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The Player’s Illusion

The player at games of skill is always tempted to attribute to himself a capacity superior to his real power.

Such is the theorem advanced in a curious study, half psychological and half algebraic, by an Algerian engineer, Monsieur V. Cornetz. The player’s desire to win, the recollection of his past successes, his confidence in himself, necessarily cause him, at a given moment, to think himself stronger than he really is. So that, if he wins, he is not surprised; but if he loses, he will tell himself: “I could have done better; I didn’t do my best, I didn’t concentrate all my attention.” For such an estimate of himself to be just, it would be necessary for the player to base the idea of his strength not only upon the average of his previous victories, but also of his defeats. Self-conceit, however, prevents unsuccessful contests from coming to his mind to counterbalance the remembrance of his winnings. It comes about, then, that the player constantly overrates himself, and in all good faith. Whatever be his character, he is never tempted to attribute to himself a value less than his real worth. The modesty of certain players is all upon the surface and the mistrust of themselves, which they proclaim, is transformed into excessive confidence as soon as the game has begun. A player is a man who always compares himself to other men. He judges himself, not as an individual independent of his surroundings, but under the pressure of a vanity that is ever egged on by the presence of rival vanities. The moment two such vanities clash, each of necessity seeks victory, and begins by attributing to itself, without the least regard for reality, the strength necessary for success. To accept the combat is in itself, is it not, to believe that one is the stronger?

Monsieur Cornetz deals particularly with the chess-player, but his observations, as he himself says in his preface, are applicable to all games that are not purely games of chance, and even to athletic contests, fencing matches, and one might add, military operations, even of the most serious nature. To wage battle is to play a game. This psychology of the player is also that of the general. How many battles have been lost because the general overestimated himself. How many governments even have fallen because they were abandoned to the illusions of their self-conceit! Does not Napoleon III gayly setting out for the frontier provide the spectacle par excellence of the player who overrates himself? There is no such thing as a disinterested contest; the dullest game of cards excites in the opponents a certain desire to win. The very persons who boasted of their entire detachment are often the most eager to win once the game has started; they enter into it excitedly and when worsted keep watching for a favorable opening. Those players who believe that they play the game for the sole interest of its combinations, its emotions, are then, admitting their good faith, the victims of an illusion: they judge themselves to be other than they are. This is a rather common attitude in life. We all of us believe ourselves more or less to be other than we really are; so much so that an ingenious philosopher, M. Jules de Gaultier, has created a special term by which to denominate this universal penchant. He calls it Bovarysm, referring to the heroine of Flaubert’s novel, who thought herself a grande amoureuse when she was really nothing but a poor little sick woman. The player who pretends that he plays without any interest in victory is afflicted with Bovarysm. But perhaps he is also intent upon shielding his self-conceit in case of failure. Beaten, he will vow that he had as good a time as if he had won. This is a manner of self-consolation that does not lack a certain elegance. The fox who found the grapes too sour has furnished us with a charming example of this disdainful attitude. M. Cornetz has seen, in Algiers, on an old Arabian chess-board, this motto: “The loser always has his excuse.” The basis of these excuses is this: “I should have played otherwise. If I had used such and such a pawn, or queen, or card, I would doubtless have won.” Who has not been present at those post mortems where the players forget only this, that they know, at the moment of discussion, things that they did not know while the game was in full swing? The truth is that at a given moment, when one is seriously playing the game, one is playing as well as he can, no more and no less. The loser has an excuse; very well. But it is precisely because he is the loser. The winner needs none. To be winner is a fact; to be loser is another. There is in facts a logic, and the reason of the strongest is always the best. To believe, when one has been beaten, that one might not have been, is by that very fact to suppose that one might, at that moment, have been another person, which is absurd. But perhaps this illusion is due to inevitable causes. The chief point is, as I have already said, that at the moment when we have been beaten we recall, not our former defeats, but rather our former victories, and the victories only. We attribute to ourselves a general capability, a capability that is a matter of principle, and which may not be shaken by an accidental momentary inferiority. It never occurs to us, “our vanity prevents it,” that our real worth is probably but a fairly equitable composite of equally accidental inferiorities and superiorities. The balance will always incline toward the side of our self-conceit.

It should be recognized that, if this illusion of our self-conceit has its great inconveniences, if it vitiates our critical judgment, not only of ourselves but of others, if it betrays us into false estimates, it possesses, on the other hand, great advantages. “The illusion that accompanies man in the course of his life,” says M. Cometz, “is a necessary condition of existence, a precious product of the vital instinct.” The man who overestimates himself is also he who is capable of surpassing himself. It is necessary, in this great game of life, to have confidence in oneself. If one estimated oneself only at his proper value, one would not estimate himself sufficiently. If we did not grant to ourselves a power superior to our real power, we would never dare to undertake the impossible; now it is perhaps only the impossible that is worthy of being undertaken. From the purely practical point of view, if the end to be attained were not embellished by illusion, would we ever set about the task? It is well for a man, after a game of chess, to be able to say in all simplicity: “I could have played otherwise.” That is not true, of course, but it may create in the future a great truth. Error is a great generator of truths. The truth of today has its root in the error of yesterday. Illusions have often created real powers. “You could do better,” says the teacher to his pupil. He thus implants in the child’s mind a belief, an idea which will at once engender a hope, and in the future, a force. Then let us not scoff too gayly at the player who has such firm confidence in himself. Doubtless this selfsame confidence will lead him to accept unequal battles in which he will be worsted; but it will happen also that he will emerge victor from struggles into which he would not have dared to venture had not beneficent illusion considerably magnified in his eyes his real capacity. And finally, it happens in many cases that the real worth of a person coincides with the estimate placed upon him by his self-conceit. One need not trust to it too much; it’s only a matter of a game. On the other hand one need not on that account fear to repeat the old proverb: “Nothing venture, nothing have.” All languages of the world have similar proverbs. This helps to show that all peoples have recognized that certain efforts are impossible without certain illusions, and that, of all principles of action, the most powerful and the most fruitful is still self-confidence.

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