On Consistency, and an Endgame Metaphor
“For me, Chess is life and every game is like a new life. Every Chess player gets to live many lives in one lifetime.” – Eduard Gufeld
Chess is an game of honesty. It requires calculation, moves, analysis, interpretative skill, resilience and practice. Nothing is hidden on the board. The less you know of the game, the easier it is to overestimate your own strengths; or underestimate your weaknesses.
As I get ready to leave my forties I am in a unique position to study the Life Endgame, perhaps to the chagrin of my younger twenty-something friends awash in newfound freedom and dreams.
“In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else, for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame.” – Jose Raul Capablanca
The games of youth can bring you an unrivaled joy and an inspirational view of the world, whether you are winning or losing. Every loss can be spun up to be a “learning experience,” and so written off as a win of sorts. Things aren’t as personal when you are moving at the speed of a twenty-five year old – if a challenge goes against you you can always up the ante or find a bigger one behind it.
You win games in youth often by sheer enthusiasm; my mentor called it bluntly; take enough risks and some will pay off, in his direct quote “Fortune Favors Fools.”
But as I said I am turning fifty soon and my game is more based on defense and minimizing risk. I have substantive assets to protect, and the lightning inspiration I had at 20 doesn’t find me often, perhaps because I’ve learned not to trust it.
Being consistent is something I take pride in; yet my publishing schedule here has not been consistent lately. I have the material in rough form written for several months ahead of time, but have questioned myself for not sustaining my previous schedule. The reason I have not published is not because there isn’t a vision, but because I have been mulling over what comes next for the blog.
I have never sought to monetize this site. I feel obligated to the subscribers to provide elegant content on a strategic theme, and have chosen to never sell anything behind that. The blog is a resume of sorts and a labor of love. All I ever want from it is to reach minds that can appreciate the concept that Strategy is a Learned Skill applicable to any undertaking in life.
“Later, I began to succeed in decisive games. Perhaps because I realized a very simple truth: not only was I worried, but also my opponent.” – Mikhail Tal
Worry is a daily part of life in your fifties. People depend on you and the way ahead is often very complicated; one or two more moves and you’ll be in the endgame of your career. Even if you’ve played a solid game, one mistake can upend your future.
Nearing Endgame can be an unsettling position; it can force a hot sweat down your spine if you are behind in material or position. If you played unsoundly in your youth, it shows in your fifties. But the masters of the game understand how to contain the turmoil and plan to execute a graceful resolution under pressure; they have mastered how to stay in the zone.
“The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess.” – Benjamin Franklin
You can keep your cool in turbulence if you understand that bad times are more psychological battles than they are physical. Deal with them from the inside. Assure yourself you can handle it – dig in and play top notch defense. Be above board in all things; a player not a piece, and inspect the position from an objectifiable distance.
“Chess teaches you to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good and it trains you to think objectively when you’re in trouble.” – Stanley Kubrick
In Real Life, I have played a solid game. I have savings, own a house, and am socially active on a lot of platforms; the blog was an experiment born of my love for Strategy. The verdict is out on whether to keep it running of mothball it – I haven’t run out of material but feel obligated to dedicate myself to the money making activities where I can make a dent in my own retirement income now.
Standing alone as a body of work, I feel this has been a success. The friends, followers, and enablers I’ve met through the blog have been a boon beyond belief. Thanks to them I have grown as a person.
“When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.” – Peter Marshall
If you have thoughts about what direction I should take this blog, let me know at “firstname.lastname@example.org”
For now I think I’ll double my rooks on the C-File…
image: Play the Chess Master – CC 0 photo from Morguefile – edited
Destiny is in the Details
1987. Seville, Spain. Defending World Champion Gary Kasparov (white) is down one loss in the Champion’s match against challenger and former champion Anatoly Karpov during the final game of the series — he would lose the title with anything less than a win.
Both players were moving faster to insure the extra time granted by reaching 40 moves, when Kasparov failed to write his scorecard for two consecutive moves, and was reminded by a judge to tend to it. His next move missed the Win with 33. Qd1?? which is clearly defensible, instead of the stronger 33. Qb5!
It may seem obvious, but a distraction at a critical moment can be all that a career hangs on. Kasparov regarded this game as the “Mount Everest” of his career, yet managed to hold on further until Karpov too made a critical error later.
“Haste is never more dangerous than when you feel that victory is in your grasp.” – Eugene Znosko-Borovsky
It is a game of focus and attentive patience, and it is a game of time. In Chess and Life, often you cannot rush things without missing something important. Even if it seems obvious, quick assumptions can be deadly. Assuming your opponent’s motive, or your own safety, can ruin your game.
