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Book Excerpt - Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion

In this extract from game designer David Sirlin's book, the author advocates 'self-improvement through competitive gaming' - applying Sun Tzu's 'Art Of War' to gaming principles with intriguing results.

David Sirlin, Blogger

September 7, 2006

22 Min Read

The following is an excerpt from David Sirlin’s 'Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion', a book about self-improvement through competitive gaming, which is available online via Lulu.com or Amazon.com. Printed here are the prologue and introduction, followed by a later section that introduces the connection between Sun Tzu’s Art of War and modern day competitive gaming. Finally, we bring you a section about Presence of Mind so that you will keep your head about you even in high pressure situations.


It cannot be found by seeking, but only seekers shall find it.
—Sufi Proverb

Imagine a majestic mountain nirvana of gaming. At its peak are fulfillment, “fun,” and even transcendence. Most people could care less about this mountain peak because they have other life issues that are more important to them, and other peaks to pursue. There are a few, though, who are not at this peak, but who would be very happy there. These are the people I’m talking to with this book. Some of them don’t need any help; they’re on the journey. Most, though, only believe they are on that journey but actually are not. They got stuck in a chasm at the mountain’s base, a land of scrubdom. Here they are imprisoned in their own mental constructs of made-up game rules. If they could only cross this chasm, they would discover either a very boring plateau (for a degenerate game) or the heavenly enchanted mountain peak (for a “deep” game). In the former case, crossing the chasm would teach them to find a different mountain with more fulfilling rewards. In the latter case, well, they’d just be happier. “Playing to win” is largely the process of shedding the mental constructs that trap players in the chasm who would be happier at the mountain peak.

A lot of people get rubbed the wrong way by this stuff because they think I want to apply “playing to win” to everyone. I don’t. It’s not that I think everyone should be on this particular peak or that everyone would even want to be. There are other peaks in life, probably better ones. But those who are stuck in the chasm really should know their positions and how to reach a happier place.

Then, there is the age-old question of how much, if any of this, applies to real life. I start out by defining the big differences between real life and games: games are sharply defined by rules; life is not. Exploring extreme “corner cases” of a game is what high-level play is about. Exploring extreme situations in life can easily be socially unacceptable, morally wrong, and illegal. Competitive games require military virtues: immediacy, emergency tactics, and the end (winning) justifies the means (as long as it’s through moves the game defines as legal). Real life requires civic virtues like kindness, understanding, justice, and mercy.

And yet Playing to Win has valuable life lessons to teach that go beyond the scope of games. Before we’re ready to talk about that, though, it’s time to start winning.


I am here to teach you to win.

Playing to win is the most important and most widely misunderstood concept in all of competitive games. The sad irony is that those who do not already understand the implications I will spell out will probably not believe them to be true at all. In fact, if I were to send this book back in time to my earlier self, even I would have trouble with it. Apparently, these concepts are something one must come to learn through experience, though I hope at least some of you will take my word for it.

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
—Douglas Adams,
Last Chance to See

Why Win at Games?

The great thing about competitive, zero-sum games is that they offer an objective measure of your progress. When you walk the path of continuous self-improvement that a champion must walk, you have a guide. If you are able to win more (that is, more consistently defeat highly skilled players), then you are improving. If not, then not. Imagine trying to measure your success in other forms of life such as your personal life or career. Are you improving or not? To answer that, you have to know exactly what is included within the scope of the “game” and what is not. What are all the factors that go into your professional life? It’s very hard to answer. Even if you did have an answer and created a measure of your progress, others would not agree on your standards. Not to say that the opinion of others is important in your measure of success, but the opinion of others does “keep you honest.” Left to your own definitions, you could (and perhaps subconsciously would) define the scope of your game in a contrived way so as to appear to be doing well at it (or poorly at it). It would just be an exercise in determining whether you are an optimistic or a pessimistic person.

Games are different. The very nature of a game is that it is a collection of rules agreed upon by all players. If players don’t agree on the rules, then they are not even playing the same game. The rules define exactly what is inside the game and what is outside. The rules define which moves are legal and which moves are not. The rules define what constitutes winning, what constitutes losing, and what constitutes a draw. There’s no weaseling out of defeat by redefining what the game is. The game should need no redefining, and a loss is a loss.

In pursing the path of winning, you are likely to learn that concentrating merely on beating the opponent is not enough. In the long run, you will have to improve yourself always, or you will be surpassed. The actual conflict appears to be between you and the opponents, but the best way to win is to bring to the table a mastery of playing to win and a mastery of the game at hand. These things are developed within you and are revealed to others only during conflict.

