The spirit of the game

There are two ways to get ahead. You can work the system or you can beat the system.

Beating the system usually involves some sort of subterfuge. Once everyone knows how you beat the system, the system adjusts and changes the rules, making it difficult for you to repeat the feat again. When card counters beat the system in Las Vegas, they weren’t breaking the rules, but the system didn’t care. They just increased the number of decks in use so it would be more difficult and less lucrative. When athletes beat the system by doping, the system adjusts so it’s either a lot more difficult or less of an advantage.

Years ago, leading accounting firms were pitching wealthy prospects the idea of "perfectly legal" tax shelters that would lead to paying zero taxes on investments. You guessed it… the secret leaked out and they were busted.

Working the system is very different. Far from being secret, working the system is public and honored. When Malcolm Gladwell works the system to deliver two stunning bestsellers in a row, booksellers and publishers don’t quickly make it more difficult to write books that appeal to a large audience… instead, his competitors work to raise their game and everyone benefits. When Bill Boomer taught the US Olympic team to swim in a very different way, he had nothing to hide, because he was working within the spirit of the game.

The web is nothing but a system, a bunch of (largely unwritten) rules regarding search, linking, promotion, etc. It’s fascinating to watch as some people work hard to work the system, and succeed time and time again, while others waste countless hours with one scheme after another designed to beat the system. They invent cloaking devices and seo scams and pyramid schemes and lightly disguised spam pages, constantly struggling to stay ahead (and to stay quiet). Sure, you can beat the system (any system) for a while, but it’s a constant struggle.

In Ultimate Frisbee, there are no referees. The system insists that you make your own calls… players closest to the play call it, with no real appeals. The goal: play in the spirit of the game. If you keep working to beat the system, you’ll end up with no one to play with. Work the system, and you’ll win now and later.