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Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion Paperback – April 24, 2006

4.3 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

I wrote those articles in order to share the lessons of competition I learned from tournaments in fighting games like Street Fighter. Although I used examples from fighting games, I wrote the articles to be applicable to all gamers with examples from many different kinds of games.

Even within the realm of fighting games, each game has its own community. There are distinct communities for old-school Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Capcom vs. SNK 2, Guilty Gear XX, Tekken, Soul Calibur, Virtua Fighter, and Super Smash Brothers Melee. Furthermore, I've peeked into communities of many other games such as Magic: The Gathering, chess, Counter-Strike, Puzzle Fighter, poker, Scrabble, and more. Each community tends to value its own game above all others and tends to ignore and be generally ignorant of the other communities. And yet I saw that all these communities were so similar at their core: they were all wrestling with the concepts of what "playing to win" really means. They all struggled over deciding which moves to ban from play and how to ban them. They struggled with concepts of "cheapness" and "honor."

The same arguments raged across the forums and online chats for every game, and even the same personalities were repeated in each community. These arguments stemmed from the basic problem that there are a few different worldviews about how to play competitive games, and no one was clearly voicing the worldview of the most powerful type of player: he who wields the power to win. Those who try to win are wildly misunderstood by the masses, and all sorts of negative things are ascribed to them. In fact, the journey of continual self-improvement that a winner must walk is good and right and true--but it's not for everyone, nor should it be.

The response to these articles was amazing. I've been contacted by hundreds of players of all sorts of games I've barely heard of. Links to the articles are posted all over the internet, often in forums of various gaming websites. Although the ideas always spark debate, almost every e-mail I've ever received on the subject has been of the form, "You've changed the way I think about games, thank you Sirlin." After the constant barrage of thanks I've gotten for years now, I finally decided to extend the material, flesh it out more fully, and organize it into one guide for all competitive gamers.

I start with the very basics of choosing a game and how to get familiar with it. I stress the importance of getting connected to the player community and building an environment for yourself that sets you up to succeed. I then give some advice on how to build up basic proficiency in a game.

Next is the tough section that's hard for people to swallow. The #1 thing holding back most players is purely mental. You must shed all the rules and limitations that exist in your head about how to play, and instead start using all legal moves available to you to win. You must also give up the ridiculous notion that other players should abide by the made-up rules in your head.

I then give my complete retelling of Sun Tzu's book, Art of War.e shifted his chapters around, omitted some, added a couple, and boiled it down to a few key concepts that apply to most competitive games. It's difficult to give actual strategy and tactics advice that would apply to almost any game, but there are valuable fundamentals here.

The next section is about formal competition and tournaments. Finally, I close with a discussion of the ethical issues that the very best players face. The power to win is fleeting, but when you have it you can do a fair amount with it. I can't tell you how exactly to handle the power, but I can lay out your options.

I've also noticed some massive misunderstandings about how to apply the lessons of competitive games to life in general. Some of these lessons do apply and some do not. That's not a topic I can rigorously define, but I do give some good pointers along the way.

I hope this guide will help you to walk the path of continuous self-improvement.


About the Author

David Sirlin is a multiple-time national tournament champion in video games. Part of Street Fighter Team USA, he represented America in an annual international fighting game tournament held in Japan. He's also a main character in Bang the Machine (a documentary film about the Street Fighter community) and a co-organizer of the annual Evolution Fighting Game Championships series. Professionally, he has been a video game designer and producer since graduating from MIT’s Sloan Business School in 1998.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 142 pages
  • Publisher: Lulu.com (April 24, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1411666798
  • ISBN-13: 978-1411666795
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #502,305 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Adam J. Nicolai on August 6, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A lot of the other reviewers sound like they've had experience on the Street Fighter (SF) tournament circuit, or perhaps tournaments for other games. I'd like to offer a different viewpoint: that of someone who never really had the opportunity to play tournament-level SF, but always wanted to.

This book didn't talk solely about SF; it also discussed Magic: The Gathering, Chess, and several other games. The book itself is focused on the idea of "playing to win" and what it means for your mindset and how you approach the game (any game). But it was clear from the reading that SF was Sirlin's first love. I'd like to give a little personal background to explain why it resonated for me so much.

I'm 35 now, but I've been playing SF in all its various iterations since I was 15 if not earlier. I think since my first Shoryuken, I've been in love with this game. I had friends to play it with, but I was WAY more into it than all of them and most of them grew tired of it long before I did. I had a couple local arcades, but for whatever reason, there were never many people at the SF machines. Certainly, as far as I know, there were no local tournaments. In fact, when I was in my teens I don't think I even knew SF tournaments could happen.

When I did happen to see someone at the local machines, I'd always be chomping at the bit to play them. But since all my experience with the game was on my SNES or Playstation, they'd usually beat me. I was too unfamiliar with the stick.

When online gaming started to become a thing, I remember basically hoping and praying that it would one day become reliable enough to play SF online.
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Comment 7 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Paperback
Sirlin's Playing to Win is to competitive gaming what Machiavel's The Prince is to politics.

Just as Machiavel laid down a surprisingly logical and through guide for how to get what you want in politics, David Sirlin writes in a clear, direct style what competitive game players can do to get what they want (winning!). Playing to Win is fairly short (131 pages) but cuts straight to the heart of the matter: showing how competitive players see the world of games, how they act within it, and why they act that way. It's surprisingly easy and fun to read, and yet there's a lot of information in it.

Playing to Win tries to apply to all competitive games, so naturally the book's examples aren't too specific or technical, but it helps the reader a thousandfold to actually know some of the landmark competitive games discussed in the book, like Starcraft or Street Fighter. Someone who has never played a competitive game will most likely be lost while reading Playing to Win. But if you have even a little experience about playing against your peers, then you'll find that even though the lessons in the book are very general, almost philosophical ones, they can actually change the way you see games and play them - for the better.

First and foremost, Playing to Win is meant for people who like competitive games. If you are a game designer, then it can also be interesting, if only to learn a lot about a worldview different from what you might be used to. I know of no better book about competitive gaming than Playing to Win - it really is a landmark title in its category.

If you neither play competitive games nor design games, though, the book's razor-sharp focus will probably mean that you won't really get anything out of it. That is how you should interpret my 4-star rating: I wholeheartedly recommend this book to competitive players and game designers, but not to my mom and sister who know next to nothing about competitive games.
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Format: Paperback
Playing to Win is meant to be a guide for how to excel in any sort of competitive game or environment, from classic board games like chess to video arcade games like Street Fighter. Since I haven't played chess in years, I was much more interested in the 2D fighting game aspect of the book (as I'm sure most of the book's readers will be, given Sirlin's reputation in the fighting game community).

In that context, Sirlin's book is thorough and easily applicable. He takes the reader from the very foundations of competitive gaming (what differentiates good competitive games from bad, competitive games from non-competitive games, and "scrubs" from non-"scrubs"), all the way to more advanced tactics taken straight from Sun Tzu's Art of War.

That said, if you have been playing fighting games for more than a couple of years, almost none of this will be new to you. In fact, anyone who becomes serious about fighting games will discover all of the book's principles through their own experience, even if they cannot articulate their lessons as well as Mr. Sirlin.

The one exception is the player biography section, which gives short overviews of the play styles of various chess and Street Fighter players. This section, while entertaining, did not improve my game.

So who is this book for? It's for people just starting out with competitive games, who want a quick introduction to some of the ideas they will be grappling with. To this group, I can 100% recommend this book. As for more advanced or seasoned players, I'm not sure the book will really improve your game at all, but at the very least, it'll organize and fully articulate some of the ideas you already have.
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