You never truly know a man . . . until you fight him.
—Seraph, The Matrix: Reloaded

[And now from much later in the book…]

Introduction to The Art of War

Up to this point, I have told you almost nothing about how to actually play. I have so far covered mainly the mindset you need to take into a game, not the tactics and strategies employed during a game. On this delicate subject, I will not even pretend to have unique authority, for it has been covered many times before me by more distinguished authors. Perhaps no author has ever explained it better than the military general, Sun Tzu.

Twenty-five centuries ago in China, Sun Tzu wrote a little manual called The Art of War. In the 2,500 years since that time, countless authors have tackled the subject of war, and wars unnumbered have been waged, yet still Sun Tzu’s words have unnerving relevance. Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book of strategic and tactical doctrine was a nearly word-for-word recounting of The Art of War. It’s rumored that Napoleon’s secret weapon during his conquest of Europe was none other than Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Even David Sirlin’s manual of competitive gaming Playing to Win is said to draw heavily from The Art of War.

The chapters that follow in this book are my retelling and interpretation of that great work. I have condensed his thirteen chapters to seven, joined together similar material, omitted some topics, and added two chapters of my own. I explore how his tactics of military conduct apply to playing competitive games today, and provide examples from several games. I have taken great liberties on a few subjects such as the use of spies, but overall, the application of his concepts is quite direct.

Take, for example, Sun Tzu’s five essentials for victory:

  • He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

  • He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.

  • He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.

  • He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.

  • He will win who has military capacity, and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

Now consider the application to competitive games of today. First we have “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.” If, in a game, you are temporarily at a disadvantage, then you should stall until you can change the situation. Capcom vs. SNK 2 is a fighting game that allows players to store resources in a “super meter” and then activate this meter. Once activated, the resources give that player a big advantage, but only until his meter ticks down to zero over time. The opponent is well advised to avoid all fighting until the opponent’s advantage fades away. In a real-time strategy game such as Warcraft or StarCraft, opponents often gain momentary advantages of terrain, or concentration of troops, or even of the day/night cycle of the game. Don’t engage the enemy in fighting if delaying will allow you to find more favorable terrain, or gather your troops, or wait until a different point in the day/night cycle. Run away from a fight if you can simply wait for your disadvantages to fade.

Then we have “He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.” You must often employ different tactics when winning than when losing. When losing badly, you are often forced to choose only from high-risk options that have big enough payoffs to put you back into the game. When you are down several pieces in chess, you can no longer afford to grind the opponent down slowly, trading piece for piece. The further behind you are, the more imperative it becomes to find that bold combination that traps the enemy king directly. On the other hand, if you are winning by a huge amount in a fighting game, you would be wise to restrict yourself to unusually safe moves, giving the opponent no chance to come back. When the opponent is extremely low on life, even your quickest jab is as deadly as a powerful, slow attack that would leave you vulnerable. Relying on low risk moves is totally viable when you are in the powerful position of “almost winning.”

“He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.” What Sun Tzu means is that the intent of the general must be carried out by officers and then soldiers, exactly as envisioned. The strategy is wasted if it cannot be executed properly. In a sense, your mind and your body must be “animated by the same spirit” while playing. You must have the dexterity and coordination to physically carry out whatever course of action your mind believes is best. From micromanaging combat units in a battle in Warcraft to executing a skillful backhand in tennis, to hitting your target with the rocket in Quake, to landing that difficult combo in Street Fighter, you must be able to execute your moves precisely.

And then “He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.” This is closely related to the first of the five points. Advantages shift over the course of a game, and it is the wise player who puts himself beyond the possibility of defeat and waits for the enemy to make a fatal mistake, or at least waits for advantages to shift favorably before attacking.

For example, in the first-person shooter Counter-Strike, the players on the “terrorist” team must plant a bomb at one of two bomb sites on the map. The players on the “counter-terrorist” team must stop this from happening. The counter-terrorists can take up defensive positions using cover and protected snipers. When they have an iron defense in place, there is no need for them to scramble around the map looking for the enemy. If the terrorists do not plant the bomb before the match’s time limit is up, the counter-terrorists win. In this advantageous situation, the counter-terrorists can just wait for the terrorists to attack. The terrorists, on the other hand, need to shake up this situation before they can successfully strike. Two basic ways of doing this are to attack the bomb site that is underdefended, forcing the counter-terrorists to call for backup, or to use grenades (high-explosive, flashbangs, or smoke bombs) to cause a brief period of chaos and confusion in the enemy ranks.

