Strategy & Taoism: the chess master’s view

Howard Goldowsky

Some of the first reactions to my book are now streaming in, which is enormously suspenseful for me. You are each projecting yourself into the stories in my book, each finding completely new ways of looking at them and, yes, your own lessons to take away from them. This is just as I intended, so I’m feeling good.

Here, for instance, is an email I just got from one Howard Goldowsky, who happens to be a chess wizard, and thus a strategy connoisseur, as well as a chess writer. Check out his Amazon page.

(By the way, I will never post or publish your emails or other reactions without explicitly asking for permission. So never worry if you want to critique the book to me discreetly.)

Here is Howard:

I think that the last few paragraphs about equanimity sum up your entire book. In a way, what you present in “Hannibal and Me” is almost a Western interpretation of Taoist and some Buddhist philosophy. In my mind, it’s no accident that the book’s finale included a passage from the East. Is not the essence of self-actualization the monk’s daily routine of meditation, ‘chop wood and carry water?’

Chess expertise parallels life more ways than imagined. In chess there is a very distinct line between strategy and tactics. In chess, good players are always trying to level their emotions to equanimity. In chess, we often use our opponents’ aggressiveness against them. In chess, there is a constant balancing act between general principles and specific situations. Too many parallels to mention here….but these are universal truths we’re talking about, so it’s not such a wonder that these parallels exist.

21 thoughts on “Strategy & Taoism: the chess master’s view

  1. I think we (human beings… if I may include myself in that category) find parallels to “real life” in almost every non-essential endeavor. But chess’ history is one of teaching military tactics, is it not? And isn’t strategy just a facet of competition? All games entail strategies. As do all “real life” endeavors.

    On an unrelated note, the H2 (History) channel had a episode of “Ancients behaving badly” covering Hannibal. A not exactly flattering one. Here’s a link to an online full video:
    http://www.history.ca/video/default.aspx?releasePID=H0L6AsDzJj4a9zswFyHwxGyiD0dwgc2M

    • I’m going to watch that video anon. (I’m almost scared of discovering “new” perspectives about Hannibal these days, lest it might confuse me as i try to discuss my own. But I’m very curious to see how it is “not exactly flattering”).

      Chess: Yes, it does originate in military culture, doesn’t it? Or rather, feudal culture, what with the estates (King, bishop, knights, peasants) as the combatants…

    • I am no chess expert, a poor player at best, but I seem to recall that chess was a Persian invention. Checking Wikipedia, I find that’s sort of correct. I always thought of pawns as the infantry, though; expendable pieces to be used to block, create diversions, and disrupt the opponent’s strategy. But, yes, they were serfs (a sort of feudal conscription was used: “You, take arms, your sire needs you!” and you “enlisted” or died there) though I am sure there were more than a few volunteers looking for a way out of serfdom). When you think about it, all cultures at the time of chess’ beginning were military cultures.

      On that “bishop” piece, my take was that this piece represented the king’s adviser (often a higher-up man of the cloth but not always) which was evidenced by his oblique movement.

  2. Andreas, are you a chess player? I assumed you were when you causally used “en passant” during the live-blog of the GOP debate. This seems like more indirect confirmation.

    • You spy! you saw my “orange” on our live blog and knew it was me?

      Not my best showing that day. I used to be funnier.

      Anyway, I used to play chess a lot with my dad when I was little, and I was OK at it then. Now I’m out of practice, although I’ve started to teach my oldest, age 6. Perhaps I’ll take it up again. (It’s actually the perfect meditation object for our time-lacking culture. The problem is: how do you find time for it? ;))

    • Admittedly it’s tough to find the time. My brother and I used to play a lot. For a while he was taking online lessons with a Hungarian chess master; when I visited Budapest we got in touch and I actually got an opportunity to play some games with him (needless to say he won)!

      I got an ipad for christmas and I sneak in online games when I have downtime. When my family gets together my brother and I still play – although the rest of the fam doesn’t really appreciate the need for silence during our games. haha.

      Playing chess is always fun for kids when they first learn, but studying tactics, strategy and openings opens up an appreciation for the game that’s hard to convey.

    • I’m not sure if it’s the best app or not because I just got it. But I use the chess.com one. It’s free and has suited my purposes so far.

      On how you write: There are little things I notice, but I wouldn’t say you have some overly obvious style (i wouldn’t say that’s good or bad). Not to pigeonhole you, but it’s often the type of points you make or sometimes it’s that the humor is Kluthian. “Blue, the president is more like a preacher-meets-cattle herder. An American CEO has the powers of Attila the Hun.”

      In another live-blog: “I think we’re seeing differential skills in storytelling. They’ve all been told to personalise, but some (Cain) do it well, giving you a plot and characters, and others don’t, just namedropping somebody they know.”

