In Catcher in the Rye, Mr Spencer says, "Life is a game, one to be played by the rules." What does he mean?Holden disagrees. He feels it is only a game for 'hotshots'.
Holden has a certain level of respect for Mr. Spencer. When Spencer lectures him on "playing the game" and other platitudes about how to apparently gain success, Holden grudgingly listens to the "insight" but is eager to get out as soon as possible. It is an exchange where there is complexity and tension revealed. Holden's reaction to Mr. Spencer is that one can appreciate people even when they are saying things that might cause frustration. There is a clear distinction in this scene between message and messenger. When Holden says that "shaking hands and all that crap" left him "sad as hell," it brings out the fact that while Holden might not really appreciate what Mr. Spencer says, he does appreciate Mr. Spencer attempting to show care. The message that Spencer does bring out in terms of the "game" aspect of life and the need to succeed is something that reflects the insider/ outsider dynamic that Holden feels. The people who "win" at this game in Holden' mind are the "hotshots" or the "phonies," such as Holden's roommate, Ward. These people are the "hotshots" because they know how to manipulate others' perceptions. For Holden, who is already struggling with his own sense of identity, this "game" approach does not connect with him in terms of seeking to make his place in the world, which is why the advice that Spencer gives him is not automatically appreciated, even if the attempt is.
During Holden's conversation with Spencer, his teacher asks Holden what Dr. Thurmer said to him in the office concerning him leaving Pencey. Holden responds by saying that Dr. Thurmer talked about how life was a game that should be played according to the rules. Spencer agrees with Dr. Thurmer's analogy and also highlights the importance of playing by the rules in the game of life. Spencer wishes to convey the importance of taking responsibility for one's actions by completing the necessary work required to be successful. Holden adamantly disagrees with Spencer's comment and mentions that life is only a game if you are on the side of the "hot-shots." Holden's jaded perspective on life being a game for "hot-shots" stems from the fact that he is an outsider. Holden is not popular, charming, or well-respected by his peers at Pencey, and he feels disadvantaged when compared to the other successful students. In Holden's adolescent mind, he feels like life is unfair, and he believes that there are people with natural advantages who end up winners in the game of life. Holden views "hot-shots" as "phonies" who are not genuine individuals and manipulate others using their charisma and status. Essentially, Holden finds it hard to play by the rules when life is in favor of the superficial "hot-shots." He does not feel like additional effort will help him "win" at life, because he is an outcast.