Rushing your play can inadvertently commit you to errors of assumption or cause you to miss possibilities to win, merely by missing a detail in the position. You can short circuit a brilliant endgame and victory simply by hurrying your analysis. It is a costly mistake to neglect looking deeply, on both offense and defense.
“Haste, the great enemy.” – Eugene Znosko-Borowski
For instance: You pick up your date on time, have a great experience at the restaurant, and realize only then you forgot to grab your wallet rushing out the door. You now have no funds to take care of your meals. This is an embarrassing mistake at best, or it could be fatal to a new relationship at worst.
Mistakes can cause greater issues than blowing a date. Scrambling for work five minutes late, running along the highway you will miss things and open the door to circumstance. How many car accidents, some fatal, are caused by cascading errors of attention? The fact you didn’t plan your morning can be life-altering if fate intervenes.
“Avoidance of mistakes is the beginning, as it is the end, of mastery in chess.” – Eugene Znosko-Borovsky
A pilot has to do a pre-flight check that cannot be rushed. It is one of the most important and most repeated lessons of flight training, and with good reason. If you miss one little thing it can cause huge problems when you are cruising at three thousand feet. Just “assuming” you have enough gas to get to your destination is known to have caused many a tragedy – you cannot coast to the side of the road when you run out of gas thousands of feet above the earth.
“One bad move nullifies forty good ones.” – I.A. Horowitz
From lesser mistakes, to greater, we are all held accountable. That is why focus and attentive patience are imperative in Chess and in Life. Getting excited that your game is appearing to come to a glorious conclusion? Don’t overlook the basics of the situation. Maybe your dinner plans are coming to fruition exactly how you wanted? This is the time to pay attention and not to rush things; to solidify the win.
Losing a “Winning Game” is almost a truism.
When Kasparov missed the early win in Seville it was a matter of minutiae outside of the game – a technical point every player knows to follow. If he had been a lesser man, it could have ruined him.
If you can master small details such as keeping your own score or balancing your checkbook, you can keep minor blunders like that out of the sinister clutches of fate. Indeed the small things can be crucial for good or ill, and are what great things are built of.
Destiny after all, is in the details.
Full notes of the 1987 World Championship Final Game can be found here.
Ninety Percent of Success is Showing Up!
“To Insure Oneself against Defeat is the highest Duty of a General; only after doing this should he seek a Victory over his Opponent.” – Sun Tzu, ca. 200 B.C.E.
There are three possible outcomes in a game of chess – a win, a loss or a draw. A win awards the winner one point and nothing to the loser, while a draw gives half a point each to both players.
A draw can be reached by agreement, where both players realize each does not have suitable chances of winning; or it can be a fight to a literal standstill, occurring when a player is not in check and has no legal move, or when neither player has sufficient material to mate the opponent.
And sometimes, a player may choose to settle for a draw even if he/she has chances of winning, simply to eliminate the risk of losing. If you can secure a pass to a higher Tournament round you might choose that option – to that player, it is more important not to lose than it is to win.
“Rule No 1: Never lose money. Rule No 2: Never forget rule No 1.” – Warren Buffett (the world’s most famous investor)
Most investors have found it difficult to settle for a draw in bear markets, but the best of investors know it can be better in this situation to break even than to hope for an overnight turnaround. Investing in the stock market is a tricky game, just like chess. A player must know how to weigh the risks involved and understand when best to pull out, even if it doesn’t amount to a win.
When is the Game a “Salvage Mission”?
Having this mentality is what keeps successful people on the winning platform for extended careers. It doesn’t mean there aren’t times when they didn’t have chances of winning; it doesn’t mean there weren’t times when life was really hard on them. What a prolonged series of successes means is that the player was able to stay in the game.
If you can hold together in bad times, you will shine in good times.
“The Good Days are easy, and are a pleasure to work. It is the pro that puts in high quality effort when things look bad. You get paid for the Bad Days.” – a former boss of the author
Settling for a draw in the game of chess, does not necessarily mean the game is unchallenged or that a player is trying to play safe. In fact, in most cases, it means that a both players own bloody noses – and are so thoroughly pummeled that the ability to be tactically accurate has been compromised. Instead of rolling the dice, it can be smarter to sit on the sidelines.
Sometimes you have to Fight for a draw too. Being brave enough to force a half-point draw can be the defining point of a career – or of a marriage.
Marriage can be tough sometimes. Bystanders may exclaim at how close the rocks may be. Settling for a loss at such times can be really disastrous. You, your spouse and kids may never recover from it. But the draw mentality; the not-to-lose mentality will help you stay the distance and surmount the difficult times.
