26 August 2007

The Inner Game is the Only Game

I've recently been reading, as well as all the obvious academic gibberish, a host of books of strategy, tactics, leadership, and all that. Along the way I hastened through Gary Kasparov's How Life Imitates Chess, which, though far from convincing in a lot of ways nonetheless demonstrates how handily chess can be used for analogies. I mentioned this to NRMBoy a little earlier, saying I'd been thinking of a particular analogy, and was tempted to show him.

'Righto,' he said, 'I like chess analogies, but I always object when they are used in films and there's always a convenient checkmate before the scene cuts.'

I'm not going to explain the analogy for you, but anyway, you can see the improbable scenario here. There's the black king, cowering in the corner, without a hope in hell of ever beating his white opponent, but somehow, insanely, hoping to get out of this situation in one piece.

For the record, in chess this is regarded as very bad form. When you're obviously beaten -- which is usually your own fault, because of a blunder at the start -- you should concede with grace. But for all that, here we have a situation where a beleaguered blunderer is somehow refusing to face reality. And he's just been hit with a direct attack from a white rook.

The rook is the panzer of the chess world. It attacks head on, without an ounce of subtlety, and in truth there's no way of stopping it. Except that perhaps, like Scipio faced with Hannibal's elephants at Zama, you can just skip out of the way.

Just a step to the left, as the old song goes. That's all it takes, it seems, and the direct threat sails right past him, exploding harmlessly in thin air.

Safe, wouldn't you think?

Well, no, because there's another white rook out there, just as direct and just as powerful as the first one. There's no ambiguity about these beasts. The bruise brothers can just hammer him into a pulp, and are utterly lethal as a team.

So what does the black king do?

Well, he could face reality and surrender, which would be the sensible approach. But sensible isn't really black's thing. Admitting he screwed up? No, that's be far too mature, far too noble for him. The only thing for it is to stumble out of the way again.

And so he again steps to the left.

Now, seriously, I'm not joking. This is not what you do. This guy's screwed up royally, he has no realistic option other than to knock his king over and admit he's beaten, that he messed up, and that it's all his fault. He doesn't have to say that white is better than him -- I mean, he might be, and judging by the board he probably is -- but this is a subtle game, and all he really has to admit is that he made a mistake. Or lots of mistakes.

But instead he just stumbles out of a firing line, hoping despite all the evidence that white is going to go away. But why would he? He's winning, after all. It's only a matter of time . . .

So black's staggered out of one firing line, as I've said, but he's really just walked into another one, as this is the point at which white unleashes the bishop.

It's a flank attack, one that's not expected, mainly because black has throughout the game demonstrated a shocking inability to see the whole board.

So the bishop darts across the board - and I suspect that in real life bishops refrain from darting as much as episcopally possible - and attacks from a whole new angle.

Really, this matters. There's a fine episode of The West Wing where President Barlet strolls about the West Wing defusing a major diplomatic crisis between China and Taiwan while casually whupping Sam and Toby's asses on beautiful antique chess sets. Not literally, of course. That'd be a very different kind of show. And while Charlie is asking the sexiest woman on television whether it might have been easier to respect the rules and regulations, and Toby is telling Bartlet time and again that being intelligent is not something we should have to hide, and while Josh and Donna are tending a mustard seed so that it becomes a mighty tree, Bartlet keeps repeating the same bit of advice to Sam: See the whole board.

But of course, black's too thick, or too stubborn, or too arrogant to do that, so he just stumbles out of the firing line again. Forward, he thinks, there's nothing on the horizon if he goes there.

And he's kind of right. There is nothing on the horizon.

(Incidentally, if you think this is contrived, you're not alone. NMRboy began muttering from the off on this one. In my defence, it took me about two minutes to think this up last night. In the pub. I did not spend a long time on this. Honestly.)

So yes, there is nothing on black's horizon, but let's not forget that freakish secret weapon that is the knight.

Look at that for a move. Technically the knight moves to the nearest non-adjacent square of the opposite colour to the one she starts on. In pratice that means she does a weird 'L-shaped' jump. Yes, a jump. He clears the heads of everyone else. Right over them, appearing from nowhere, oblivious to all the mess in the way.

So again, the black king's under attack, and this time in the most novel way imaginable. Do you reckon he'll surrender? Seriously? No, of course not. And it's not because he's brave and heroic, with a tenacious streak a mile wide. No, it's just that some people just can't admit they screwed up.

You haven't a clue what I'm talking about, do you?

So anyway, the black king stumbles backwards now, and sideways a bit. Yup, his balance is gone, but still, he's on his feet, just about.

Sorry, while I think of it, the reference to sexiest woman on television earlier on was to C.J. Cregg. But you got that, didn't you? I mean, seriously, who else? Not just because she literally stands head and shoulders above the other tempting televisual redheads, you because she's smarter, funnier, and classier than just about anyone else who's ever graced the small screen. And she's got very good hair.

Right, so as I was saying, black's back on the back row now, having stumbled from two direct attacks, a flank attack, and a shot out of nowhere. Still, he's safe now, it seems. Granted, he has no firepower of his own, but somehow, through sheer brazen nerve he's coping with assault after assault after assault.

Safe now. Breathing space.

Don't be ridiculous. Remember Bartlet's advice to Sam? See the whole board. Look at the far side of the board. All along, if you've been paying attention, there's been a lowly white pawn, just sitting there, tiny and insignificant, having edged his way up the board a long time ago. He's just been sitting, ready to strike.

And he does, in that weird transexual moment that is such a rare chess delight. Like Tip discovering at the end of the second Oz book that he is in fact the Princess Ozma, our silent soldier on the right steps forward quietly to have his rank and gender transformed. And now, queened, she shoots right along the back row, gunning straight for the black king.

He can't pretend any more. It's checkmate.

I know, a tad contrived, but elaborate analogies tend to be. Still, like I said, two minutes in the pub. Sorry, NMR.

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