this discussion, "last" games can be lumped with "first" games.

"Down with Ties!" by Stephen Sniderman19 | 20 | 21

The Life of Games
No. 2 (April 2000)
©2000 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.