Survival can indeed be more important than the good times ever were. Things may look dark today, but tomorrow the sun will shine if you keep playing a solid game.
Offense, going for the jugular, wins the praise of the critics but it sometimes leaves you very vulnerable. Defense doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll win, but it can keep you in the game, which is more important. Staying in the game is priority Number One.
“Ninety percent of Success is Showing Up.” – Anon*
*quote originally attributed to Woody Allen that I am sure to have mis-taken. The concept is that being present at the game is a large part of being able to succeed at it. In the context of this post, that by defense you can insure that you at least can keep playing, and so enable future winning chances…
image: Washington Sq. P. – courtesy of George Eastman House – a Public Domain photo
On Bravery, and Risk Taking
“We cannot resist the fascination of sacrifice, since a passion for sacrifices is part of a chess player’s nature.” – Rudolf Spielmann
Often in Life, to either achieve your ultimate goal or to win a battle against today’s opponent, you have to make sacrifices and take calculated risks. For chess players, it is a passion to make these decisions; these are truly the roots of why we play. Although we are facing an active opponent, the future lies in our own choices today.
(The Classical Queen’s Gambit, Accepted: 1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. c4 dxc4 4. e3 e6 5. Bxc4 … black has just moved with pawn to c5)
Gambits are a prime example: When a player offers a “gift” pawn to his opponent, it can be rejected or accepted. To illustrate, in the Queen’s Gambit, accepted, black has risked and lost a good bit of control in the center in the hope of gaining initiative, positing a counterattack with his own C-Pawn. This is one of the most consistently played themes the game has ever known. Control of the center is a key principle because every thing moves through it over the course of a game.
“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In everyday life, often the thing being demanded from you is to be brave, brave on your decisions, brave enough to defend your priorities – you must choose a position or risk being washed away by others’ plans. It is often better to defend even just one thing well than be carried by the winds of the moment.
To paraphrase Goethe, you could be beaten, but the only way to build a victory is to take a series of risks. When the founders of YouTube, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, thought of building a video website, they were opposed by literally everyone in their surroundings. They took risk after risk, admittedly losing many key battles and investors along the way, but the ultimate payoff was enormous. To win in any endeavor you must face defeat squarely.
Self analysis should not be taken on a ticking clock.
Unlike golf, there is no “mulligan” operation in chess or life. Once you’ve made a move, good or bad, it’s time to look into the future and make further plans – don’t look behind, don’t dwell on your mistakes. Actively engaging regret can cost you the opportunity that your next move could have. Only a new move can salvage a blunder. Make new plans, think positively, and come prepared to face life.
In short, being brave, and cautiously risking your pieces and position for future rewards, are two sides of the same coin. If you are naturally adventurous, then taking more measured risks is a growth step. If you are a thinker, you need to know how to take strong action on your conclusions.
Winning takes more than intellect. “The game” requires Heart as much as mind; not only chess, but Life itself. Action should naturally follow thought, and Mastery begins in that balance.
Use all that you have to win. Be Brave.
image: Queens Gambit, Accepted – created with http://www.chessvideos.tv/chess-diagram-generator.php
Chess is undeniably tactical, demanding solid skills and technique; a game where nothing is hidden on the board. But it is also true that “luck” plays an important role in deciding who wins.
Whether or not luck decides the outcome of a game is a time-honored debate, but two time British Chess Champion Sir George Alan Thomas said “The popular idea that chess is a game into which luck does not enter at all is quite a fallacy.”
Luck: “Success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.” – Online Oxford Dictionary, 2015.
But some players legitimately depend on the raw chance that an opponent may blunder, don’t they? And an opponent’s blunder can be caused by factors that we as competitors have either encouraged or not, though the mistake is not actually our own action.
In Chess and in Life, we can only make our own moves after all.
There would be no luck in chess if there were no mistakes. Speaking with Radio WNYC about his career, Garry Kasparov talked about the fact that there aren’t any games, no matter how brilliant, which do not contain error. “You win sometimes because your opponent made the last mistake.”
But there’s something more important to strategy than the argument about blunders and making mistakes; it is the learned intuition that grasps when an opponent has overreached. Capitalizing on such knowledge is called Opportunism. Making your opponent pay for a blunder can be your surest, easiest and fastest route to victory.
Opportunism is everywhere, in Chess and Life.
For example, someone you sit next to while traveling invites you to an interview, and in a few weeks you’re a full-fledged employee of a Fortune 500 Company. You may have brought an excellent resume, but so did many others – the world is full of underachievers who finished school with excellent grades world-class skills.
There are better programmers than Mark Zuckerberg; there were more hardworking men than Steve Jobs. They just took hold of opportunity when it presented itself. They saw an inefficiency in how the market was handling technology, and adapted a solution to it.
