The Way to Win

Cornered.

Dave had the enemy cornered.

It had taken two years of work. Day and night. No rest, no relaxation. Maneuvering in and out of relationships, laws, and contracts.

Now, all the pieces were in place.

And here, in this room, the enemy would have to admit defeat.

Dave took a long, deep breath, as if he could inhale the entire boardroom. It smelled like mahogany and chemical cleaner. A familiar and comfortable combination. He was on his home turf. Carlos’ home turf was out on the sidewalks and in dive bars. That’s where Dave had lost ground. Here, he would take it all back and more.

He strode across the soft, muted carpet to the head of the long, dark wood table. Everything in the room was wonderfully ornate, and at the head of this table, he was the ruler of this kingdom.

He placed a manila folder in front of the seat, then stood by the window, looking out at the city.

In the distance to the south, he could see the building that this was all about. A shabby, run-down little apartment tower. Fifty units, $2,000 a month each tops. Hardly even worth maintaining. But Dave wasn’t about to let that stop him. He’d co-signed on that property with Carlos two years ago, and since then it had cost him millions.

Granted, the expenses hadn’t been anything he couldn’t handle. But he wasn’t about to let all that money just go down the drain. That wasn’t how he got to his position, and it wasn’t how he was going to maintain it. He had a family to provide for, and while a few million dollars wouldn’t change things for them, he wouldn’t give an inch only to watch a mile disappear later.

He would hold his ground.

He had held his ground for two years.

For their sake.

It wasn’t perfect. His wife was running ragged caring for the twins on her own. Dave’s son was struggling for the lack of his influence, and his daughter suffered a lack of attention because her brother demanded so much. All at such a crucial stage in their development. The entire family was on the edge, and soon, he would free his hands to reach out and pull them back to safety.

Dave narrowed his eyes and realized he hated that building. This morning, he was thinking about proceeding with his original plan. Renovate, re-furnish, and raise the prices. But now, he felt more inclined to renovate and sell. Just get the damn thing out of his life.

Back to his family. Back to what he really wanted.

Yes, that was the plan.

The door lever clicked behind him, and he turned to greet the first board member.

Cornered.

Dave was cornered. The meeting had started and ended exactly as quickly as he had planned. The evidence had been presented, the discussion had stayed on track, and yet the vote had gone astray.

Nothing had changed. Just as every other time before, Carlos had been given more time.

And now, Dave was cornered.

No more cards to play.

At the other end of the table, Carlos sat, upright and attentive, directly between Dave and the exit.

Carlos was dressed to the nines and well groomed, a relative rarity for him. He was tall, thin figured, with sunken brown eyes and overly expressive brows that popped up into triangles whenever he asked a question. The manila folder sat on the table in front of him.

Dave turned his eyes away, fighting back a momentary wave of tears. He could see the building – that Satan-possessed building – out the window, peeking through the towers of the city.

He kept trying to think of what his next move would be – trying to find a plan that would give him the strength he needed to face Carlos and walk out of this room alive.

But his mind had left him, as though it had recognized that it was now useless, and had simply retired to the Bahamas. No longer needed, pushed out of office by a simple lack of function. Pruned from the feature list to make the machine more efficient, in the face of an imminent and inescapable threat.

Carlos pressed against the table with his long, tan fingers and stood slowly, straightening his body dramatically, one segment at a time, until his full height was on display. He was moving extremely deliberately, and in the two years Dave had been his opponent, Dave knew that it was a telltale sign that Carlos was on the attack.

“This game is never going to end, Dave,” Carlos said, straightening his cuffs, but his eyes focusing on Dave.

Dave met those eyes for a moment, then they fell to the manila folder on the table in front of Carlos.

Carlos’s eyebrows raised and his eyes followed Dave’s. He seemed to have forgotten the folder. He pushed it across the table to Dave, and his lips parted for a brief second, then closed.

There it was! Suddenly a bit of energy drove its way through Dave. That little parting of the lips – it was a weakness! A skip in the predator’s step. Carlos had wanted to mock Dave further, but he’d held himself back. Why?

Carlos wasn’t totally secure in his victory. In his mind, Dave still had a way out.

Carlos had been right – the game wasn’t over yet. But for some reason, he still thought it might end, right here and now.

Carlos thought he could lose at any second.

Dave just had to see what Carlos saw, then he could win.

