Master Players

Many people have come into my life, played with me, and left me happier, healthier and wiser.

There’s Bill Doran. (Skip this if you’ve heard it or read it before. It’s one that I’ve repeated elsewhere – and every where else I had the opportunity about our game of ping pong):

There we were, up in the barn, playing with our brand new, thoroughly researched, ultimate ping pong table. That barn was the center of what we were calling The Games Preserve. We wanted to fill it with not only every game on the planet, but the very finest manifestation of each. And Bill chose that particular table, and those particular paddles and balls, and installed that particular kind of lighting for precisely that reason. It was not just a ping pong table. It was table tennis.

Bill knew that I couldn’t really play ping pong. And I knew that he could really, really play. And because we wanted to play together, we just more or less volleyed (he more, me less). After a while, Bill suggested that I just try to hold my paddle still enough so that he could get the ball to hit it. Apparently, that was more than challenge enough for him. And for me, every time the ball actually crossed the net, hit my paddle, and got back to Bill was sheer magic. After a while, we managed to get an actual volley going, Bill exercising the depth and fullness of his ping pongly skills, me magically holding my paddle where it needed to be. And after a longer while, we got a very, very long volley going. And during that volley, the ball seemed to take on its own, almost internal light, as if it were inhabited by our spirits, Bill and mine, combined. And it was, for an instant, as if we were seeing God. Honest. When we left the barn, we were like two Buddhist monks having just achieved enlightenment.

Then there’s Mick Greene, one of the two playful brains behind Streetplay.

I had led a brief session of tabletop golf for about 150 teen-agers and associated adults. For some reason, it just didn’t work. (These kinds of sessions, the ones that don’t work, have proven very formative for me, in hindsight. Unfortunately, when I receive that particular gift, I am generally too shaken to acknowledge how much I have profited from it, even when I do get paid.) I had invited Mick to come see me at play. And, clearly, what happened was not what I had wanted to share with him, or anyone. I looked at Mick. He at me. And the next thing I knew we were walking out of the conference room, meandering into the parking lot. We didn’t talk much. He understood that I needed quiet and space. As it happened, the parking lot was almost empty.

As we were walking across the clearly delineated parking spaces, Mick produced one of his favorite therapeutic devices – a spaldeen. “Hey, Bern,” said he to me, “ever play fivebox?” I didn’t remember the game (you can read the rules by clicking the link). And my interest was significantly piqued. So we started playing. Just like that. We stood five parking spaces apart. He bounced the ball into the space closest to me. And I tried to bounce it into the space closest to him.

It was another ping pong-like experience for me, given the difference between skill sets – he clearly proficient, I vividly not. And, like my friend Bill, Mick managed to get the ball to bounce right into my hand. Having accomplished that, it was my turn to throw into the space two spaces in front of him. Eventually, I found myself playing at a level that appeared to me as something approximating competence. And the more we played, the the more distant the disappointment of that tabletop golf game became, and the closer Mick and I came together, and the more vivid the fun.

Then there are kids. Not all kids, but some certain kids who seem to understand exactly what they need to do to keep other kids, and even adults, in play.

In all cases, there’s a sensitivity, an empathic connection, a deep understanding of the game, and, even more profoundly, of the connection between players. In every instance, there’s a willingness to adapt the game to the players – to let go of things like having to win, having to demonstrate your competence, having to keep to the rules – so they can hold on to the spirit of play, share in the playfulness of the spirit.

I’ve decided to call people like Bill and Mick “master players.” They are skilled in the game, and they understand, at a deeper level that a game is for keeping each other in play.

And here’s what brought all this to mind, and now to yours:

My therapist daughter arranged for me to give a presentation to some narrative therapists in Jerusalem. During the presentation, as I learned more about narrative therapy, and liked what I learned, I understood more clearly why she wanted me to share my work with them. There was something there, very close to what I was calling “fun therapy,” only, of course, not. We played, we talked, we laughed, we played more deeply, we talked more deeply, we laughed more deeply.

One of the highlights was a brief performance of a game I call “Kvetch Kakaphony” (click on the link for more). The game was derived from a wonderfully silly event called Complaints Choir. Because this was a group of deeply observant Jews, men and women couldn’t sing in a mixed group. So, instead of singing, we spoke our Kvetch, and instead of a melody, my daughter suggested we speak a limerick – ad hockily, of course, without knowing what we or any one else was going to say, and without achieving any consensus about what exactly a limerick was. We appointed a conductor (who turned out to be inspired and inspiring). And afterwards we laughed together, almost musically.

The next day, a young man who had been at the session asked to meet with me to talk more about what he had learned from my presentation. We met, he bought me a coffee (my standard consultation fee) and after awhile we got around to how he might use the Kvetch Kakaphony experience (we decided not to call it a “game”) with one of his clients. After some excited probing, it became clear that we were thinking of two completely different kinds of experiences. He was thinking that his client would be a one-person Kakaphony, and he would be the therapist, carefully listening. I was assuming that it took at least two, a Kakaphony to make.