      Also if I recall, you basically caught the Cain surge before others did. You noticed something about him early that primary voters eventually did too (even if it didn’t last). Although you also thought his ridiculous 9-9-9 plan sounded good at first. I guess your political foresight is a bit sharper than it is for policy 😉

  3. Haven’t made it to the equanimity section yet, but I found a typo in the Kindle version at Location 3337:

    Then he transfixed he enemy’s center and encircled him as Hannibal had done at Cannae.

    Also, a few quotation marks appear to be oddly placed or missing. For instance:

    Location 2364:

    “None,” replied Cineas, which leaves us to “make an absolute conquest of Greece. And when all these are in our power, what shall we do then?”

    Location 2824:

    Let’s not even pause, let’s set off for Rome tonight to finish the job, said Maharbal. “Within five days you will take your dinner, in triumph, on the Capitol.”

    Location 3361:

    But don’t think that I am jealous or envious, Fabius continued, “for how can I compete with a man who is younger even than my own son?”

    (All this is strictly for your eyes only—you do NOT have my permission to publish this message. I don’t want your readers to get the impression I’m pedantic or something.)

    • “pedantic”? You? Cyberquill?

      Nobody would get that idea.

      Now, let’s see….

      the typo is inexcusable. I will have some factchecker at Riverhead trampled by elephants, a la Hamilcar.

      But the quotation marks are actually as they should be: I was very careful only to place marks around direct quotes in ancient sources, such as Plutarch in the first example and Livy in the second and third. But since those ancients wrote prose that is to us often unreadable or just weird, i had to cut very precisely to get it down to these little gems. I “soundbited” Livy and Plutarch and Polybius, you might say.

    • Before you dispatch unleash those elephants, ask yourself what happens when you get into a fight with your factchecker? Should you try to “win”? Tactically, it might be possible to outmaneuver the folks at Riverhead. But would a victory in this particular battle advance your overall strategy?

      Regarding ’em quotes, the thought had indeed crossed my mind that you might be following The Carthage Manual of Style or some other set of rules I’m not familiar with. But what about the rule of consistency? Throughout your book, the unquoted word I, for instance, refers to yourself. And then suddenly it denotes someone else:

      But don’t think that I am jealous or envious, Fabius continued, “for how can I compete with a man who is younger even than my own son?”

      It may be perfectly correct to print it that way, but to me—and, presumably, to one or the other other (yes, double-other) reader as well—it just looks like someone forgot the quotes.

      My—admittedly often misguided—instincts would urge me to recast the sentence thus:

      But the senators shouldn’t think that he was jealous or envious, Fabius continued, “for how can I compete with a man who is younger even than my own son?”

      Nay, I would recast it thus:

      But the senators shouldn’t mistake his innate reluctance for jealousy or envy, Fabius continued, “for how can I compete with a man who is younger even than my own son?”

      That’s just because I harbor an innate aversion to “was” and all other forms of the verb “to be,” and in some passages in your book I did notice what I would consider an excessive concentration of was’s, is’s, and were’s.

      On a positive note:

      He loaded large jars full of venomous snakes onto the triremes he commanded.

      Venomous, not poisonous—excellent!

      But then again:

      The two men mixed like oil and water.

      I can’t believe you threw in such a threadbare cliché. Couldn’t those dudes have mixed like milk and lime juice or something?

      Overall, your book is very good, as it reflects the lives of, I suppose, all of us in some way. Personally, I’m approaching middle age. having accomplished absolutely nothing in my life so far, at least nothing that could in any way be viewed as a “success” in the conventional sense. Having read the book I am now more confident than ever that I’m well on schedule to be president in a decade or two at the most. All I have to do is hang in there and “do nothing” until all the obstacles around me have collapsed under their own weight.

      Thank you.

    • Well, that’s a good point about teh quotes. I’m sure I had a think about it at the time and had some reason for deciding to do it this way. Probably, I wanted to leave you, the reader, IN the story, without actually misquoting the ancient sources. But you’re right, I should have done it your way. And you’re also right about the overuse of was’s.

      Re the oil and water: We actually discussed that particular cliche here on the blog at some point. I thought it fit. If you found many other cliches, I promise to commit public harakiri right here. But if that’s one of only two or three in the whole book, I’ll do a plea bargain with you.

      Now: First, Thank You for reading the book, and for your praise. Second, I’ll take State or Defense when you, you know, get there. If you’re still angry about the oil-water thing then, I’ll take Education or Environment. Under no circumstances Labor.

    • I’ve finished your book, and I didn’t find any additional cliches, so please hold off on the self-slaughter for now. I’ll need you in my administration. You’ll be U.S. Ambassador to Bavaria.

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