The Game of the Century

January 26, 2011  |  Chess, Marketing
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I have found no way to casually play chess. It either informs and colors a great deal of even my most quotidian thought processes, or I have to remove myself from it for awhile to wear other glasses until my perspective becomes controllably rubbery again. Maybe this began with my epiphany upon reading Borovsky’s rules (for chess, and in my opinion, for life.)

I recently heard a super episode of Six Pixels of Separation featuring Jonathan Salem Baskin, a man who studies the connections between history and marketing. Baskin explained that the rules of social have never changed. There are no new rules, as has become a popular title of advice blogs on getting more followers by tweaking your Twettiquette for the new age. Nay. The rules have been the same for thousands of years, but the applications are different.

Throughout history, myriad diverse great leaders have pointed to chess as a learning tool that informed their strategy for war. The language is universal. The possibilities are near-infinite. Chess’s application is tenacious, though the game is very old. That’s because rules for social are implicated in rules for war, and thus in rules for chess (and business, which I’ll get to soon).

Bobby Fischer Game of the Century 1956

This week, I’ve been studying one game in particular:

The Game of the Century

Donald Byrne vs. Bobby Fischer
Rosenwald Memorial Tournament, New York City. October 17, 1956

A promising young player, thirteen-year old Bobby Fischer played one of the nation’s leading chessmasters, Donald Byrne. Later, the match was nicknamed The Game of the Century. Over the next four decades, however, other matches have arguably taken precedence. Byrne-Fischer 1956 still ranks in the top ten on most grandmasters’ lists. And I’m writing about it because there is something gorgeous and surreptitious in Fischer’s strategy.


Play the moves at your own speed here for a slower review. I challenge you to try and predict the moves if this is your first viewing. You probably can’t. (Note: Fischer is black.)

The other players, even Reshevsky, came to watch the match, with the crowd three or four deep. Almost every move generated a buzz among the spectators. Very few people could see what Fischer had planned.

The key move is 17…Be6. Fischer sacrificed his queen. Byrne captured the queen, but Fischer then gained a ton of material- a rook, two bishops, and a pawn.

Life Lesson and Business Application

Never be afraid to sacrifice or appear weak temporarily, as long as your ultimate plan is solid. Know your plan and the rest will follow. Never underestimate yourself because you’re young (or have an other image flaw). Others will: Use it to your advantage.

What worked for Fischer can work for your brand. Be bold but mindful. Be prepared and be quietly audacious.

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  • http://schadenfreudeanslip.blogspot.com/ Daniel Jones Vincent

    There seem to be greater conclusions that can be reached from this framework; the infinite number of permutations within a system of set rules and applications of human creativity (or the so called “fresh mind”) at revolutionizing these systems with new tactics, rules themselves are like laws as the greek philospher Anarchasis described them – that is to say only for the weak for the followers for the meek for the impotent they always exist but are only followed by those who dare not create them, and furthermore why not promote the paradigm of the underdog as the one with the greater chance of victory seeing as the underdog has less external pressure bearing down on him and, inherently, more room to operate. Everyone always roots for David over Goliath… doesn’t this have a palpable psychic toll on Goliath’s performance? If Byrne had played with humility or been humble in style wouldn’t that be a display of weakness? If he had played for a draw wouldn’t he have been laughed out of town? We know in our quantum mechanical reality that the observer affects the outcome, we can’t we internalize this concept? Not to mention that Fischer himself surely did after claiming Russian TK agents were trying to control his thoughts during the epic Spasky matches. > DJV > response desired

    • http://www.emilybinder.com/ Emily

      @DJV: You say the underdog has less pressure on him to succeed, thus more room to operate. (I’ll use the masculine to describe the underdog since Fischer was my example.) That’s usually true, but in my application here, I would argue that the underdog should use to his advantage his appearing weak (being young or, for a new business, lacking consumer trust). I don’t mean he should be humble. Quiet audacity is not humility. It’s practically the opposite: tactfully concealed confidence. If Byrne had played more humbly but it had worked for him; no one would chide him for appearing weak, since he’d have won and the end justifies the means.

      I don’t think the underdog has a greater chance for victory simply because he’s the underdog. By definition, the underdog has handicaps working against him. You might be right that subconsciously, labeling would work in his favor, but pragmatically, the expected winner is expected to win for a reason. These are usually tangible factors that effect the odds.