He was concerned that if he, the therapist, joined in, he would lose control, contaminating his client’s stories with his, blurring the boundaries of what he understood as therapeutic relationship. I was concerned that if he didn’t play too, that he’d miss the opportunity for healing that the game presented. It would be, instead, separating, embarrassing. For both of them. I imagined myself as the client, singing my complaining heart out, improvisationally, atonally. I imagined him having to witness this.

I was surprised at the distance between his assumptions and mine. I found myself thinking about the powerfully therapeutic relationships created by master players who can transform a game like ping pong into an encounter with the All One, or a game of catch into a moment of shared, loving, healing peace. And I couldn’t understand how he could not have understood.

Near the end of our conversation, I discovered that he had in fact come to understand, but needed to, as he explained, “put a lot of thought and experimentation into the combining of our two ideals.” He goes on: “I have been thinking a lot about how to introduce these play techniques, to get to the therapeutic value of ‘Master Play,’ without the client feeling that his or her problems are being trivialized. I have a feeling that once I am able to figure out a way to approach these subjects, I will be able to play, (pun intended,) with the format, and still cover both of our points of view.”

I am eager to learn what he creates out of those experiments.

And so, I found myself sharing these stories with you. Narratives, you might say. And as I near the conclusion of these stories, I’m concluding that this idea, this term “master player,” is a very useful one for us to share. And I further conclude that you, yourself, could be such a master player, or have in any event played with one or several such. And that you might also find yourself with the time and the inspiration to share your stories, here, in the comments section, because you, also, realize how valuable it might be to think even more about the healing value of being such a person, or playing with such a person, or child, or pet.


  1. Michael on March 18, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    What a wise and delightsome collection of play lore. Your tales well told remind me of the healing power of true play and the delight it can bring. In my work/play my clients and I often reach the level of into-it-ness (flow, in the moment, in the zone) that I call true play (, and I agree that anyone can be a Master Player–if in fact Master Players truly exist*.

    The thing is, I wonder how much being a Master Player (MP) really depends upon a lot of different factors. I think, for example, that a person can sometimes be a MP with a certain group or within a certain setting or when playing a certain type of game, and another can be a one amid another set of environmental or game factors. I also wonder if the same person who was the M-est Ps yesterday can fall short of being a master player at another time depending on his/her mood, the configuration of the stars, or because of just the way things are sometimes. It seems like there are also a number of people who can usually rise to the level of MP only in a narrow set of circumstances, while a few (maybe these are the ones you are calling MPs) seem to regularly defy a squirrely and/or self-conscious group and play masterfully despite all odds.

    Maybe there is also a relationship between the experience of coliberation and Masterful Play.

    Thanks to this great post I shall discuss the concept of the MP with my three game groups and invite all the players to allow themselves to either be a MP (that day or at some point when the stars align) or to be inspired by someone in the group who has risen to that level.

    Peace, love, freedom, fun,


    *Perhaps the Ouaqui should be consulted about this.

  2. Aristotle Bancale on March 19, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Based on this definition, I like to think of my gaming strategy as trying to be a Master Player.

    Early in my gaming life, I observed that other kids don’t like to play with those who always win and those who always lose. Since I always wanted to play, I would aim for a close second. I enjoyed being the guy to beat or the one to pose a challenge or a threat. This is how I transitioned into becoming a Game Master, and mostly just hosted the games, presented the rules, invented the house rules, made up tie-breakers, and overall facilitated the kind of fun and enjoyment the players expected from a particular game.

  3. Lily Belland on March 21, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    Wow, this is one of those posts that really made me think. I’ve been behind on my emails, but I’m glad I got the chance to go back and catch up.

    Aristotle, I love the concept of “coming in a close second”. I think I do that, without ever thinking about it, and that is essentially what I think a Master Player does. When I’m playing against someone, there is a small part of me that wants them to win, and if they are significantly behind, I will make small, subtle choices to help “even up” the chances. Once things are more even I tend to go back to my competitive spirit and want me to win again.

    I think to be a M.P. one would need to be in a giving sort of mood. If one is in a “poor me” mood, then it’s nearly impossible to extend game adaptations to someone else. But that’s ok, because if one is in a “poor me” mood, it’s entirely possible that there may be a M.P. nearby to help boost them up, so they can be the M.P. the next time they meet.

    And yes, Michael, I’m sure there’s a connection between Master Players a Co-liberation. Bernie tells the ping-pong story in one of his original posts on coliberation.

    What a gift your friends have given you Bernie. Thanks for reminding us to give that gift as well.

    Love and laughter,

    • Bernie DeKoven on March 22, 2012 at 12:47 pm

      In my experiences with Master Players, we somehow managed to transform the game into something we could play as equals. There was no first or second, there was no “letting win.” That Ping Pong game that Bill and I played was one like neither of us had ever played before. He was as transformed by it as I. It was a mutual transcendance into an experience of resonating harmony. The same is true for the game that Micky and I shared. We let go of expectations and discovered the unexpected.

Leave a Comment

This site uses inline comments. To the right of each paragraph, a comment bubble with a + sign appears when you click inside the paragraph. Click the bubble to load the comment form.