Luck doesn’t just happen; you make happen it happen. And you can consciously create space in your life for good fortune.
When you’re better, simplify; when you’re worse, complicate…
My father was a lawyer for thirty years, and he told me when he had a losing case he would choose a jury trial, and when he had a winning case, he would want a Judge to decide it. The Jury trial equalized the chances with his opponent’s arguments, while the more scholarly judge’s skill would accentuate his own superior position. He was managing his chances appropriately.
As a chess example, Capablanca was the best chess player of his day, and his own personal motto was “simplify, simplify, simplify.” His competition knew that they had to really muddy the water with new variations if they were to stand any chance at beating him – and occasionally it worked. But the rare exceptions proved the rule that the best players want a level field, and inferior players need complexity, deceit, or randomness.
“The Opportunity for Victory lies in the Opponent; First secure yourself against Defeat, and only then seek out Ways of defeating the Enemy.” – Sun Tzu
In chess and life, good players don’t wait for luck. They play a solid game but create space for opportunity, and they spot it early and capitalize on it; that said though, they do play a solid game in case a mistake or inefficiency does not present itself.
Leave nothing to chance; many things are beyond our control, but sound strategy can account for that. Fortune needs to be molded.
Manage your Luck.
image: Chess, a Creative Commons CC 0.0 photo from Morguefile
Can Computers make us More Human?
In May, 2006, The future undisputed World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik was faced with a problem; how to play a computer even more powerful than the famous Deep Blue.
Deep Fritz represented real power at the chess board, but Kramnik, an experienced “advanced chess” player (where two humans use computers to help their play, legally, in a game) was drawn into the method rather than the topic of checkmate. After 34 moves he was faced with this position.
Kramnik to move as black.
And he chose 34. … Qe3?? missing the checkmate-in-one by Deep Fritz on Kramnik’s own king.
“The computer age has arrived, and it influences everything: analysis, preparation, information. Now a different talent is required – the ability to synthesize ideas.” – Boris Spassky.
Computers have quickly come into every aspect of our lives, bringing to light both the negative and positive attributes that we as humans have always had but never realized.
Before computers came to chess, players played the game armed with the knowledge and analysis of previous Grandmaster games or merely their own game review. GM moves before the time of computer critique were always correct (until they’re proven incorrect by other Grandmasters’ moves and analysis) and information on them was limited and often expensive.
Enter chess engines and a few years down the line the situation has changed drastically. Grandmasters who were previously held in awe are now being taunted from the sideline because of their machine-calculated blunders: errors made public almost before they even complete moving.
Analysis doesn’t take that long anymore. A Grandmaster doesn’t have to wait for ages before another Grandmaster is ripe enough to challenge his moves. His moves are analyzed and laughed at right under his nose.
Does this help us in any way? Maybe…
Maybe the computer is taking away a lot of things – the pleasure of watching the game with other real people, the naturalness, the royalty, and the grandiose dreaming associated with the game.
But maybe also the computer analysis has helped us discover ourselves too. Computers easily expose our tactical faults at the game of chess; but more importantly they may make us realize our own strategic and human capabilities, and that of our peers.
“But whatever you might say and whatever I might say, a machine which can play chess with people is one of the most marvelous wonders of our 20th century!” – David Bronstein
Strategy, not Tactics
Knowing that our faults will be out there in the open quickly challenges us to put our strength into the thinking and analysis of principles – tactics alone no longer cut it at the highest levels of play.
Computers may have made us more human. We no longer push pieces with superior smirks on our faces, because now we know our own vulnerability. GM’s are no longer interested in making their games faultless, but instead adapt their styles to magnify their own strengths, and profit from the weakness of their competition. This is what strategy is, folks.
In the same vein, tiny super computers and software written for every human endeavor may expose our weaknesses, but they challenge us to harness our strengths more efficiently also.
They tell us that as humans no matter how hard we try, we can’t know it all. We’ll always have frailty and faults. This lesson can leave us more grounded if we choose, and teach us the importance of depth of thought instead of raw and instantaneous tactical gratification – we should think and improve on those perceptive and judgemental, truly human, elements that computers will never possess.
“Computers are magnificent tools for the realization of our dreams, but no machine can replace the human spark of spirit, compassion, love, and understanding.” – Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.
To win today we must be deep, be principled, be human, and Be Strategic.
credit: the full Deep Fritz – V. Kramnik game can be found in interactive PGN format here…
image: Deep Fritz (w) vs. Vladimir Kramnik, 2006: Black to move. created by http://www.chessvideos.tv/chess-diagram-generator.php