“It’s not a rule. It’s sportsmanship.”
So instructs Mr. Shaibel, the custodian who introduces chess to orphan Beth Harmon in the Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit (Scott Frank, Allan Scott, 2020). The nine-year-old Beth knows how the chess pieces move, but not the game’s nuances, the unwritten rules. So when Mr. Shaibel takes Beth’s queen within a few moves, she doesn’t understand why he abruptly ends the game, instead of playing until the inevitable conclusion. “You resign now,” the taciturn teacher says.
As a novice, Beth didn’t understand what “resigning” meant. Neither did I. (I’m more of a cribbage guy myself.) Apparently, to “resign” in chess is to concede defeat; when you realize you are absolutely going to lose, that checkmate is unavoidable — even if it’s 20 moves away — you lay and end the game with a congratulatory handshake. Continuing to play is not only a waste of everyone’s time, it’s disrespectful toward your opponent because you are refusing to acknowledge their superior skills.
This scene in
The Queen’s Gambit highlights the fine line all coaches walk when it comes to sports versus sportsmanship. Let’s face it: in sports, winning is pretty darn important. No team goes into a game or season hoping to lose. So coaches need to teach young players not only the skills to win but also the will to win. Play until the end. Never accept defeat. Or, as Jason Nesmith, Tim Allen’s character in Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot, 1999), is fond of saying, “Never give up! Never surrender.”
That is until you are defeated. That’s when sportsmanship — learning how to lose with dignity and class — comes in.
If sports is about playing to the best of your ability and competing as if the activity is more than just a game, then sportsmanship is the ability to say, “You know what? It’s just a game.” Put another way: never give up… until the moment when not giving up makes you look like a sore loser and kind of a tool. Then give up, graciously.
The Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975) exemplifies this perseverance paradox. (Honestly, is there a life lesson we can’t learn from this film?) In this famous scene, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) invites the masked Black Knight (John Cleese) to join his court at Camelot. “I seek the finest and bravest in the land,” says Arthur. Instead, Black Knight decides to pick a fight — an act of hubris that proves costly, as Arthur slices off the knight’s arms and legs with his sword.
During the encounter, the beleaguered king repeatedly implores his opponent to concede, “You are indeed brave, Sir Knight, but the fight is mine”, but the Black Knight is in complete denial of his inevitable defeat, dismissing his severed limbs as “but a scratch” and “just a flesh wound”. Finally, it’s Arthur who shows sportsmanship by telling the armless and legless Black Knight, “We’ll call it a draw.”
Are we meant to admire the Black Knight’s “never say die” attitude in this scene? Of course not. His stubbornness is played for laughs. His refusal to back down doesn’t make him a hero, but rather, as Arthur says, a “loony”. In this way, the Black Knight joins other tragic figures — from Ahab to Gatsby to Macbeth — who remind us that going gently into that good night isn’t always a bad thing; in fact, many times when you lose, you win.
For one thing, winnable losers — ones who try their hardest but still come up short, then accept defeat instead of making excuses — inspire sympathy. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa character in the Rocky films “goes the distance” but loses his first fight against Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed. In Milos Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) brags he can lift a heavy sink (a computer panel in the novel) but ultimately isn’t strong enough. But we don’t consider Rocky or McMurphy “losers”. If anything, their failures help viewers relate to them. Most of us lose more than we win.
Also, there’s nothing particularly interesting or compelling about a character who wins all the time. The storytellers behind the scenes of professional wrestling especially understand this: for years, World Wrestling Entertainment pushed John Cena as their top guy. He beat everyone, and that’s why people loved him. Of course, that’s also why people hated him. For years, half the audience would chant, “Let’s go Cena!” while the other half-chanted, just as ardently, “Cena Sucks!” For this latter group, Cena was too invincible, too unbeatable, and thus, too one-dimensional.
Finally, in losing, we gain insight. When we suffer a loss, we have to take a hard look — not only at ourselves and our shortcomings but at the world and how it works. I’m reminded of the chorus of that Bob Seger song about a loveable also-ran: “Beautiful loser/ read it on the wall/ and realize you just can’t have it all.” That moment in a child’s life when he realizes he can’t “have it all”, that his hard work doesn’t always equate to success, that bad guys sometimes come out on top? That’s the loss of innocence, and that moment is tough. But it’s also beautiful because that’s precisely when true growth begins.
I wonder if the folks behind the Common App — the popular online college admission application form — were inspired by Seger’s song a few years ago when they started including a “failure” question as an essay prompt. From the 2020-21 Common App: “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” Apparently, college admissions officers know the truth most sore losers won’t accept: Big Game Victories are sweet, but you learn more about yourself from Big Game Defeats… if you’re willing to bury your ego and do the necessary introspection.
Of course, even if your ego won’t permit you to learn many life lessons, you can still find a silver lining in graciously admitting defeat: you only have to lose once. That’s what Trump, the sorest of sore losers, never figured out. The 2020 US Presidential Election loss so devastated him that he just pretended it didn’t happen and kept fighting, by filing lawsuit after baseless lawsuit. Essentially, by refusing to acknowledge the obvious, he became the White House equivalent of Monty Python’s Black Knight. His relentless quest for victory only guaranteed that he’d keep losing, over and over and over.
Moreover, Trump’s refusal to admit defeat had fatal consequences. During the speech he gave at his infamous “Stop the Steal” rally on 6 January 2021, Trump once again told his rabid followers, “We will never give up, we will never concede.” Not long after that, rioters breached the Capitol in an insurrection that left five people dead and a nation aghast.
Perhaps, if Trump had only conceded in November, not only could all this carnage have been avoided, but he could have left Office with at least a little dignity, instead of slinking away with two impeachments on his record as well as a historically low approval rating.
Indeed, Trump should have taken a cue from his old pal George Steinbrenner. Here’s the story: in October 2004, Game Seven of the American League Championship Series saw the Boston Red Sox beat the New York Yankees to advance to the World Series. The Red Sox lost the first three games of the series yet somehow fought back. At the completion of Game Seven, played at Yankees Stadium, Sox fans lingered in the stands and sang, “Thank you, Red Sox!” This allegedly infuriated members of the Yankees organization, who — according to Mike Vaccaro’s 2005 book Emperors and Idiots –– went to Steinbrenner’s office to complain. Steinbrenner’s response? “Keep the lights on for them as long as they want to stay. They earned it.”