There's no doubt that Rice's saying has become a touchstone for competition of all sorts. But, that doesn't mean that everyone agrees with his point of view:
Grantland Rice, the great sportswriter once said, 'It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.' Well Grantland Rice can go to hell as far as I'm concerned.However, Autry, Lombardi, and Nixon were from an older generation than I; for myself, Rice's words were a simple tenet of life, to the point that I had no idea who might have first spoke them before I began to research this article. I was brought up to be gracious in defeat and polite in victory. Now, when I win a game, or even win a string of games, I'm almost embarassed to say so, online, in-person, or elsewhere. To do otherwise would be "gloating", "vanity", "poor sportsmanship" or other such bad things.
I have never had much sympathy for the point of view, "it isn't whether you win or lose that counts, but how you play the game."
Winning isn't the only thing; it's everything.
The Flip Side
Of course, there's a flip side to this. I always try and win the games I'm playing. And I get annoyed in a game if there's someone else who isn't playing to win. Now, I've never encountered some of the truly frustrating elements that I've heard other people mention in their gameplaying, such as someone throwing a game so that their spouse can win, but I've had players give up, start pursuing terrible strategies, or push the end of the game even when it's not in their best interest (or at least not in their best interest in-game, as their reasoning is sometimes, "Well, I'm going to lose anyway, and I just want to get it over as fast as I can").
That's not right, any of it, and I don't think people should be playing a game if they're not trying to win it. Which at first seems to fly in the face of good 'ole Grantland Rice's axiom. Fortunately our very own Reiner Knizia comes to the rescue with a quote of his own:
When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.Now there's an idea that I can fully stand behind, and not just because I was indoctrinated with the axiom as a youth (as was the case with Grantland Rice's famous saying). You do want to play to win, and that should be your goal, but if you end up losing, that should be OK too. Otherwise you end up with a bad experience when gaming as often as not, and what's the fun in that?
Of course every question of this sort raises new ones, and the obvious response here is, "what's winning?" I always though I knew: it was coming in first, and if you couldn't do that, second, and if you couldn't do that, third. I always play to achieve the best position I can in a game.
Of course this can wind up being a probabilistic exercise. If I have a 5% chance of achieving first place, a 20% chance of achieving second, and a 75% chance of achieving third, and the criteria needed to achieve first place and second place are different, which do I go for?
In general I'll try and go for the first if there's a reasonable chance I can achieve it, even if it results in forgoing second, but if that chance for first diminishes sufficiently I might go for second instead.
When a new player joined my regular review group a year or two ago now, I was surprised to hear that he had a different philosophy: always play for first, whether you have a decent chance at it, a dwindling small chance at it, or no chance at it. Never accept anything less.
This has resulted in some entirely friendly disputes between us, and I think we both accept that we'll play games differently. But it can result in some awkwardness in a king-making situation. If I'm in third-place in a game, and I have a last chance to make a difference in another player's score, I'm likely to hurt the second-place player rather than the first-place one, unless the scores are very close. Hurting the second-place player can help me rise in position, but hurting the first-place does nothing.
The other player would do the exact opposite, always.
I feel like I'm vindicated somewhat by the fact that whenever I see a discussion of competitive ranking, inevitably the second place player is rewarded more than the third. I played Days of Wonder's Gang of Four for a long time before I figured out how to play a hand to go out, but during that early time period my ranking slowly rose because I regularly came in second out of four. Likewise, if I was playing Survivor and I honestly felt like my chance was second place (earning $100,000) or third place (earning an estimated $65,000) you can bet I'd play for that additional $35,000.
I'm a bit envious when I read about a game club designing their own ranking system (which inevitably rewards place), because it sounds like a neat way to recognize winning in exactly the way I think it should be recognized.
So, that's my definition of winning: achieving the best position I reasonably can, which may or may not be first.
It's not whether you win or lose? Perhaps not, and our society has definitely been sending that message for decades. But, nonetheless, I play to win, and I hope all the other players do too, whether they feel like winning is the only thing or not.