How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov
Winston Fletcher takes on Kasparov, and wins
I am not a chessman, nor was meant to be. Occasionally I have been a sacrificial pawn. But never a knight or a bishop – hell, the mere thought of wearing gaiters makes me queasy. I would have liked to live in a castle or be king, but my ancestors made the wrong moves ages ago. When I was about thirteen I thought I might end up a queen, but I never enjoyed the positional play.
I once played for my school as a sacrificial pawn. This was during a flu epidemic. Most of the brightest and best kids were on sickies, and I was the only one left who knew the moves. My opponent was a dazzlingly pretty girl who captured my pieces in no time. So I threw in. Bad move. She buzzed off with our team captain, who knew how to mate, which I patently didn’t.
All of which suggests I should be a sucker for Garry Kasparov’s new book How Life Imitates Chess. The cover claims the book is “about life rather than chess… for a much wider audience than chess buffs.” Well, I have always been keener on life than on chess, and I am categorically no chess buff. But when a book is more anxious to tell you what it isn’t about than what it is about, you know something is amiss. Why should a book with a title that mentions chess, which has been written by the world’s greatest chess player, claim it isn’t about chess? What’s going on?
Let’s imagine the marketing meeting when the book’s launch was discussed.
“But what’s Garry’s target market?” probes the publisher’s marketing honcho, going straight for the endgame. “What’s the target market’s psychographic profile? Teenybopper clever clogs like Garry once was, or elderly geeks with political aspirations, like Garry is in danger of becoming?”
“We’re talking everyone here” replies Garry’s agent, boldly going for a Berlin Variation of the Ruy Lopez. Garry’s book has taught him a gambit or two. “And I mean everyone. Garry is a global brand. Like Coca-Cola. Like Nike. Only bigger. Garry was a legend in his own playtime. Like it says on the cover, Kasparov is a household name.”
“Not in my household,” mutters the marketing honcho, pocketing one of the agent’s rooks while he’s not looking. “Anyway, everyone cannot be the target market. Everyone is just everyone. And for our new computerised marketing brief we have to specify a precise target market. It’s an obligatory field.”
“Let’s go for chess buffs then,” says the agent, killing off his Ruy Lopez and rushing headlong into a Sicilian Dragon. “For chess buffs Garry is the greatest. Bigger than Spassky. Bigger than Karpov. Even bigger than big bad Bobby Fischer. Garry was world numero uno for 20 years.”
“Chess buffs? The target market?” explodes the honcho, nimbly knocking over the agent’s king and putting it back on a different square. “No way. Too few of the dreary buggers. This book has to be big. It’s got to sell to everyone.”
“But that’s what I said” grumbles the agent. Maybe his Sicilian Dragon has run out of puff. Perhaps he could knot the honcho in a Maroczy Bind?
“It’s got to sell to everyone. But everyone’s not the target market. You don’t dig marketing, do you?”
“Marketing seems even trickier than chess”, mumbles the agent wearily. He feels strongly tempted by a Siesta Variation.
“Way trickier. Way, way trickier. Maybe that’s the answer!”
“You want to call the book Marketing is Even Trickier than Chess?”
“You’re not thinking out of the box, my son. We’ll say the book is not about chess. It’s about life. So we’ll sell it to live people. Not chess buffs! What a gambit. It’s all about life - so the target market is people who are alive. Check, mate!”
No mate, stalemate. Fortunately, despite the misguided attempt to position the book as yet another all-things-to-all-people self-improvement manual, How Life Imitates Chess is not that bad. Kasparov writes lucidly, unpretentiously and – sometimes – humorously. He is erudite, relatively modest (for a world champion), and has more commonsense and less explosive aggression than one might have expected. But there is no way Kasparov could write a book that is not for chess buffs. Nor would anyone who is not a chess buff buy it. Why on earth would somebody uninterested in chess read a book by Garry Kasparov called How Life Imitates Chess?
The very notion is twaddle. Life does not imitate chess. Chess is a formalised game played by two competitive individuals, according to strict rules. Most aspects of life are not formalised and are not played by two competitive individuals according to strict rules. Kasparov offers some gobbets of useful advice – but most of them will be found in other self-improvement books, unmixed with chess palaver. Kasparov says, “With chess having been the focus of my life since an early age it is no wonder I tend to see the rest of the world in chess terms.” Exactly. This is a lightweight book about chess, for modestly keen chess buffs. Why pretend it is something else? ■
How Life Imitates Chess is published by William Heinemann