Author's note: This is the first in what I suppose might be a series of posts with respect to things I learned from playing traditional games competitively that I think might have broader applications. I write this as a private individual, not on behalf of CFAR or any other organization.

Traditional games - card games, board games, miniatures, etc. are a lot of fun, and I've played several of them at quite a competitive level. [1]

The #1 piece of advice that I can give if you want to get better at these games - a piece of advice that applies across essentially every game or sport I've played and a lot of "real world" stuff as well - is "if you want to win, stop conceding."

On the surface that doesn't sound super deep or interesting, but there's more to it than the obvious meaning - not all concedes are formal resignations, and indeed the ones that aren't are often more important.

Some time ago I read a book - either "The Inner Game of Tennis" or "Bonds that Make Us Free" or maybe both - that taught me that very many people concede games well before they need to be over, either because they incorrectly estimate their chances or because they make a mental motion away from trying to win and towards trying to make excuses for losing.

Here are some examples of what excuse-making thoughts might sound like:

  • "The dice are against me, there's nothing I can do."
  • "I didn't get a good night's sleep or eat breakfast this morning, otherwise I would be winning - I just can't focus."
  • "This guy's bad but he got lucky." [2]
  • "This guy's way better than me, I shouldn't even be matched up against him." [3]
  • "I don't know how she even got this far ahead, there must be some bug."
  • "This is pointless, why play it out?"
  • "This is just for fun anyway, I've basically lost, may as well wind things down."

Once you have moved from trying to win and towards trying to excuse losing, you have more or less already lost. Sometimes an opponent might snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but that's rare. Most of the time, assuming you've lost is the same as actually losing, it just takes longer.

If you want to get better, stop it. Force yourself to keep playing and keep looking for outs. Learn to recognize these mental patterns and suppress them. Don't concede games unless there's nothing you can do anymore. Fight until the bitter end.

That's a real 'if', because if you don't want to get better I certainly don't recommend doing this! There is a sense in which it is viscerally unpleasant to force yourself to be in a losing position, desperately scrabbling for anything that can get you out.

When you get in that position and escape, it feels great - but there are also going to be times when you don't escape, you struggle for ten or fifteen or thirty minutes but still lose, the whole thing feels bad, and you might wish you had conceded in the first place. If you aren't prepared to face that, maybe don't bother.

But what I've found is that a practice of facing the negative thoughts and pushing through seems to have been quite beneficial to me across a wide range of games and areas, so I would give serious thought to the notion that - at least in areas that you care about and want to be better at - you should consider this approach.

A few days before writing this, I played a card game where around two to five times throughout the course of an ~hour-long game I was struck by thoughts along the lines of "Wow, my position is horrible. I've been really unlucky. I should concede."

I didn't concede, and I won the game. This is not a particularly unusual experience to have once you acquire the inclination and ability to push through.

[1] For calibration:

At various times I have been world #1 by Elo rating at a few different games I've played (not all at the same time!). I came in third at the World Championships of L5R this year despite being out of practice (though to be fair I had some good luck).

I have flown to a card game tournament in another state in large part because I calculated I was likely to win enough in prizes that I would net gain money from the trip; I haven't eBayed all the promotional items I won yet but I believe I made hundreds of dollars in expectation from that venture.

I don't say this to boast but rather to give an indication of where I am coming from. In order to "deflate the sails" a bit, I should say that I do not make a career out of gaming and I don't play poker or Magic: the Gathering competitively, which have a significantly higher level of play than most games I play; there are many people who are better at games than I am.

[2] This thought pattern is especially bad because it prevents you from learning from the game after the fact. Sure, some games do come down to luck in the end, but probably there were decisions you could have made prior to that that would influence the odds.

[3] A joke saying goes: "Anyone worse than me at this game is casual n00b trash. Anyone better than me at this game is a no-life tryhard." Neither of the thoughts in that dichotomy is very useful to have, even in their less straw forms.


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15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:29 AM

One important caveat to this is that it doesn't mean you have to fight as hard as possible in every single battle, play out every single hand, or otherwise fight ferociously on an *object* level - you should be fighting ferociously on a *meta* level. It's fine, and perhaps even necessary in many games, to concede some battles in order to win the war.

(inspiration for this comment goes to Rationalist Discourse Club user "Bar Fight", who pointed out "good post, but 'concede less' is extremely bad advice for most poker players"!)

Many people do play for fun though, and don't find it fun to play against someone with your attitude. So I try not to adopt it myself, except in situations where winning is really important.

Your examples of excuse-making were really helpful.

I didn't get a good night's sleep or eat breakfast this morning, otherwise I would be winning - I just can't focus.

If I look at a sentence like that, I think this:

Why are you even thinking this thought during the match? What relevance does this have to how you're going to win right now?

There is a special case where these thoughts are actually useful. If you are playing at less than full capacity, you should consider avoiding complex positions and long chains of reasoning, and seek variance slash try to get lucky in various ways. Simplify the game, or force the decisions onto the opponent. If you're on the clock, don't count on being able to operate quickly later on.

The other special case is, regardless of why, noting you are not focused can be a good motivation to actually focus, whereas you won't fix it if you don't realize you have a problem.

