Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Shape of the Hand

There are games that I have always thought I should be very good at that I have not turned out to be especially good at. As a word-person, I expected to be good a Scrabble.  I'm not bad, but there are people who are much better. As I am exceptionally good at word jumble and other games where one rearranges letters it has surprised me over the years. I read a few years ago that being good at the structure of the board was as important as being good at reassembling words, and this makes sense to me.

Then there is chess, which smart people are supposed to be good at but I never shone at. The trick is supposedly to be able to think multiple moves ahead, but that doesn't daunt me. The problem is I can't predict what my opponent's possible moves are going to be with any accuracy. There was a time in college when a good player was showing me and explaining things to me, but it still just didn't click. I could see a few things the opponent might do, but miss most of them.  It was almost as if the board was brand-new after every move.  Not quite that bad, but like that. I like reading about chess and enjoyed a book of Bobby Fischer's greatest moves.  I could follow what was happening without difficulty.  I can usually manage the chess puzzle in the newspaper, because it is not open-ended. White to mate in two moves. It takes me a long time, however. Chess players cannot remember where the pieces are on the board much better than you or I when they are placed randomly.  But if they are shown a board from an actual game, they can remember the placements.  They perceive the relations, not just the positions. Chess strategy makes reference to controlling the center of the board and positions of strength.  These mean nothing to me. I have concluded that I can do the chess puzzle because I am taking the long way around and doing it arithmetically rather than spatially. I make a tree diagram of possible moves and following moves in my head. I don't know how to prune the tree, however, getting rid of unpromising lines. I exaggerate.  I can do it a bit.  When I discover a move that completes the puzzle it is not a complete surprise.

Practice would certainly help, if I played either Scrabble or chess frequently.  There's no doubt I would get better, and might have even developed into a very good player. Yet it was always clear that there were people in the world who had some ability I just did not have.  I might be able to work around it well enough, but it always looked more efficient to put my effort elsewhere.

And now, contract bridge.  I was taught to play the game and picked up bidding quickly. I still like reading online bridge columns, and when they have a bidding quiz, it is usually straightforward for me. The basic play of the game, and playing percentages of one finesse over another is also straightforward. When I play online games, I usually bid correctly and make a standard contract. But more advanced plays elude me rather often.  Even when they are being explained to me and I go back over them card by card it takes repetition.  Again, practice would likely make a difference, but there is something that eludes me here. My mother was a championship player, and always claimed that her mother was even better. I keep figuring I must have this in me somewhere.

One of the bridge columns used the phrase "the shape of the hand," and that has stuck with me. I think it is not entirely metaphorical. I think it has a meaning that a bridge hand bears some relationship to spatial relationships.  Keeping track of how many cards of each suit must be in an opponent's hand can be worked out arithmetically, but players seem to work that out much more quickly.

In my wayfinding series, and even more when I discussed walking and mapping in the woods, I expressed surprise that I actually don't have a good sense of direction, which I always thought I did.  I had a hidden workaround because I love maps, love them enough that I can stamp things in by repetition.  I can very nearly draw a map of NH placing every town from memory.  The various grants and tracts up in the White Mountains still stump me, because those are reinforced only on a town-boundary map.  They don't appear on road maps. As they are deeply tied to the notches and mountains, being able to switch from 2D to 3D helps place them. I have trouble with that.

I have trouble packing up leftovers, often getting the volume wrong and choosing a container that is too small or overlarge.  You'd think that looking at the two volumes side by side would be enough. Only sometimes. I get good at packing a car and trunk by trial and error, remembering what fit nicely on previous packings.  When we get a new car, it takes me a while.  My stepfather was magnificent at it. A quick glance was enough. I stand in the aisle of a hardware store, turning objects over in my head to see if what they've got is going to fit what I need. I get it wrong frequently and have to come back.

I likely exaggerate and it's not so bad, simply annoyed because I expect to be good at things, especially math things, and am not good at spatial relationships. My brother is a lighting designer, which is very spatial. My wife is good at these things, and fortunately the children seem to have inherited that.


Texan99 said...

I'm mediocre at most games but reasonably good at crosswords. I've spent years trying to get better at estimating the right size of container for leftovers, since our fridge is fairly small and I'm usually the one putting away the food, but I'm still usually surprised by the result. We're doing a lot of construction now, with a good bit of fiddling about with plumbing manifolds, and I see signs that working that stuff out in my head fatigues me more quickly than it used to. I really want someone else to handle it.

Donna B. said...

"simply annoyed because I expect to be good at things"

My oldest proudly displayed the computer program that earned her a "C" because it was the first grade she'd ever truly earned. Everything else required little effort. Her major was mathematics, minor was Russian so it wasn't as if she took the easy way out.