playing to lose
“One. Two. Three. Four,” She says, shuffling the cards in chunky sections that fall too quickly away from her fingers. The cards thunk and smack against the table. Riley has developed a ritual even for preparing the game. She shuffles the cards six times before she deals, grinning at us as we amble to our chairs, dragging them back. Looking over, I can see that the cards have begun to curl at the edges, that creases camber across surfaces beneath her thumbs. Her shuffling has improved. Of all of us, she enjoys these game nights most, when we huddle around the table and Adam reaches over to flick her ears, and I lay my head on Kevin’s shoulder. I feel a bit like those battered cards after a full day, a full week, but I’m not so dull as to miss the blessing of all five of us–in a no device zone—together. We play our game at the kitchen table, where gloss has given way to flecks of paint and glitter and memories of creativity, and random knicks interrupt the natural meandering of the woodgrain. I’m forever jabbing a fingernail at a curl of dried glue.
Adam reluctantly folds his legs beneath his chair at the head of the table. I don’t know when he started sitting there or why at the time it made sense, but now we’d all just feel disorganized if he sat anywhere else. He doesn’t want to play tonight. We’re interrupting a personal reverie, and he feels no need to hide it. Adam never hides what he feels—not impatience, not worry, not fear, not weakness, and that’s something I find refreshing, even in the midst of teaching him to have some sensitivity about how he says things. He leans over to get a closer look at the way the cards stack up in Riley’s hands, to listen to her counting shuffles in that routine way that pleases him, and even though I can see that he’d rather be somewhere else, he keeps his own counsel until I sit down in the chair next to him.
“First Uno, and then upstairs,” he says to me, the words settling deep and quiet.
Riley sighs, because his complaints cast a shadow over her enthusiasm. She loves this game.
“Yes, Adam,” I say, leaning toward him to make sure I have his eyes. “We’re going to play Uno and then you can go upstairs.”
“One Uno,” he says, lifting a finger up from the table.
“Adam, stop complaining,” Riley says, “I don’t like it when you complain.”
I can’t help but smile, because there’s nothing about the words he’s saying that could technically be evaluated as a complaint. But it’s the root of the discussion that Riley has already uncovered and addresses, because she understands him better than all of the rest of us.
“He’s okay,” I tell her, meeting her gaze across the table. “I’ll talk to him. You just deal the cards and don’t let him get to you.”
“It’s probably going to be a few games,” I say, turning back to my son, reaching out to smooth the knot between his eyebrows with my thumb. “We’ll play until 8:00.”
In response, he touches for my ear, flicking it with his fingers. He looks down at his watch, and that knot on his forehead deepens. “No 8:00,” he says darkly, which causes Riley to stop shuffling.
“Please, Adam,” she says, glancing at him as she begins dealing cards—1-1-1-1-1, 2-2-2-2-2—around the table. Please, she says, and he glances at me and falls silent. Riley slides a card toward Zoe a little too forcefully, and it flips, tumbling toward the edge of the table, a blue 6.
“Thanks a lot,” Zoe says, twisting a long ribbon of blond hair around one finger, turning the card down again with a smack.
Adam leans closer to me. “First Uno and then finished,” he says, but low, almost just a breath.
Even so, Riley hears better than anyone else I know, and she sighs, pausing mid-deal to look at him.
Each time Riley gives Adam a new card, he turns it face-up in front of him, literally lays all of his cards out on the table in a bold row. It’s how he lives, after all—nothing hidden, nothing reserved. It’s funny the comparison, the rest of us staring down at all of his cards while we set our own closely guarded hoardes in order in our hands. I can’t help but chuckle—to which Riley immediately says, “What?”
Adam straightens out a wild card with his fingers, settling it evenly in line with his other cards, a random, blue-heavy rainbow. It took us such a long time to teach Adam to play this game, to understand that the object is to lose everything. It’s our natural inclination as human beings to find gathering, collecting, and saving the more satisfying activities, especially in competition. And wild cards—well, those became the puzzle we could not explain to him. Adam quickly figured that wacky card worked when you ran out of other options, but it took us months to convince him that actually changing the color in play could be worthwhile. He would play a wild card, and then declare again the color he’d just used up, the color that put him at a disadvantage. He didn’t seem to understand or care that this strategy would net him nothing more than additional cards on his next turn. It was a sure way to lose every hand. I would stop him, placing my hand on his wrist, and ask him to be sure: “Which color? Red? Blue? Green? Or, Yellow? I would say them all, just to be sure Adam knew that he had options.
