Shooting the Moon
One of the first card games I ever learned to play was “Hearts.” It’s actually quite a fun game. Unlike bridge, which requires four people to play “normally”, Hearts, in my opinion, is even more fun with three. (If you like, you can read about the game before going on, but I don’t think it’s really necessary to understand the rest of this essay. The first link talks about the general rules and the second link gives some hints about “Shooting the Moon.”)
Three was a good number (besides being prime, and a triangular number) because I was an only child for the first 11 years of my life. My parents taught me to play Hearts and Bridge at a fairly young age. I was young enough, for instance, that I looked carefully at each face card to try to understand the personalities of the people peering out! I liked the Jack of Diamonds and the Jack of Spades the best. I desperately wanted to meet them! (I wonder whether Roger Zelazny felt the same because in his rather wonderful “Amber” series…).
The back of the cards also fascinated me. I wondered what it would feel like to ride one of those bikes! I was particularly interested when one of the cards developed a flaw or bend mark. Even knowing the identity of one of your opponent’s hidden cards could be a tremendous advantage.
Anyway, the game of hearts has an interesting payoff structure. You get a point counted against you for every heart that you take. You get 13 points against you if you end up taking a trick with the Queen of Spades in it. There’s a catch though. If you manage to take all thirteen hearts and the Queen of Spades, you get zero points against you. Your opponents each get twenty-six points against them.
The player then is often faced with a dilemma: “Should I try to Shoot the Moon? If I do try, and fail, I will likely end up with many points scored against me. On the other hand, if I succeed, it is a huge advantage for me.”
It isn’t only the points. At a young age, I could handle rules and strategy, but if I tried and just barely failed to “Shoot the Moon,” I would feel extremely frustrated. I didn’t initially try to hide it either! I would literally see red and the top of my head felt is though it were floating away. I would accuse my parents of cheating although I don’t think they ever did. I simply made a false assumption or miscounted or miscalculated. Often, I took a reasonable risk, but the cards just didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. At that point, my view of the world was still primitive: someone was at fault whenever I failed, and I desperately did not want it to be me who was at fault.
Luckily for me, throwing temper tantrums at the outcome of a hand of Hearts was not the sort of nonsense up with which my parents put. I soon learned to hide my rage and eventually not to feel it at all unless there really was evidence of cheating. I didn’t “declare” cheating on my parents or friends just because I didn’t like the outcome — at least not past the age of 7 or 8.
In hearts, it often happens that the cards you are dealt will obviously not let you “Shoot the Moon.” In those cases, your strategy for the hand is clear. Avoid taking as many hearts as possible. However, if I weren’t careful, I could easily end up helping my Mom or Dad “Shoot the Moon.” Better to take one heart or even four hearts or even the dreaded Queen of Spades than to let them “Shoot the Moon” and end up with 26 points!
It is extremely rare, in my experience to be dealt a hand in Hearts that makes it obvious that you will Shoot the Moon so long as you don’t slip up. Generally, the most you can expect to get every round or two is a hand that might let you “Shoot the Moon.” In accomplishing this goal, it is important that you not let your opponents guess that you are trying to Shoot the Moon. The sooner they “catch on”, the lower your chances of succeeding.
At a very young age, I learned to “fake” my reactions to help my chances. For instance, the first time I took a trick in which someone laid a heart on me, I might grimace and growl and shoot the person with my dagger eyes. These ploys worked better against my friends than with my parents who quickly learned to read these fakes. Then, I learned to make them more subtle. Instead of grimacing and growling and shooting the person a nasty look, I would let the slightest hint of disappointment flash over my face quickly and then vanish like morning fog. It reminds me of toasting a marshmallow to perfection without letting it catch fire.
I learned to judge more accurately whether I had a hand that would likely allow me to “Shoot the Moon” or a hand that would only allow me to “Shoot the Moon” if I were very lucky. If there was any chance at all, I would play for awhile and see how things went. After every trick I would “recalculate” my odds in some non-numeric kiddish way. I would often try and sometimes succeed. When I failed, I would try to learn from it. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, my parents would show me how I had messed up. For me, I discovered that it was more fun to try and fail than not to try at all, especially because I could learn from my failures.
September 12, 1962: John F. Kennedy declared that “We choose to go to the moon.”
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.
The United States of America, literally decided to “Shoot for the Moon.” And succeeded.
During my working life, I have far more often heard so-called “leaders” in many different organizations encourage their workers to “Find the Low-hanging Fruit” than I have heard them encourage people to “Shoot the Moon.” What “leaders” will sometimes do is set a “stretch goal” for the workers to fulfill without any provision of the necessary time, resources, or personnel to achieve that goal. If the workers achieve the goal, the manager (not an actual leader) scores 26 points against his or her opponents. They shot the moon. But if, as a worker, you come up one heart short; if you fail to “Shoot the Moon”, then 25 points will be scored against the you the worker who failed. It is the worker who fails to “Shoot the Moon.”
Since the late 1960’s, the real wages of workers have hardly moved at all. During that same time, because workers learned new methods, procedures, and technologies, productivity soared. In the past, the wealth created from increases in productivity had been split between the workers and the owners. Since, the 1960’s however, the increased wealth that accrued from increased productivity has gone completely to owners and virtually none of it has gone to the workers who increased their productivity.
At the same time, and perhaps not coincidentally, most businesses, even pre-COVID, were not trying to “Shoot the Moon” — they were searching for “Low-Hanging Fruit.”
What happened, America?
When do go for it again?
When do we try to “Shoot the Moon” again?
When do we reshape our society to allocate windfall profits to the people who actually work for a living — and not just for the people who watch their wealth increase by simply owning stuff?
I do not think these two changes are unrelated. The people who actually do the work are willing to take risks to build something better. They are invested in the product or service they provide. They would like to be fairly paid, but it isn’t only about the money. It’s also about doing something really cool and providing value for the society as a whole.
The people who simply move money around from stock to stock to make money don’t want to take risks. They don’t really care whether their money is being spent to cure cancer or to develop a new toothpaste that comes out of the tube and whistles “Dixie” while it does so. They want a decent return on investment. They may be willing to invest some of their capital in a portfolio of high risk/high benefit investments but most of them will abandon backing the attempt to cure cancer to invest in the whistling toothpaste if that’s what the “numbers dictate.”
This is obviously not true of everyone who is rich, but it’s more often true than not. Those, like Bill Gates, or George Soros or Mike Bloomberg who do contribute enormous sums to good causes are pilloried. Is it by other billionaires because they don’t want to look bad by comparison? Is it by foreign actors who simply want to sow dissent and distrust within America? I don’t really know.
What about in your own life? Have you ever chosen to “Shoot the Moon?” Or, do you stick with picking the “Low-Hanging Fruit?” What do you encourage your family, friends, and co-workers to do?
Poems, stories, and essays that touch on courage.