This was still the decisive battle, and it wasn’t quite over. Cornered or not, Dave wasn’t dead yet.

Dave had to get into Carlos’s head, see what this sharply angled man feared. He decided to ask a question he had asked many times before, but in a different way. Calmly, with piercing control, he asked, “why are you bothering with this, Carlos?”

Carlos took his hands off the table and curled them almost into a fist, before relaxing them again and straightening his necktie. “The same reason you are, Dave. I don’t like being beaten. Neither of us is very good at losing – if we were, we wouldn’t be here. A conflict like this is inevitable in the career of any man like us – to meet someone of equal or greater resolve.”

Carlos moved to the window as he spoke, still in apparent control. “It is the proper fate of any man to rise until he faces a foe he cannot defeat, and so he finds his place in the world. For one of us, this,” Carlos gestured to the building in the distance, “is that place – the final resting place.” On those closing words, Carlos’s eyes narrowed and turned to Dave, promising that it would be Dave who was laid to rest in that grave.

But Dave didn’t see the confidence and savagery in those eyes that Carlos wanted him to see. He saw the same emotion Dave still felt the remnants of – fear. He realized that at this moment, they both felt cornered. They both thought they were the underdog in the situation, and the other, the better positioned to win.

Dave stood and walked to the window, looking out at the same landscape Carlos had just used as an allegory. He was buying time to think, and he knew Carlos was watching him closely. He had to find his footing before Carlos found his. For the next few seconds, the two of them were in an intellectual cold war, each racing to the weapon of the other’s demise.

Outside the tower, across the street from the entrance, Dave could see a park – one he had spent many lunch hours in. He was familiar with most of the regular features of the park – the beggars, musicians, scammers, and his personal favorites, the street magicians (particularly those who doubled as scammers).

He never volunteered to be the subject of their entertaining deceptions. No, Dave preferred to watch while he ate, trying to spot the trick.

His eyes found a magician he didn’t recognize. He was wearing a tall top-hat – something Dave had never seen. Perhaps one of the regulars had simply changed his outfit, but Dave doubted it. The magicians rarely changed anything about their routine. There was no need to – new suckers were never in short supply.

This particular card-wizard was performing for a group of young women. Dave couldn’t see the details of the performance, but he could see the shock and enjoyment of the women as they fled and returned to the magician repeatedly, like a tide washing in and out upon the beach. They could run away, but they could never escape his pull.

The performance ended, and Dave could hear in his mind what would happen next. One of the women would ask loudly, “how did you do that?” Naturally, the magician would nonchalantly play the question off, and then…

No, he wasn’t nonchalant at all. It was hard to tell from this far, but the magician looked flustered. Somehow the question had taken him off guard. Perhaps he fancied the girl who had asked, or she had asked in a surprising way, or said something else entirely! Oh, how Dave wished he could be within earshot of this exchange. So much would be revealed!

So much could be revealed, by the right question, at the right time.

Returning to the room he was in, Dave noticed a vacuum in the space. An emptiness that exists only in the moment before silence is broken. The predator’s head was pulled back, ready to strike.

Dave struck quicker, without thinking. “How do you do it, Carlos?”

Dave hadn’t turned to face Carlos yet, but he thought he could hear the other man’s jaw snap shut. His balance was off.

Press the attack, thought Dave. Make the cards spill out of his sleeves.

“You’ve beat me, again and again. I could try to puff myself up, but honestly Carlos, you’ve run circles around me for two years. And after all that time, I still have no idea how you do it.” Dave still hadn’t turned to look at Carlos. That was part of what had his opponent off-guard. Dave was always direct, forthright, attacking from the front.

Always, except now.

But an instant later, it was time to dance into a new position again. Dave met Carlos’s eyes. “Come on, give me a hint.” It wasn’t spoken jokingly, as so many people said it to the magicians in the park.

No, this came out as a command.

Carlos had slipped his hands into his pockets, and now turned away from Dave, looking out the window. He’s retreating to collect his thoughts. Don’t give him the chance!

“Come on, Carlos, let’s put this to bed. Tell me why I can’t beat you, and maybe you can convince me to save us the time and just give in now.”

Carlos’s eyes, for a half-second, whipped to Dave, then guiltily back to the window. Hungry! He wants the bait.

“Fine, I’ll let you in on the secret.” Carlos looked side-wise at Dave, eyeing his reflection more than his real person. “You’ve got a principle that has carried you this far, I presume.”

