When I checked in at the lobby of the Manhattan address I’d been given, the doorman greeted me: “Oh, you must be here to play Othello.” I was looking for Vlad Petric, director of the Silvia Petric Memorial – U.S. National Othello Championship.
Foxy met me at the door. I had learned from Facebook that he was looking forward to serving as the official mascot of the tournament. Vlad mentioned to me that he could be rather unfriendly to strangers, but it didn’t seem that way to me at all. In my view Foxy was just doing his job; his serious demeanor was rooted in a preference for keeping things professional.
I wasn’t a member of the U.S. Othello Association, but no one minded that. In the play area, tables were set up, time clocks and charts were readied, I was shown where to sit, and we began. Despite its being Saturday morning there was construction going on across the street, but everyone persevered without much complaint.
Quite a lot of food was laid out as time went on: cold cuts, bread, eggs, peanut butter, and some delicious carrot soup. After playing, much to my delight, I was introduced to Korean soju!
I had just started playing Othello again, a month or two before: this well-known, widely available, and quite inexpensive game. It was so easy to learn and play: in person, online, or on downloadable apps. And on top of that, it could be finished in less than half an hour. I’d loved it as a kid, and had wondered why I ever stopped playing it.
Since I had no satisfactory answer, and came across the news of an upcoming tournament in New York City, I started practicing.
I quickly tired of just playing a computer. While I was sure that I could learn enough that way to improve my skill over time, I wanted to play Othello with people. In the past, I’d actually found the game to be a good social experience.
I know that seems counterintuitive. How often is a “good social experience” centered on a game that’s not only limited to just two players, but also so often played in silence? I’d expected that most of the people here would be centered entirely on the Othello games. But there was a lot of great conversation, and I can honestly say I still would have enjoyed myself just hanging around with them. (Of course I was even more fortunate to play with these Othello giants.)
So I did what any gamer who likes math would do: construct a theory. And here it is! While Othello is a “zero sum” game, it requires balancing your dramatic, aggressive moves with less exciting, “quieter” ones . . . the same way socialization requires balancing our extraverted and introverted impulses; or maybe even, the same way confrontation requires balancing courage versus caution. There is an undeniable “give and take” feeling to the game, even when you’re being slaughtered.
Now let’s talk about the giants! There were David Rockwell and Robert Bishop, both of whom are on the council of the United States Othello Association; and the formidable Rose dynasty of Joseph Rose, Yoko Rose, and Brian Rose (who became the World Champion of 2001 after being the runner-up in Copenhagen the year before, and in Brussels back in 1981). He’s also the author of the free e-book Othello: A Minute to Learn . . . A Lifetime to Master. This amazing resource includes puzzles, exercises, and a lot of valuable guidance. A link to download it was posted in Ben Seeley’s entry on the USOA’s blog page dated January 12, 2017. Brian not only downloaded this to my phone for me, but also several useful practice apps.
So how’d I do?
In my first few games, I had to be frequently reminded to hit my timer. And since I also occasionally forgot to make a record of where I laid my tiles down each turn, I don’t have many details of my first match, other than its final score: my opponent won, sixty tiles to my two.
In my second game, I noted that I had three turns where I had no legal move to make: on turns 33, 39, and 52. I also noted that my first, and perhaps biggest, mistake had occurred on turn 5! Once I drew out the positions of turns 1-4 after the match, I could examine my error in the match’s opening. (Since I was playing Black, I knew turn 5 would be my turn.) My third match, against Brian Rose, ended in a defeat of 57 to 3. I fared a bit better against Yoko Rose, where I ended up with 16 discs on the board at game’s end.
The next day was a Sunday, without the distraction of excavation machinery. At the end of my first match that day, I had a defeat with 13 discs left at the end, and another with only 3. But the final match was my narrowest loss, where game’s end found my discs numbering only eight less than those of my opponent: 36 to 28! Definitely something I hadn’t thought possible.
This is something I absolutely, positively must do again.
If there’s a lesson here, it might be that ordinary gamers shouldn’t shy away from entering tournaments of their favorite games, no matter how formidable the competition may be. If you truly enjoy the game, you’ll at least have something in common with those you play against, and will almost certainly learn new things about the games you love.