Of Chess and Ego

When I play chess, I have a problem with losing. I consider myself to be a fairly competent chess player and when I’m being honest about my own ego I consider myself to even be a “good” one. The problem is that I lose. A lot. For a while it put me off of chess altogether because my pride wouldn’t let me lose nor would it let me allow my opponent to let me win. I didn’t want to be given a victory I wanted to win it for myself, and I couldn’t bear to admit that someone else was a better player than I was. I solved the conundrum by avoiding chess altogether.

But this problem isn’t just with chess. I also consider myself to be a fairly competent filmmaker, and when I’m being honest about my own ego I even consider myself to be a “good” one. The problem is that in this digital age any idiot with a digital camera and a Mac (incidentally I shoot digitally and edit on a Mac) thinks they are a filmmaker.  And I get rejected. A lot. The point I’m trying to get around to is: how can I distinguish myself from every other idiot with a camera and a Mac out there? How do I know if my work is good enough? Unlike chess, I can’t just walk away from filmmaking. Against all better judgement it is something I feel I have to do and will probably continue to do even in the face of failure.

I discovered the answer to my filmmaking question when I found an answer to my chess problem. A few weeks ago at a friend’s party I played a game of chess against  my fiance who is considerably more practiced than I am at the game.

“You won’t win,” I told myself. “And that’s OK, just make him work for it.”

We played and I lost with only a king left on the board an nowhere to go. All things considered I thought I’d done pretty well. I felt pretty OK.

I decided to play a second game against a player I felt I should be able to beat. I lost. I played a third game against a different player I also felt I should be able to beat. I lost. I retired to the bathroom for a period of self indulgent tears and wounded pride. What was different? Why could I play against one player and be OK with losing but play against a different player and feel cut to the quick by their victory?

I forced myself to play one last game. I insisted on playing against someone who I knew was a better player than I was with the expectation that I would lose but that at least I would lose to someone I could feel good losing to. It was because of that last game that the realization hit me. When I played against more experienced opponents I played a better game. I didn’t expect to win, but I did expect to make them work for it and in this I could succeed. When  I played against an opponent that I perceived to be my equal I expected to win and when this didn’t happen I felt I had failed. The problem wasn’t losing, the problem was my own fear that without winning I wasn’t good enough. In chess, like in filmmaking, I was asking myself “how can I ever hope to be great if I can’t even stand out from the other average players?”

I started thinking about the way I went about filmmaking; did I really want to be the best home video on YouTube? Or would I rather be an also-ran at the Academy Awards? The answer, to my mind, was easy after that: I distinguish myself from the crowd because, while I may not win, I expect to give the big dogs a run for their money. Why diffuse my energy in dozens of petty competitions with other aspiring filmmakers when I could focus it all into a single upward drive?

In the end, it isn’t a question of winning or losing.  And it isn’t about how the game is played.

The question is about who I play against and what I learn.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on January 15, 2010.

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