Posted by: cochinblogger | September 9, 2014

On Squeezing One Ball

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This book, by the former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, is about how the lessons learned from the game of chess can be applied to real life. I’m skeptical about the thesis of the book, but as an avid former chess player and enthusiast, I found it an entertaining read. The chess parts of the book interested me most: his accounts of his early years in chess, the role of his mother in his chess career (his father died when Kasparov was a young boy), his trainers, his epic title matches with his perennial rival Karpov, and anecdotes about life on the chess tournament circuit. I found his observations on the chess-life interface somewhat unconvincing; some are from business, others are from history.

For example, in the section on overextension, he gives the example of Nazi Germany, which found itself in WW2 fighting on “a front that stretched from the Russian forests to the deserts of Libya. There was simply too much territory for the troops to cover and too big a picture for their generals to monitor, let alone control.” In the same section, the example from business of the perils of overreach is the airline Pan Am. I find these connections too simplistic to be useful. Chess is a game of tactics and strategy, and the language of chess naturally can be applied to almost any field of human endeavor. I didn’t find the result particularly instructive, but other readers may disagree.

However, even the general reader will enjoy many of the chess anecdotes. Here is my favorite, involving the former world champions Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky. Spassky achieved negative immortality by losing to Fischer in their 1972 title match. He has been overshadowed by Fischer’s towering reputation, but he deserves to be better known. He cut a handsome and dashing figure, and was marked out as a rebel by the Soviet establishment for his outspokenness and independent views. For example, he refused to sign a letter condemning Korchnoi for his defection to the West. He was also a true sportsman; he was well within his rights to call off the match on account of Fischer’s antics, but chose to play. He was also something of a ladies man, and married many times. In this interview, he says: “I went through two divorces –- there is a joke that two divorces are tantamount to participation in one war!”

Anyway, here is my promised anecdote from Kasparov’s book:

Over the next two years I equalized our career score by twice beating Petrosian with a quiet positional style, almost the style of Petrosian himself. I credit my successful approach to advice given to me by the man who took the title from Petrosian in 1969, Boris Spassky. Before I played Petrosian again, less than a year after the defeats described above, I spoke with Spassky, who was playing in the same tournament in Yugoslavia. He counseled me that the key was to apply pressure, but just a little, steadily: “Squeeze his balls,” Spassky told me unforgettably, “but just squeeze one, not both!”

I must point out one unpardonable defect of the book: inexplicably enough, it lacks an index. For a book that ranges far and wide over history and current affairs, it’s a crippling omission. For example, I had to flip back and forth to locate the Pan Am discussion; with an index, I could’ve gone straight to the page number.

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