The Cat’s Game

Tic-Tac-Toe is a game inexorably tied to the idea of stalemating. I knew this when I first started drawing three-by-three grids on the blank sides of Language Arts assignments sometime in early elementary school (probably Ms. Colbert’s class – she couldn’t hold this first grader’s attention). You certainly knew it too. The permutations and combinations are simple enough that a novice computer programmer could reproduce the game in any language and output it to an LCD monitor without much trial and with even less error. X’s and O’s can only interact in so many ways (255,168, to be precise). Of those possibilities, a noticeable chunk is draws (46,080). About one in five, for the fractionally inclined.

But our impulses aren’t dictated by mere statistics. In a Darwinian sense, every game of Tic-Tac-Toe ends in a draw. Every one that counts, anyway, and discounting those impelled by brain farting or insomnia. That’s because, quite simply, there are two elements of the human approach to competition: winning, and not losing. The M.O. for victory is survival first and conquest later. So we scribble our noughts and crosses with the knowledge that any placement must edge our points closer to a line while disrupting the budding formations of the enemy.  We are proactive and retroactive. And so, after nine turns, we don’t lose or win. We draw, unavoidably. And then, upon further rumination, we realize that we were always fated to do so. Just like when we were in second grade.

That the stalemate is a tautological inevitability of the game is no news to you. We have a word for it – the cat’s game. We expect it of, for better or for worse, every piece of scrap paper and every chewed-up Bic pen. Yet, we’re still captivated by Tic-Tac-Toe. It’s still there, at least, even if you haven’t played it in years. And the funny thing is, it isn’t going anywhere. Why? Because we’re not satisfied with the draw, although we expect it. We are driven by gaming hubris to prove our transcendence at an unwinnable game.

In other words we must eventually designate a winner. Our urge for finality is mirrored in America’s favored sports, albeit in a much more immediate fashion. Basketball, baseball, football are games in which we altogether forego the possibility (or at least minimize the probability) of a draw, favoring instead a binary system of wins and losses. To our sensibilities, the notion that two opponents could in some way be equal is incompatible with our hunger for entropic results. There is no such thing as David and David or Goliath and Goliath, only David and Goliath, even if the disparity is in smaller measure than between our biblical hero-and-villain contingent. The result of an MLB, NFL, or NBA game is sometimes surprising, sometimes unsurprising, but never inconclusive.

This is the heart of instant gratification, which tells us that the Bears must beat the Packers, or vice versa, just as it tells us that Amazon Prime’s comped two-day shipping is worth the annual subscription fee (it is). Were it always that way, there wouldn’t be a lesson to be learned. But history tells us a different story, at least in the NFL, where before 1974, there was no regular season overtime provision. Matches that were level at the end of regulation simply ended. Divisions were decided by winning percentage – just as they are now – so that two teams with the same number of wins could be differentiated by their number of losses (and by proxy, their number of ties). The 1970 San Diego Chargers drew three games. So did the ’63 Steelers and ’67 Vikings. It stood to reason that, on any fall weekend, two franchises could meet in competition and match each other, exactly. But not anymore.

And that is a shame, because through these past four and a half decades, we’ve abandoned our taste for the draw, just as we have abandoned so many other focal artifacts of our cultural heritage – bell-bottoms, Milli Vanilli, Chia Pets, Scary Spice. And without the hindsight to acknowledge it, we lack the foresight to recognize its potentialities.

Until we consider soccer. Here is a sport that embraces the inconclusive result, going so far as to reward those who may not win but manage not to lose. On the surface, it is easy to feel slighted by draws, to believe that the lack of a winner destroys the essence of competition, but that is to forget again the two impulses of the competitive spirit – to claim victory, but also to avoid defeat. The tie game emboldens that struggle for survival, a facet of gameplay not always found in other sports. In baseball, football, and basketball, the object is to score one or more points than the other guys.  (The alternative is scoring fewer points, but this is reserved for fatalists, masochists, and match-fixers). In soccer, we add a third dimension – scoring precisely the same number of times and sharing the spoils. That is survival, our impulse to do what is necessary to guarantee tomorrow, even if we can’t do the same for the day after.

Ultimately, if a team’s success is measured in aggregated results across a season (as it seems to be in every sport) then tying is part of that larger equation, carrying on some of the character of a win or loss but with very different implications. To the underdog, who is unsuited for winning in a realistic sense, it is a shred of hope rarely afforded to lesser sides in binary win-loss systems. To championship teams, it is a bitter pill, but one that must be swallowed and then understood in a larger temporal context. In other words, drawing is not a be-all or end-all for anyone. It is a burst of inspiration or a precipitous wake-up call, depending, but in either case it vitalizes our instinct to fight another game.

And that is the crux of our sporting passion, to envision the subjunctives of the future. In soccer, the draw plays a crucial role in settling potentialities. For every team, from the murky depths of relegation to the title-seeking top (even Barcelona, six times in Liga already), it is a realistic result, building a framework of what-ifs? that informs the chances, fantasized or not, of small and large clubs alike.

That is precisely because, like in our games of Tic-Tac-Toe, we’re left wondering what would happen if our efforts could have somehow invoked a different result, whether the draw really was fated or whether, had we simply placed the X center right instead of top left, our snoozing eight-year-old opponent could have been caught off guard and handed us the game. It begs – what else is possible?

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3 Responses to The Cat’s Game

  1. gay4soccer says:

    I don’t know if I should be shocked or upset that you made it through that post without referencing the movie “War Games”

  2. Pingback: a red card for the wall street journal | prisoner of marzipan

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