Carlos paused, as though giving Dave time to call that principle to mind. Dave didn’t let himself be distracted. His eyes wouldn’t leave Carlos. The magician was going to make a mistake, and Dave wasn’t going to let his attention be stolen and miss it.

“I have one too. Everyone has one. And how far they climb could be said to rely on the strength of their principle. It isn’t a competition of will, or skill, or luck. It’s all a competition of principles. Whose life philosophy is stronger? More true?”

This kind of philosophizing was common for Carlos, though he usually did it in the dim corners of bars. It always worked better on the target when they had a little alcohol in them. But Dave’s mind had never been clearer. The magician was attempting his trick on a fellow magician, rather than a tourist already drunk in awe of the city.

It was a desperate play.

“I’ll tell you mine. I don’t think you’ll take it and use it against me – you’re too stubborn. That’s your principle – you stick to your guns. You’ve probably got different words for it, but that’s the core of it. You strike at the same point, over and over again, with precision and strength, until it yields. You don’t change your strategy. You rely on your opponent thinking that you will change your strategy. You surprise them by not surprising them.”

No wonder he’s been kicking my ass, thought Dave. I couldn’t have put it into such clear words, and it’s my strategy.

“It’s a good principle, obviously,” Carlos spread his hands slowly, gesturing at the ornate boardroom. His eyes rested on Dave, and he continued, “but mine’s better. In order for a victor in any game to be declared, all competing parties have to agree on the outcome. My principle is simple – I can’t lose unless I decide to lose.” Carlos was now slowly advancing on Dave as he spoke. “Corner me, bankrupt me, throw me in jail, it doesn’t matter. My defeat is in my hands, not yours. This fight will never end because I won’t stop fighting.”

Carlos was now only a few inches from Dave, looming over him, too close for comfort. But Dave was comfortable. He was relaxed.

He realized that Carlos hadn’t been hungry for the bait Dave had dangled in front of him – a quick end to the conflict. Carlos had been afraid of it.

Dave saw the trick. In his desperate improvisation, the magician’s sleight of hand had been skillful, certainly, but lacking the layers of a planned and practiced trick.

Normally, the deception had to be so layered that it did not, by definition of the negative attention space, reveal where the secret lay. It had to occasionally draw the sucker’s eye right to where the secret was hidden, so that the sucker didn’t suspect that spot of being significant.

But this improvised trick was obvious. The bait was fat and juicy, and so, suspicious.

Carlos knew Dave wasn’t actually so stubborn as to refuse to adopt a new, winning strategy. He had done it before. No, Carlos wanted Dave to take this new principle as his own.

For a moment, it had confused Dave. Carlos wasn’t trying to get Dave to give up – he was trying to lure Dave further into the game, as though the longer Dave played, the more Carlos gained.

The unspoken part of Carlos’s little speech was, “I don’t want the game to end, so I won’t let it end.”

Like the scammer/magician hybrids below with the ball and three shuffling cups, the object of their deception was to lure the sucker further and further into the game. To get their determination working against them.

The truth was, the only way to beat these scammers, was to not play their game. To back out, smiling, knowing you had won by keeping what you had. They played their game because they were unbeatable. That meant that their only weakness was to face an opponent who wouldn’t play. An opponent who wouldn’t be their opponent.

Carlos had spoken true. The game only ended when the players agreed on the outcome. But within that was the fact Carlos hadn’t wanted Dave to see – he could end the game whenever he wanted. And ending the game was winning.

Dave turned, walked to his seat at the table, pushed in his chair, squared it diligently against the head of the table, and picked up the folder. Carlos looked on, silently.

Dave returned to his position uncomfortably close to Carlos and said, “You’re right, I can’t win.” He pushed the folder to Carlos’s chest. “That,” Dave pointed out the window at the apartment tower on the horizon, “is yours, in full.”

Despite his desire to, Dave didn’t linger to enjoy the shock on Carlos’s face. He pushed past the taller man, seeing those sharply raised eyebrows in his mind’s eye and smiling ear to ear.

He was light. He felt like he could leap out the window and fly back to his family. The family he had made wait for two years. God, what a stupid thing to do! But now it was over, and he wouldn’t make them wait any longer.

Dave opened the heavy door and paused. “Like you said Carlos, may the strongest principle win.”

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