Or from chess:

I was surprised to see that Capablanca did not initiate any active maneuvers and instead adopted a waiting game. In the end, his opponent made an imprecise move; the Cuban won a second pawn and soon the game. “Why didn’t you try to convert your material advantage straight away?” I ventured to ask the great chess virtuoso. He smiled indulgently. “It was more practical to wait.”

—Mikhail Botvinnik, 6th World Chess Champion

And finally the most interesting point: “He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.” Sun Tzu talks about the difference between civic virtues and military virtues. Humanity and justice are virtues of the state, but not of the army, he says. The army must be opportunistic and flexible. The state has principles to live by and precedents to set, but war is fierce and urgent. If you wish to win in battle, you must do immediately whatever is practical and effective.

This is the entire point of Playing to Win. Do not be interfered with by the sovereign. If you wish to win, do not play to be looked up to and admired. Do not play to make a statement about this move or that tactic. Do not play to avoid being called “cheap.” Do not play to make friends with your opponent. Being friends with him is a civic virtue that you should indulge in after the match. During the match, you must harass him, annoy him, anger him, counter him at every turn, and surprise him when he is unaware. You must crush him. If you want to win, then don’t do it with one hand behind your back just because forces outside the game compel you to. Inside the game, there are only military virtues. If you want to win, then play to win.

[And now from even later in the book…]

Presence of Mind

Presence of Mind is the ability to see all the moments of a short-lived situation as they go by, often accompanied by the sensation that time has slowed down. This is possible when the situation has grown familiar to you and your brain is able to filter out all the unnecessary elements leaving only a few simple cues.

When you step into a new, unfamiliar game, critical moments will pass you by in the blink of an eye. At first, you won’t even know that these moments mattered, that you were supposed to be paying attention during them. Even when you do know, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the millions of things that might occur can cause that moment to flicker by and you won’t have that feeling of total awareness. The change comes when your mind is fully ready to accept the moments ahead. You know they are coming (because you recognize the pattern of events leading to them), you know that only a very few things could possibly happen during them, and you are able to filter out everything except the one or two cues that you’re waiting for.

Let’s take the fighting game Guilty Gear XX as an example, using my character Chipp. I run at you and force you to block my attack sequence (you’ll block it crouching). One trick I can use is to sneak in an “overhead” kick that you’ll have to stand up to block. If you are unfamiliar with Chipp, then my whole attack sequence will go by in a flash. You will be waiting for it to be over so you can do something again, and you don’t even realize that a decision is required of you before my sequence ends.

Now let’s say I show you this so-called overhead kick beforehand so you know exactly what it looks like. Anytime you see it, I tell you to block high. We practice this and you are able to do it. Now we play a real game, and I can probably still hit you with it. It’s quite a task for you to sort through the chaos of a real match and actually see that kick. For all you know, it could come at any moment, which makes it difficult to mentally prepare for it. I think you probably could block this without trouble if you have good reaction times, but fighting games (and most competitive games) are not ultimately about reaction times, contrary to popular belief. One time they do come in handy, though, is when you are put in a situation where any of a thousand things could happen, and you have to detect a certain one and react to it instantly. Yomi [the ability to know the mind of the opponent] is useful here (if you have some basis to predict which of the thousand things the opponent might do), but lacking that, you are left with reaction times.

Now I will tell you the crucial information you need to block the overhead kick. I cannot do it any time I want; there are only two ways I can do the kick. When I run at you, I will start with a few moves such as f+p, slash, slash, heavy slash. You don’t need to care about these, really, and if they seem to go by in a blur, that’s fine. At this point, my options become much more limited, and one of the few things I can do is my “fire punch” series. It starts off with a distinctive looking, well, “fire punch.” After that I have the option to do the overhead kick. If I don’t, I can instead do a low kick. After the low kick, I have another chance to do the overhead kick. Those are the only two times I can ever do the overhead kick.