      As for the first part of your comment about rules, good point- creating new rules is legendary. Sally Hogshead says that a good brand reinvents the rules: “And herein lies the value of vice: When you break the rules, you change the game…” My point about rules is that the ones that guide chess and war also guide marketing and social media despite modern self-appointed gurus touting the “new rules of social media.”

      PS- Chess doesn’t have an infinite number of permutations. There are a near-infinite number of possible chess games. And I’d say this concept is more mind-boggling than infinity…

  • Mannah

    I just read The Kings of New York, a really good book about the 3 time High School National Champions and one line stood out, “You can see things when your mind is developing that you can’t when it is fully grown.” Maybe that is why I have trouble beating my middle schoolers let alone following the rationale behind quite possibly the greatest chess mind of all time playing one of the greatest matches of all time. Then again genius has its downside and I’m sure if Fischer wasn’t so damn remarkable he would be less crazy pants today.

  • http://schadenfreudeanslip.blogspot.com/ Daniel Jones Vincent

    Let me distill, clarify and articulate what is a very condensed comment.

    Bobby Fischer was a never humble. The historical record speaks for itself. To expand on my postulation, as you siad, it is more the perception of the underdog – Byrne was far and away Fischer’s superior in age and as such had much more experience on the chessboard ect along with having a venerable reputation. Byrne simply could not afford to play possum against a 13 year old – he would lose the crowd. The external pressure of the crowd (marketplace, voting population) condenses the actions of the more established forcing (his) hand so to speak. Think of the guerilla warfare paradigm, the larger state or entity is forced to play by the existing percieved rules whereas the revolutionaries (terrorists) are unconfined by modern conventions (ie Geneva Convention). The guerillas have mobility, new companies have more room for innovation than corporations – corporations which are inherently established and inflexible. Large entities, whether they be instituitions or individuals, draw more scrutiny and more flak because their decisions are more prominent. The crowd was abuzz as Byrne’s feet were held to the coals – this a very palpable factor in the mental game of chess. Byrne had no choice but to play the losing game – he was not allowed or afforded another role.

    The expected winner is expected to win not because of objective criterion but rather subjective bias, size is not necessarily an advantage but it is ALWAYS considered one. Did size (status, social power) work for the Roman empire, English empire, America in veitnam, American car companies versus asian, ect ect ad infinitum? The expected winner is expected to win because of past victories ie consider boxing, but not because current ability. This is ALWAYS the case, our minds and perception lack the proper metrics to gauge reality, our scales are always wieghted.

    And as for your post scipt the number of permutations on the chess board is roughly between 10^43rd to 10^50th power, and as such finite but for the sake of the human mind, poetically speaking, infinite. I don’t need to mention alternative levels of infinity (aleph 1,2,3, ect) to get my point across; for human beings this number is quite beyond infinite.

    DJV

  • http://twitter.com/mwlphelps Matt Phelps

    A couple of corrections… It’s Donald Byrne, not David. And the tournament where Fischer won all the games you reference is not this one, but probably the 1963/4 U.S. Championship.

    Your general point is still valid; though I personally think using chess as a metaphor is overdone It’s “only a game” after all. Fischer’s sacrifice was more remarkable because of the depth of understanding it showed for so young a person.

    • http://www.emilybinder.com Emily Binder

      Thanks for catching those. I corrected the typos. You’re right about why Fischer’s sacrifice was heralded in this game; the main reason was his young age. But what I draw from it is that it’s great to use what others see as a weakness (inexperience, age, etc.) to one’s advantage. The quiet audacity part.

      Yes, chess can be overused as a metaphor. Have you ever searched Twitter for “chess?” Try it out. About half the results will be ghetto/illiterate RTs of something along the lines of:

      candysmile11: RT @WillAve: Every Man needs a Woman when his life is a mess…because just like the game of chess the Queen protects the King http://twitter.com/candysmile11/statuses/61246186018963456

      exstasie: im jumping niggas like a chess piece http://twitter.com/exstasie/statuses/61244453029027841

      If anything, this reminds me to keep a sense of humor about this game. I always get too serious with it.