And of course between rounds is often a great time to hydrate, grab a bite, get a few minutes of rest or what not, and it can very important to your success in the tournament to become aware of your needs going forward. Then, after the tournament, you do what Richard says and prevent it from happening again.

I'd park the thought and examine it later. Why didn't I get a good night's sleep or eat breakfast? What bad choices did I make then? What earlier events did I let get in the way? Is any of that really the reason for my state of mind in the game? Is there something in all this I am doing habitually? How will I prevent that pattern from recurring in the future?

Answering that last question is the purpose of the examination.

I hope we haven't forgotten Stuck in the Middle With Bruce and Soares' Have No Excuses, which starts with a quote from Bonds That Make Us Free.

I think one reason people end up using a minimax strategy is that it's just easier to compute than EV-maximization.

But more importantly, it just feels like there's no downsides - it's free insurance!

If you want to have a convincing excuse however, you might actively impede your chances. (It might be possible to distance yourself from the excuse so the insurance is actually free, but I think this is unlikely/hard.)

If you've already hedged so hard that you've bet a lot against yourself, you might have sufficiently changed the payoffs to make losing rational, especially if you also add a penalty to Being Mediocre. This is why post like this are needed.

Thanks for linking back to the Bruce piece - I remembered that it had made similar points, but I hadn't understood it when I read it at 15.

Thanks for the post!

It resonates with some experience I had in playing the game of go at a competitive level.

Go is a perfect information game but it's very hard to know exactly what will be the outcome of a "fight" (you would need to look up to 30 moves ahead in some cases).

So when the other guy would kill your group of stones after a "life or death" scenario, because he had a slight advantage in the fight, it feels like the other is lucky, and most people have really bad thoughts and just give up.

Once, I created an account with the bio "I don't resign" to see what would happen if I forced myself to not concede and keep playing after a big loss. It went surprisingly well and I even went to play the highest ranked guy connected on the server. At this point, I completely lost the game and there was 100+ people watching the game, so I just resigned.

Looking back, it definitely helped me to continue fighting even after a big loss, and stop the mental chatter. However, there's a trade-off between the time gained by correctly estimating the probability of winning and resigning when too improbable, and the mental energy gained from not resigning (minus the fact that your opponent may be pretty pissed off).

Curious for your take on this question (I have my own answers but I want to not anchor you): Why do we frequently see sports teams in (e.g. basketball or football) effectively concede games by taking approaches with 0% win rate, when they have strategies that have non-zero (but very low) win rates?

A note on what this feels like in my body:

When I start feeling like giving up, then I might notice my lips shaking and other signs of nervousness and stress, like jaw clenching. If I notice this and move my body into what is closer to a fighting position (forehead forward, chin down to protect my neck, something about my lower back muscles move slightly), then I feel more relaxed, engaged, and determined, and find it easier to think about object level thoughts about how to win.

If I do the opposite, and move my head back and open my throat, then I will often shake more and feel more comfortable removing myself from the situation. Doing this at the same time as trying to relax is something like the feeling I associate with 'being ok with losing', which is sometimes appropriate. I've found experimenting with both positions helpful.

Its not clear to me this attitude is always optimal even if your only goal is to improve. The fundmaental question is 'Is the information we get from finishing this match in X minutes greater than the information we would get by spending X minutes toward playing a new match?'.

If the endgame is relatively long and not particularly interesting just concede. We aren't going to learn much from actually playing it out even if I am 2-5% to win.

Say we are practicing for a 1vs1 Terraforming Mars competition. On generation three you get out AI central and I don't have a huge lead in other areas to compensate. I think its rational to concede here. Terraforming mars takes a long time to play out. Is not really clear how exactly you will beat me, but you will draw a ton of cards and kill me somehow. I doubt you need practice crushing someone with a normal draw when you have an active AI central.

In a game with substantial luck I think it matters what caliber of opponents you are expecting to play against. If you are anticipating playing vs people substantiall worse than you it can make sense to practice winning from 'objectively lose' positions. If you are substantially stronger than the opponent you actually can win. But if your expected opponents are capable and playing the game out will take awhile just concede.

Nevermind the fact it is phycologically unplesanat to play out almost certainly lost positions. So if you are playing for enjoyment its often rational to concede. Of course during a literal tournament match play it out til the end if you are playing to win. Though make sure you are not screwing yourself because of timer rules (for example not conceding a game of mtg quick enough can make it unlikely you can finish the bo3 match).

sidenote: I have also had quite alot of success playing games. Though I don't really play competitive games anymore.

I'm actually not sure re: practice. I know people who would just play out the first X turns of a game then reset to get deliberate practice on the openings; I think there's some merit to that, but I also think most people don't practice fighting back from really unpleasant situations enough. Not sure how these effects line up for particular individuals.

Theferrett Sid similar "gravity towards losing" that some players have sometimes. I can't find the link but it's worth adding "karma" type reasons to the list. And self-caused failures too, through "accidental" overlook of a detail.

What are "karma" type reasons?

"I have bad karma from earlier today and so I have to lose this game"