Connect Four Helped Me Connect the Dots

As a board game fan, I’ve discovered that the way I play a game can teach me about the game of life. Recently, a round of Connect Four helped me connect the dots.

I taught my husband, Luis, to play the game, whose rules are simple: Two players alternate dropping chips into a grid, winning by getting four in a row — horizontally, vertically or diagonally. That simplicity hides a complexity: There are 4.5 trillion different arrangements of chips. As we progressed, I enjoyed my favourite part (other than winning): teaching strategy to a newbie; Luis was getting good quickly.

In one game, he secured 3 out of 4 in a diagonal. All he needed was one chip in column 2, on top of which he could place his chip to finalize the diagonal. Of course, he wouldn’t go in column 2 first, or I would then place my chip on top, blocking his diagonal. So for him, it’s a waiting game for me to place my chip in column 2 first.

On the next turn, I thought, “Don’t go in column 2.” Next turn: “Don’t go in column 2.” Next turn: “Don’t go in column 2.” Eventually, columns 1, 3 and 4 were full, so the gameplay shifted to remaining slots in columns 5, 6 and 7. We were blocking each other’s wins. Eventually, he placed his chip in the last possible slot in those columns. So on the next turn, there was no other place for me to go but where? Column 2.

I placed my chip in column 2 and announced his win before he even placed his on top to secure four in a row, in our closest match ever. Proud of his progress, I took a photo and sent it to our friend Jamal Albayaa.

“Luis has gotten really good at this,” I wrote. “He is red.”

“Haahaahahahahahahahaha,” Jamal wrote the next morning. “Ur so mean. U have connect 5.”

On my last chip – placed in column 2 — I had actually obtained five – not four — in a row, and by the layout of the board, it was clear I did so before Luis got four in a row. But I was oblivious. I was so focused on losing in column two, that I couldn’t see that I actually had won.

“No,” I responded. “He won with the diagonal red.”

You have 5 connected yellow dots,” Jamal wrote.

Jamal then marked up the photo of the game board I had sent him.

“I won the game,” I told Luis, showing him the photo. “That’s not right,” he said. I showed him the board, still set up with my win. He didn’t budge. There’s one lesson in life: I need to learn to accept his intense stubbornness, which is eclipsed only by my stubbornness to rid him of that trait. (He finally did agree that I won.)

But the real lesson was that I was so focused on the idea that column 2 was a loss that I couldn’t see that clear, beautiful, winning 5-chip diagonal, a win obtained by actually going in the dreaded column 2.

Reflecting on this, I asked myself, “In my life, what is my column 2?” What had I written off as a loss, a loss so certain that I could not even see the win already obtained, or a win waiting to bust out.

The answer was clear: Stand-up comedy. I’ve wanted to be a stand-up comic for about 35 years — longer than most of my brothers in the brotherhood have been alive. When I was about 20, I developed a comedy routine and regularly went to Dixon’s Whitehouse Inn, just a few towns away from my home on Long Island in New York. I got some pretty good laughs. One night, the club’s owner, Richard M. Dixon, who started his career by impersonating his lookalike, former president Richard M. Nixon, approached me. I was doing very well and should keep it up, he told me. He then offered to groom me as a comedian, telling me he had worked with Eddie Murphy and Rosie O’Donnell.

“This guy is full of shit,” I thought. “He just wants me to bring my friends who will buy drinks.” But I continued to go, anyway. One night, I invited my friends — and I flopped. One friend still jokes about that night. At that point, I now believe, stand-up comedy became my column 2.

Sure, I dabbled throughout my 20s. I took a comedy class in Lower Manhattan. I did stand-up at The Boston Comedy Club in Greenwich Village. But I was never fully in. I abandoned comedy for more than two decades, but I never stopped thinking about it.

I took a comedy class in Lower Manhattan. I did stand-up at The Boston Comedy Club in Greenwich Village. But I was never fully in. I abandoned comedy for more than two decades, but I never stopped thinking about it.

In recent years, through personal growth work, I’ve come to explore areas of myself I had left aside. I developed a new comedy routine. I practiced comedy with Jamal. I performed at a few clubs in Vancouver on amateur nights. I performed in front of my squad in the brotherhood and got good laughs. My squad members encouraged me. I then decided to perform at the Brotherhood/Sisterhood CRT Christmas Party, in front of about 100 guests.

Developing and performing my routine has helped me heal some wounds and expose shadow thoughts in front of an audience. For example, through personal growth work, I had discovered that, as a gay man, I thought straight men were better than I am; I then integrated that issue into my routine, with huge laughs – and some groans. Performing is a win-win. I heal. The audience laughs.

Recently, I decided to look up articles about that first comedy club where I performed. “Dixon’s White House Inn… helped start the careers of four of Long Island’s most famous homegrown comics,” according to a New York Times article. “Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Rosie O’Donnell and Jerry Seinfeld worked the club in its heyday.”

After I read that recently, I felt a mix of emotions, thinking of what could have been. A comic genius had been willing to groom me. At the time, I was so focused on having lost that I didn’t realize I had won. The comedy was in me – locked in me.

But I want to think of not what could have been but what could be. I had shared the video of my December 2019 comedy routine with just a handful of people, as I had some hesitation about some of the content. But screw that. I just put it on Youtube. Meet Richie James, my stage name. I’ll see you in the audience at a nearby comedy club.

Meanwhile, what’s your column 2?

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