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EVERY MOVE MUST HAVE A PURPOSE
Strategies from Chess for Business and Life
By BRUCE PANDOLFINI
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
Play the Board,
Not the Player
Chess point: Everything pertinent to the
game can be learned from the position of the
pieces on the board.
Some years ago I was asked to give an exhibition at
a New York City establishment for troubled teenagers.
Chessplayers call this sort of thing a "simul,"
and it involves playing a number of opponents at the
same time. In this case, I confronted twenty young men
sitting in a row, many of whom had already had serious
bouts with the law. Cynical and self-assured, they could
hold their own in any kind of street fight. Clearly, a
chess game held no terrors.
I glanced quickly over the boards. There was one
at the far end of the room that looked strangely askew.
The player sitting there, behind the white pieces, was
glowering at me as if we were facing off before the start
of a boxing match. I walked over to take a closer look
at the board.
Both sides were set up correctly. Each army occupied
its first and second ranks. But this inventive
fellow had managed to plant an extra rook on histhird
row. "You have three rooks," I observed. The young
man looked me full in the face. "Are you accusing me
of cheating?" he asked, his voice laced with implied
Respect your opponent, I told myself, don't fear
him. Still, I found myself recalling a past occasion
working chessboards with other tough guys. I'd volunteered
to teach chess once a week at a nearby penitentiary
in New York State.
A lot of riots broke out back then that never made
the news, and I was treated to one while I was teaching
my class. The guards carefully closed off a wing in order
to secure the prison. I was left trapped in the library
with twelve miscreants, among them a murderer or two.
All the while, I desperately racked my brain to find
some astute comments on the importance of cornering
the king and the value of attacking in number. Hoping
for a bright idea proved unnecessary, however. None of
the nearby fuss fazed my students in the slightest. The
group continued to play chess as if nothing else mattered.
That memory in mind, I returned to the setup
sporting three white rooks. I glanced again at the angry
young man who'd assumed he could only win
with a head start. The educator in me decided to let
him keep his extra piece. Maybe there was a lesson
to be learned. But it didn't come to that, for my
challenger suddenly removed his third rook and said,
I knew my opponent was insecure about his abilities,
so I didn't expect much. During my first few laps
around the room, I'd take a brief look at his board, make
a move, and head on. Around move twelve, though, I
stopped short. From where I stood, it didn't look that
The young man was actually quite adept, and our
battle turned out to be my toughest game of the day. I
had to work pretty hard before I finally found a winning
idea. After a grueling struggle, my opponent had merely
a king to my king and pawn. I managed to advance the
pawn to its eighth rank.
My young adversary looked up at me. We both knew
I could exchange the pawn for a new queen. I paused.
Then I asked for a rook. Now the extra rook belonged
to me, and this one was indisputable, gained according
to the rules of the game. Smiling in recognition, my
opponent extended his hand in gracious defeat.
What a force that young man turned out to be. Before
we started, he had fixated on the player he had to
face. But with his first move, he focused his energies
on the game. Not his opponent. Not the psych-out. Not
the setting. Just the game.
Conversely, I had begun by dismissing my opponent
as a novice. In the end, his resolute play forced me to
do what all chessplayers must: concentrate on the contest,
not the player. We were both back at the quest for
truth, and that, in chess, is always found on the board.
Chess is a totality containing perfect information.
Nothing is hidden from us. We can count pieces and
discern an advantage in space. We can target weak
squares and focus on the opposing king. We can divide
our thinking into convenient steps and assess each one.
And when it comes to forming plans and making decisions,
we learn to abide by what logic dictates and
our analysis supports. In the beginning, middle, and
end, all the answers are before us, in the positions of
the pieces, in the rules of the game, in the moves we
Obviously, players are free to use anything that
could provide them with constructive information. Why
not? In one international competition, Bobby Fischer
was about to launch what he thought was a clever attack
when he noticed that his adversary had taken on the
posture of Rodin's The Thinker. Fischer sensed immediately
that he was walking into an ambush. He was
tipped off by his opponent's body language.
The other player had indeed set a trap. Then he
froze, and that betrayed his ruse. But Fischer still had
to find good moves to win. Ultimately, the placement of
the pieces-not his opponent's petrified posture-gave
him the solution he sought.
Many books have been written advising us how to
interpret the subtle deportment of our partners, bosses,
or employees. Understanding physical clues can be germane
to any environment, and all kinds of elusive factors
can assist us in making decisions.
Can any of those signals really substitute for the
right moves? Not likely. And what if you misinterpret
a sign? What if a player dissembles, or disarms you
with misleading behavior? What seems like evidence
may be disinformation. In short, your opponent might
fool you in any number of ways. The board can't. Chess
reality is found in the position of the pieces on sixty-four
squares, plain and simple.
Surely we can say the same about the business
world. Anything from a blink of an eye to a Freudian
slip may provide clues to exploit before taking action.
But depending on our assumptions can be dangerous.
We might misinterpret what we see. What we assume
to be clues may turn out to be red herrings.
Accurate information is necessary for good decision
making. Sound judgment requires evidence we can
count on. Consider anything, but to succeed in the big
game, rely on the actual facts.
The board can't lie.
a Good Hunch
Chess point: Moves can be right whether or
not they make sense.
No one should sneeze at a hunch. Grandmasters
certainly don't. Take one of the twentieth century's
greatest players, the Latvian Mikhail Tal (1936-1991).
