Games People Play…Or Don’t


Many a true word is said in jest.—I don’t know, but I heard it from my mother.

I think that Critical Reasoning is my favorite part of the exam because it is the purest of the pure.  I’ve written before that the GMAT is an aptitude test rather than a knowledge test.  On the simplest level, in both the quant and the verbal, the exam tests a logic system: be specific, don’t assume, and don’t rationalize.  Nowhere is this more true than in Critical Reasoning—there is no mathematical foundation work nor are there grammar rules.  As Gertrude Stein used to say, There is no there, there.  Of course, she was talking about Oakland. . .fill in your own joke.  When I’m being* mean to students, I say, If you know what all the words mean, you should get them all right.

gmat gamesBut students don’t get them all right.  Even those who know what all the words mean.  Why is that?  Because people think.  They assume, they rationalize, and they inject opinions.  Why is this bad?  Because it’s a game.  Critical Reasoning doesn’t take place in reality.  Here’s an analogy I thought up all by myself, so it isn’t in the Strategy Guide: Critical Reasoning bears the same relationship to reality that Monopoly does.  When you play Monopoly, you don’t think about how reasonable free parking or building hotels is, you exploit the rules.  It’s the same thing.  A lot of OG arguments involve medical issues, but you hardly ever care whether people live or die because that’s usually not the conclusion.   Play the game.

As a by the way, if students struggle with the CR, it’s often half of their trouble in the quant.  Folks are not specific; they read the question or the given incorrectly.  And they don’t recognize the types and patterns.  In other words, they don’t play that game.  However, folks fail to notice these mistakes because they are too consumed with worry about their math foundations.  Conversely, engineers with strong foundations also suffer here, especially in the DS because they try to use brute mathematical force instead of playing the game.  It is a behavioral problem.  People don’t do; they think.  Don’t think—much like in life, it only gets you into trouble.

The Strategy Guide tells you how to play this game.  In an assumption question, you play the game by asking yourself, Are the exact words in this choice necessary for the exact words of the conclusion?  (Or, Does negating the exact words of this choice make the words of the conclusion less likely?)  For example, noticing that the choice said unanimous support whilst the argument said significant support.  That’s listening to the words.  Really asking questions and really answering them is playing the game.  Playing the game involves noticing patterns, such as the logic gap that exists when an argument changes subject between the evidence and the conclusion.  That’s why, in the London classes, we say, Mind the gap.  Thank you.  I’ll be here at the Starlite Room all week, tell your friends.

Do you really play the game and come to grips with the words?  Or do you think?  Thinking involves working off an impression of the choice rather than the words.  Thinking involves working off the general topic rather than the words of the conclusion.  Thinking involves injecting your opinion or adding extra circumstances—you only have the words that are printed there.  Play the game when you attack a weaken question.  Here’s a short argument I once saw on an actual exam.  I didn’t write it, so don’t throw your shoe at your screen.

Thai food makes me sick.  Every time I eat lunch at Dao’s Bangkok Bistro, I spend the afternoon throwing up.

The conclusion is five words: Thai food makes me sick.  The evidence is all those afternoons driving the porcelain bus.  (It’s a big city expression.  Visualize it.)  The wrong answers tempted test takers who think.  One read, The writer always overeats at Dao’s.  Choices that blame someone for the conclusion, which are popular in LA classes, are almost always wrong because they don’t affect the words—she still got sick.  The conclusion was not about quantity.  Another choice was, The writer always gets sick after eating spicy food such as Thai cuisine.  Explaining why the conclusion is logical does not weaken the exact words—she still got sick.  Such rationalizations are thinking.  You must guard against them vigilantly, that’s why I tell students not to attempt formatted questions when they don’t have enough energy to do so.  Rationalizations are insidious; they crop up whenever you let your guard down for a moment.  I once saw a movie in which these two young guys are talking. . .

First Guy: Rationalizations are more important than sex.

Second Guy: No way, man.

First Guy: Yeah?  When was the last time you got through a day without a good rationalization?

