Chess Lesson

Within my secret life, there are touchstones.  Ideas, phrases, facts, and notions I refer to time and time again -- as often as I would consult a map when traveling.  Among these treasures is a story from the world of chess.

I'm told that during an international competition many years ago, a man named Frank Marshall made what is often called the most beautiful move ever made on a chessboard.  In a crucial game in which he was evenly matched with a Russian master player, Marshall found his queen under serious attack.  There were several avenues of escape, and since the queen is the most important offensive player, the spectators assumed Marshall would observe convention and move his queen to safety.

     Deep in thought, Marshall used all the time available to him to consider the board conditions.  He picked up his queen -- paused -- and placed it down on the most illogical square of all -- a square from which the queen could be captured by any one of three hostile pieces.

Marshall had sacrificed his queen -- an unthinkable move, to be made only in the most desperate of circumstances.

The spectators and Marshall's opponent were dismayed.

     Then the Russian and the crowd realized that Marshall had actually made a brilliant move.  It was clear that no matter how the queen was taken, his opponent would soon be in a losing position.  Seeing the inevitable defeat, the Russian conceded the game.  

     When the spectators recovered from the shock of Marshall's daring, they showered the chessboard with money.  Marshall had achieved victory in a rare and daring fashion -- he had won by sacrificing his queen.

To me, it's not important that he won.

     Not even important that he actually made the queen-sacrifice move.  

     What counts is that Marshall had suspended standard thinking long enough even to entertain the possibility of such a move.

     Marshall had looked outside the traditional and orthodox patterns of play and had been willing to consider an imaginative risk on the basis of his judgment and his judgment alone.  No matter how the game ended, Marshall was the ultimate winner.

I've told that story countless times.

     And on the checklist of operating instructions for my life, this phrase appears:

     "Time to sacrifice the queen?"


-excerpted from Maybe (Maybe Not : Second Thoughts from a Secret Life), by Robert Fulghum