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Monday, May 03, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: WINNING ISN'T EVERYTHING ... OR IS IT?

After a vigorous game of touch football in the backyard with my two grandsons - ages 8 and 11 - and their dad, my son-in-law turned to me and said, "There's a real value to these games ending with tie scores, don't you think?"

Did either of us deliberately miss a play to ensure that the game would end in a tie? I don't believe so. I certainly didn't. But we didn't go out of our way to aggressively pulverize the opposing team either.

Which raises the question: Is it ever OK to throw a game or hold back your effort, to keep the peace and/or to boost the egos of your opponent?

When the individuals involved are adults playing with 8-year-olds, the answer may be obvious. But a reader from North Carolina writes with a more ambiguous case.

A friend of his plays pool once a week with three of his buddies. Two of the guys are a bit better than the other two, so they pair off opposite each other to make the games competitive.

"Recently," my reader writes, "my friend and his partner were just killing the other guys, so they handily won the competition in the usual number of games played."

The guys also regularly shoot a final game "for all the marbles," however. Whichever pair wins that final game is deemed "the champs," regardless of how many games each team has previously won.

"My friend felt sorry for having easily dispatched his opponents that night," my reader writes, "so, when he had a chance to win the final game too with a couple of well-placed shots, he took a more difficult path to doing so, claiming that, if he executed the first shot properly, it would work to his advantage in setting up the final shot."

My reader's friend confided in him, however, that he actually thought that first shot a risky one and was hoping that he would miss it.

"He did, and the other team won," my reader reports. "We're not talking big bucks here - maybe a couple of beers."

Even so, my reader doesn't know if his friend did the right thing.

"What do you think?" he asks. "Is it a greater good to lose on purpose to boost the spirits of your friends?"

I think not. Losing on purpose, even with the goal of boosting the spirits of your friends, does not represent a "greater good." For one thing, it's not honest.

For another, it often doesn't work: It's a rare friend who doesn't recognize when a friend is deliberately throwing a game. That realization can have the opposite of the intended effect, dampening the less-accomplished player's spirits even further.

Treating your friends like 8-year-olds is seldom a good idea, in short, unless you happen to be 8-year-olds.

In this case, however, that doesn't seem to be what happened. My reader's friend didn't throw the game, deliberately trying to miss his shot. If his account is to be believed - and why shouldn't it be? - he made a good-faith attempt to make a difficult shot when he might have attempted an easier shot. Figuring that, given his winning streak, he could afford to introduce a bit more panache into his game, he took a chance that didn't pay off.

He may have hoped that his risk would backfire, allowing his opponents to save face. As long as he didn't deliberately miss the shot, though, he didn't do anything wrong.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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