There you go.  By the way, the correct answer was, Dao’s Bangkok Bistro serves only Italian food.  That destroys the words of the conclusion.  By destroying an assumption.  It’s Monopoly—play the game.  Recently, a student exclaimed, But it’s all so counter intuitive.  I sat down cross legged and said, Now you are beginning to understand the meaning of ˜Don’t think. . .Grasshopper’.  Just kidding.

Play the game with inference questions—in the RC as well.  On inference questions, Satan whispers in test takers’ ears, It’s a test—-pick something important to show how clever you are.  You must say, Satan, get thee behind me!  You are not obligated to choose something important.  You are obligated to choose something that must be true.  In terms of the exact words.  That’s why the correct answer often inspires, Well, der. . .of course.  It’s like dancing—don’t take the wrong first step.  Be humble.  Your first step should not be, What do I think/remember?  It should be, I don’t know.  What did it say?  Students always say to me, Make me more clever for the GMAT.  (Not really.)  I always say, I am desperately trying to make you less clever.  More precise.  Less clever.

What about your technique?  It’s part of playing the game.  Do you have an efficient automatic response to CR questions that starts with reading the question first?  I think that the most neglected part of the technique delineated in the strategy guide is to eliminate the wrong answers.  What’s wrong about a choice is more tangible—be able to point at the words that eliminate the choice.  That again encourages doing rather than thinking.  On that note, there are two kinds of people and they’re both wrong.  (Don’t you hate when people say that?  I wrote it just to be annoying.)  Some people say, I didn’t understand that choice”it must be wrong.gmat monopoly  Other people say, I didn’t understand that choice—-it must be right.  The only truth is that you didn’t understand the choice—you can read it again now or read it again later.

So, go forth.  Build hotels.  Land on Free Parking. Play the games—each format has game rules.  Don’t think.  Change your behavior.  If you like half-baked psychology, you can blame this on your parents.  If you were raised in a household in which you had to logically justify your screw ups, you tend to more naturally embrace the way of the GMAT. . .my father was a German and an engineer.  Which makes for a tough boyhood, by the way.  When I brought home a 95, he’d say, What happened to the other five points?  But he excelled at playing the game, at exploiting the rules—often, his tax return would show that he owed less than a dollar. . .and the rules said that you didn’t then have to pay it.  (Yes, he was crazy but you have to take the bad with the good.)  On the other hand, if you grew up in a household in which emotional volume was more important, then, early in the process, you have to notice and then change your behavior.  Learn to avoid sudden fits of inspiration—that’s thinking.

Let’s wrap up with a nice child abuse story.  When I was a little boy, my father would play Parcheesi and, yes, Monopoly with me.  And he’d kick my ass.  He’d say, If I cut you any slack, it wouldn’t be any fun for me.  That’s the child abuse part—it has no connection to the GMAT, but it does illustrate that it was no bowl of cherries to grow up with a German engineer, even if it did prepare me for the exam.  Anyway, here’s the part that relates.  Sometimes I’d get upset—I was a little boy.  And my father would say, Son, if you want to win, quit making so many mistakes.  He didn’t mean mistakes about things I didn’t know.  He meant mistakes made playing the game and exploiting the rules efficiently.

*Oh.  The asterisk.  In SC, don’t pick choices that use the word being unless you’re pretty damn sure all the other ones have correctness issues.  One of our geeks went through the 12th edition and, as I recollect, found 102 questions in which one could choose such a choice.  It was right twice.  The SC is a game too.

  1. Mukeshwar April 26, 2013 at 7:06 am

    It’s really good to see such a nice post. I hope I have learnt a good lesson today and makes me feel one step up towards my goal of scoring 800 in GMAT.
    Thanks, I appreciate your contribution. 🙂

  2. Nidhi April 18, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    Such a cool post and all true! Love the analogy.I lived in Germany for a year and truly they will ask you ” what happened to the 5 points?”. Thanks for this post. It’s very helpful.