Three days before I heard Jamin Warren’s insightful presentation at Mockingbird’s NYC conference, I walked out of a bar with my wife following our usual Tuesday night trivia contest. Team Sweet Little Baby Jesus, an ecumenical assemblage of clergy and church workers between 28 and 40, had been trounced by our usual rivals, and I was not happy. It was week one of an eight week tournament spanning twenty or so bars in central Pennsylvania, and this result put us well back of where I felt we should have been.


Rumor has it I was something of a jerk on the trip home. Everyone else had enjoyed splurging on food and drinks as they tried to burn off some of the $400 or so in gift cards our team had won since September. I couldn’t help noticing that the team’s focus, including my own, was not at its usual level. We lost by sixteen (still placing third out of about twenty teams playing that night, and winning $20), and I was convinced that we had left at least that many points on the table through sheer inattention.

Perhaps it was unwise to express this out loud. Wisdom eluding, I got a sharp response from the wife: “Most of the team shows up to have fun.” A glutton for punishment, I pressed on: “I do too, but we still could have done better. Why did we enter the tournament if we don’t want to win?” The trouble, gentle reader, is that my wife was correct in both her explicit and implicit claims–the rest of the team was playing for fun, and to at least some extent I was not.

How can this be? I set out to have fun. I enjoy my friends, beer and trivia. And after a night of all three, I headed home angry and frustrated. But I’m really good at trivia; I’ve had success at it. One night last fall when my wife was out of town I waited for the rest of the team to show up, in vain. I grimly played alone against the whole bar, through it all wanting to leave, but after each round I was still near the top of the standings. I was nervous and focused, and did not enjoy myself–though I did take a secret pleasure in the disbelieving glances my direction whenever scores were read out. I took second, missing victory by a single point. I’m proud of the performance, in a way–as proud as one can be of meaningless bar trivia–but also still irked that I did not win that night.

It would be nice if I could tell you that I’m a better player when I’m relaxed and happy, but that isn’t true. I’m sharpest when I have butterflies, when I’m wound tight, when I can block out the room and concentrate without having to listen to anyone else. The law, which demands perfection of me in this thing precisely because I’ve had success, because I’m good at it, does push me to a higher level of performance. But the cost is that everything else, not only my fun but the fun of my teammates (and of my wife) is sacrificed to greater performance, which is to say, on the altar of my own ego.

What drives competition for me, and I suspect for many of you who are prone to competitive behavior, is the fear that my failure can define me in a way that no past success can. Success is transient, punctiliar, entirely of the moment; failure is eternal. When this is so, victory is hollow; it is a momentary reprieve from the death of failure. It can never be complete or fulfilling, and it cannot erase the shame of failures past. My greatest “success” in this arena would have appeared to any reasonable observer as a lonely young man spending two hours at a bar not having any fun.


Warren’s talk has me thinking about the place of games in my life. For us under the law, involvement in a game (and are we ever not involved in a game?) means potential for a winner and a loser. The game becomes the field of judgment, an exercise in self-justification. But behind it all lies playfulness, fun, spontaneity–a game should express childlike freedom. So why does it imprison?

There is, of course, no problem with the game. There is no problem with bar trivia, with competition, even with wanting to win. There is a problem with me. The things of creation, including myself and other players, and all games by which we delight in them are good; God has said so. The tragedy comes when I cannot receive these things as good. I must instead prove my goodness, establish it on my own terms and without God. Every Tuesday night the young pastor proves himself the most committed atheist in the bar.

The truth of the matter is that I do not know how to play without putting my life at stake. I could, perhaps, refrain from playing, or play halfheartedly, but this would be no demonstration of freedom. Herman Edwards was quite correct: “You play to win the game.” That’s part of the game–and playing to win should be fun. On occasion it truly is.

I hold out hope for the arrival of this freedom in my life; that it is possible to play to win without attempting thereby to justify myself. It would be a marvellous thing to sit down for an evening, compete hard, enjoy a few beers, joke with friends, and walk back to the car with the one I love, secure and happy. For now, I settle for small intimations of what is to come. I compete, sometimes too hard, I try to enjoy the contest, and though Tasha does not absolve me at the end of every evening (this would not be a bad idea), she takes me by the hand, and kisses me on the cheek, and treats me as if I’ve been much less a jerk than I probably have. Such grace is reason enough to keep playing.