There walked an artist who blended exacting analysis
with intuitive genius. Tal, who at the enterprising age
of twenty-three stole the world championship from the
Russian Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995), played sacrifices
so complicated they defied objective investigation.
Even so, the eighth world chess champion trusted
his premonitions for good reason. They usually won.
Tal used to tell a story about playing grandmaster
Yevgeny Vasiukov (b. 1933) at one of the USSR championships.
After about twenty moves, the two players
had concocted a light-and-dark labyrinth on the board.
Confused, Tal considered making a knight sacrifice.
But try as he might, he couldn't quite visualize the outcome.
Chess chaos. It can be almost unbearable. Nonetheless,
Tal kept trying to sort out the variations running
riot in his brain. Unaccountably, a classic line from the
Russian poet Korney Ivanovich Chukovsky suddenly
popped into his head. "Oh, what a difficult job it was
to drag the hippopotamus out of the marsh."
The game was at stake. Tal tried to focus on it. But
he couldn't get the hippo out of his mind or off the
board. His imagination had planted the beast on a
square of its own. How, Tal wondered, would they drag
a hippo out of a marsh anyway? Would they use levers,
a rope ladder, a helicopter, or what? After a while the
hippo and the knight became a dilemma. Finally, in
disgust, Tal thought, "Well, let it drown."
At that instant the hippopotamus disappeared from
both Tal's mind and the board. The chess situation no
longer seemed complicated. Yet the moves still couldn't
be calculated precisely. So Tal said the heck with them
too. With no further ado, he sacrificed the knight along
with the hippo.
"There are two types of sacrifices," Tal once wrote.
"Correct ones and mine." The next day the newspapers
were filled with glowing descriptions of Tal's luminous
play. Chess commentators expressed astonishment at
the amazing knight sacrifice he had worked out over the
board. By his own account, however, Tal hadn't worked
out anything. He had simply surrendered to feeling. The
Latvian wizard chose to cut the Gordian knot by dumping
the hippo. He gave way, apparently, to a sixth sense.
Chess by guesswork? Putting your faith in instinct?
We're told that there's no such thing as chance when it
comes to chess. But if there's no luck, if nothing is
adventitious, how could any player at any level depend
on a mere impression for a solution?
Chess requires reasoning-deductive and inductive.
Players try to crack the code by doing what the
board and pieces say is best. They frame a question,
gather data, and deduce the right comeback. In this
game, logic is supposedly everything.
It's not, of course, and veteran players know it. Even
those who can't seem to live without a good algorithm
acknowledge that unconscious assumptions can save us
when conscious calculation fails. While chessplayers
rely on rational thought, we concede this point: There
are Dr. Ruth moments. It feels right, so we do it.
We call that a hunch. But intuitive chess comes
from a sophisticated ability to perceive blueprints on
the board. This sort of pattern recognition is natural,
though unconscious. What we think we're feeling we're
actually seeing. We've seen it before, or something like
it. Look at anything often enough and the image stays
with you, providing subconscious proof for decisions
you know are correct but can't quite explain.
Over the long haul, players assimilate arrangements
and relate them to consequences. Masters create memory
chunks containing tens of thousands of chess positions.
They draw from a treasury of past experience
to problem-solve in the present. Like Tal, agile players
may not be able to say why a move makes sense at the
moment they make it. But this doesn't stop them from
using it to win.
Intuition is no accident. It's an intellectual skill,
troubleshooting by association rather than logic. And it
turns out that mental suggestion is particularly effective
in complex or chaotic situations that might throw off
attempts at systematic scrutiny. When there are too
many variables to keep in mind, players sometimes
slice through the hooey by recognizing and comparing
forms and relationships. When they find the best configuration,
they have their next move.
Business, chess, it doesn't matter. You're more
likely to find the right moves, and make the right
choices, if you understand that your instincts are based
on what you don't know you already do.
And that's not just a hunch.
Some moves explain themselves.
Play with a Plan
Chess point: It's wise to plan, and the best
plans are manageable and flexible.
How far ahead does a master look before playing a
move? At the great New York tournament in
1924, world champion Jose Ratul Capablanca (1888-1942)
impishly informed a reporter that he often analyzed
fifty moves into the future. Grandmaster Reuben
Fine, on the other hand, remarked that he "seldom
looked more than a move ahead, but that was usually
the best one."
Numbers aside, every chessplayer learns to plan
ahead. Every chessplayer has to. Consider perennial
U.S. champion Frank Marshall (1877-1944), founder
of the Marshall Chess Club in New York City's Greenwich
Village. Marshall could gamble now and then. But
he was equally prepared to study possible sequences
and their variations for hours at a time.
Or years. In 1909, at the seasoned age of thirty-two,
Marshall played against Capablanca, then a mere chess
upstart some eleven years his junior. Over a period of
several weeks, Capablanca beat the elder statesman in
a match 8-1. Humiliated by the loss, Marshall diligently
trained for some future encounter with the Cuban.
He developed a curious gambit that seemed to
afford him splendid chances regardless of how Capablanca
replied, and he practiced in private to keep his
plan a secret.
Seven years went by before Marshall's opportunity
came knocking. He unveiled his new setup at the Manhattan
Chess Club Masters Tournament in New York,
and it took everyone by surprise. But not Capablanca,
who refuted Marshall's opening over the board, winning
handily with purposeful response. Although Capablanca
didn't know the variation, it didn't matter.
Excerpted from EVERY MOVE MUST HAVE A PURPOSE
by BRUCE PANDOLFINI
Copyright © 2003 by Bruce Pandolfini.
Excerpted by permission.
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