Playing the Long Game

Do you ever get an obscure phrase stuck on the tip of your tongue for awhile? This has happened to me lately with the phrase, “Playing the Long Game.” Do you know the phrase? Do you know what it means?

It started when I was talking with a colleague about a challenging relationship. One party in the relationship was changing and withdrawing from interaction, and we were talking about the need for patience. I later thought about the phrase in relation to perseverance through this dark, lonely, winter of isolation — made all the colder and harsher by the COVID-19 pandemic. And then again, on a group run this morning, the phrase came up when talking about Christian engagement with United States politics. In each instance, “playing the long game” felt like a wise approach. Not just impetuously grabbing at quick, temporary solutions. Thinking about the long-term trajectory. Biding one’s time.

But it bothered me that I didn’t know where the phrase came from. I had the vague sense that it had something to do with golf. But in golf, if one were mostly concerned about “playing the long game,” wouldn’t they be trying to hit the ball harder and farther? Using drivers instead of irons? Trying to make the game shorter, by hitting longer drives? I may not understand golf well enough to really know. But the question of the phrase’s origin bugged me enough that I did some research. Others have been similarly perplexed by this question, and there may not be an easy answer. But it seems like there’s at least some evidence to support the idea that the phrase comes from an old card game called Whist.

I don’t want to learn how to play Whist. I don’t want to “play the long game” when it comes to learning all the subtleties of the rules of this arcane form of entertainment. But I like knowing that “playing the long game” can mean choosing the longer, slower version of a game that can be played two ways. That’s what I’ve been getting at, semantically, when the phrase has come up recently.

I really do think there’s wisdom in playing the long game. With relationships, I’ve learned that story arcs can be (and very often are) decades long. With making it through difficult situations, I’ve learned that one needs to just choose perseverance. We need to plod forward — knowing that things will come out all right in the long run, even if it’s hard in the here and now. And when it comes to politics, too many Christians think about short-term gains without considering the long-term losses. We grab at power, without considering its effect on our witness for Christ.

In all these situations — as well as the game of Whist, apparently — wisdom and contentment increase playing the long game.

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