Now you can develop your Presence of Mind in this situation. I run at you and do some punches you don’t really have to scrutinize. But you know that I usually do a fire punch after that. You are totally ready to see that fire punch and you already know it’s likely you’ll have to make a decision about blocking high or low soon. Ahh, there’s the fire punch, right on schedule. Now you know I have my first chance to do the overhead kick. For all practical purposes, I have only two options. Your mind isn’t spinning with the multitude of options you’re faced with. You are totally focused on this one upcoming moment. You’re waiting for it. You’re tuning out all the extraneous information on the screen. Forget our health meters. Forget our super meters. Forget the sound effects. Forget the fancy graphics of our characters, and the pretty backgrounds behind them. The only thing you need to see is the start of that overhead kick. In time, this situation becomes so familiar, and your ability to filter out the extraneous stimuli becomes so good that you can’t even imagine getting hit by this kick. The moment will seem to go by in slow motion, and it will even be amusing to you that the opponent could ever think he’d hit you with this move. Meanwhile, the beginner saw this moment go by in a flash and is oblivious to all these moments.

An analogy would be if I told you to clap your hands when you heard the voice of a certain person. I then put you in a room with thirty people all talking over each other. Every couple of seconds someone new is speaking, but it’s all a cacophony and you can’t imagine being able to make heads or tails of anything. Now, I give you the same task in a totally silent room with only the one particular person in it. Total silence . . . then the person speaks. You would think, “This is so easy, how could anyone possibly fail at this task?” You’d then clap your hands at the right time without any trouble. That is exactly how the expert player sees that 1/60th of a second go by when he has total concentration on the moment and is able to filter out everything but the single relevant clue.

Another example. In Virtua Fighter 3, if Jeffry lands a “major counter” low kick on the opponent (meaning he knocks the opponent out of a move) then he can get a guaranteed throw on them. If the low kick doesn’t major counter, he can’t get a guaranteed throw. When I first asked other players how they know when they can get the throw, they told me, “Just listen for the sound of the major counter. If you hear it, then enter the throw command.” I thought they must be joking at first. It seemed too difficult to cut through all the chaos of a match and hear that one sound. But eventually, when I pressed the button to do the low kick, everything slowed down in anticipation of that one sound. When I heard it, I was so fully ready for it that entering the throw command in time was ridiculously easy.

The first thing to take away is that if you have command over seeing the moments in all sorts of situations that your opponents don’t, then you have a huge advantage. You’ll land your tricks on them all day, and you’ll start to believe that your tricks are good. When you finally meet an opponent who has the same Presence of Mind as you, he will think to himself “Who is this guy kidding with his obvious tricks?” You will feel a little silly, and your tricks might no longer work.

But there is a level of understanding even above that one. Once you meet the expert, can you no longer do your “Presence of Mind tricks?” I used to think that you basically couldn’t, and that you had to develop entirely different tactics. But then I noticed one player in particular who is unquestionably one of the best there is, and he often does things that are strictly terrible ideas in a textbook analysis. (His name is Alex Valle, and I’ll mention him again later.) He does sequence A when we all know that sequence B is strictly better. He does trick X when we all know that everyone decent can see trick X coming every time you do it, so it’s a waste of time to do it. But he does it, he hits with it, and he wins. Why?

Valle does not accept the notion that his opponent has a fixed, unchanging ability to see the moments. Valle does everything he can to fluster and confuse the opponent, reducing the opponent’s ability to see the moments. If something really weird happens in a game, the player can be caught in a moment of “what the hell was that?” and he’s momentarily blind to the passing moments. During this time, he might get hit by something he’d ordinarily see every time. Valle makes you lose focus and lose that sense of time slowing down.

It’s interesting to see how effective abandoning the textbook play really is for Valle. Not only is he able to sneak in things that should never work once the enemy is “blinded to the moments,” but in order to blind them in the first place, he has to do weird stuff that confuses and hypnotizes the enemy. If you analyzed his choices on paper, you would say “this move is unsafe, this other move does nothing, this sequence is totally inefficient compared to this other one that always does more damage.” His choices are often seemingly illogical and suboptimal, but he is the master and I am the student, not the other way around. When you are facing high level opponents who are more skilled at seeing the moments than anyone you have ever faced, it becomes that much more important to break out of the textbook mold and throw some figurative sand in their eyes. If you can blind them to the moments they would normally see, you then have access to the large repertoire of intermediate moves and tactics that you thought you couldn’t use on the experts.

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.

—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

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About the Author(s)

David Sirlin


David Sirlin (www.sirlin.net) is currently a Producer / Game Designer at Backbone Entertainment. He's a multiple-time national Street Fighter tournament champion, author of the book Playing to Win, co-organizer of the Evolution Fighting Game Championships national tournament series, past member of Street Fighter Team USA (representing America at an annual international tournament held in Japan), and one of the main subjects of Bang the Machine (a documentary film about the competitive Street Fighter scene). He also did a two-year stint in the World of Warcraft.

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