“No, change the color to something you have,” Kevin would say, waving an extended finger at the lines of cards we could all so clearly see, “like red.”
But still, Adam would repeatedly declare the name of the color that had landed him in this situation to begin with, no matter how we posed the question. It was as though winning the game hardly mattered to him, and yet he did win, and more often than the rest of us.
Still, we considered it a milestone reached the day that Adam played his wild card and actually scanned the cards in front of him, naming a color that gave him an advantage. We clapped and fist-bumped and congratulated him on his prowess. But that’s not the end of the story of course, because once Adam figures out how we all operate he always re-evaluates what he wants to do. He is not one to subscribe to a crowd mentality.
Kevin and I exchange a glance as the game begins, as Adam relaxes and Zoe tosses quips with her cards, and Riley reminds each of us in turn that we’re “up” to play. Within a few cycles, Adam has depleted his cards to two, and I’m beginning to wonder if Riley’s shuffling actually mixed any of the cards up at all. It seems a bit too easy, and we’re finishing far too quickly to even come close to the one Uno Adam stipulated. A few games like this and we’ll be playing six or eight hands before we’re done. And then. And then Adam plays his wild card and does something I’ve never seen him do before: He leans over and looks at Riley’s cards.
“Hey, Adam’s looking at my cards,” Riley says, but she makes no move to hide, not even the slightest gesture aimed at covering. Has Adam managed to learn to strategize all the way to cheating? I open my mouth to tell him to stop looking, that it’s not right, but before I can say the first word, he declares a color—yellow.
And Riley smiles. “Hey, that’s a good color, Adam,” she says.
Wait. “Riley, do you have yellow cards?”
She nods. “Mmmhmm, I have a lot of yellow cards.”
“Uno,” Adam says, but of course we can see, and the color of his card is green.
“Umm, don’t you want to pick green, Adam?” I ask him, gesturing toward his card.
He looks at me, and there’s nothing soft at all about the way he holds my gaze. “Yellow.”
“You’ll probably win,” Kevin says, trying again. “You’ve got Uno.”
“Yellow,” Adam says, flicking one more gaze back behind Riley’s wall of cards. He settles back in his chair, lifting a long arm to touch his sister’s ear. I know what he’s waiting for. He wants her to laugh; he loves it when she laughs. In fact, nothing makes him smile as much as that sound.
“I know, Adam, I’m right here,” she says, acknowledging their abiding friendship without looking up again from her cards, and Kevin and I just look at each other, sharing a silent discourse. Adam plays to lose, he always has. But somehow he almost always wins. He does all the things no self-respecting Uno player should ever do:
- he lays all of his cards right out on the table
- he shows no anxiety or irritation when a move is made against him,
- and now—now he picks what’s best for Riley right when he’s about to win the game.
In the moment of his surest advantage, Adam makes the choice that is best for her instead of the one that is best for himself. It reminds us of Someone—the Savior we want to follow, to reflect. In God’s economy, playing to lose everything has always been the only way to Win. Word says,
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
So, if we mean to reflect Him, shouldn’t that change how we “play the game?”
I’m challenged. The implications settle over our hearts as we take our turns and Riley straightens the stack and Kevin puts a card on crooked just to watch her do it; as Adam giggles and plays to lose; and Zoe lapses into purposeful theatrics:
What does it mean to embrace the fact that real victory involves real sacrifice?
What does it look like to choose to live with real transparency?
How do things change if we choose not to be easily offended or gracelessly critical?
And what will it mean to this world if we choose to follow the example Jesus Christ set before us, and in our moment of surest advantage, we choose to sacrifice self–as He did–so that someone else might gain the victory?
All that Kevin and I can do is smile at each other over shared glances as the game finishes and Riley wins, lifting her arms, and Adam arranges our cards in rows and tallys her score.
Because the thing is: We thought we were teaching him how to play the game.