All chess games have three stages: the opening, the mid-game and the endgame. And a chess game is a reasonably good metaphor for life.
In this last post in the rules of the game series, we look at the creative use of the rules in a couple of situations. Rules can be used to create productive and predictable conflicts. One such conflict is in law enforcement, where cops hate defense attorneys — if we are to believe Michael Connelly’s depiction of how things work at LAPD. It is not as if they are really working against each other, although it may look that way. Both of them are working toward implementing a set of rules that will lead to justice for all, while avoiding power concentration and corruption. The best way of doing it happens to be by creating a perpetual conflict, which also happens to be fodder for Connelly’s work.
Another conflict of this kind can be seen in a bank, between the risk taking arm (traders in the front office) and the risk controlling teams (market and credit risk managers in the middle office). The incessant strife between them, in fact, ends up implementing the risk appetite of the bank as decided by the senior management. When the conflict is missing, problems can arise. For a trader, performance is quantified in terms of the profit (and to a lesser degree, its volatility) generated by him. This scheme seems to align the trader’s interests with those of the bank, thus generating a positive feedback loop. As any electrical engineer will tell you, positive feedback leads to instability, while negative feedback (conflict driven modes) leads to stable configurations. The positive feedback results in rogue traders engaging in huge unauthorized trades leading to enormous damages or actual collapses like the Bearings bank in 1995.
We can find other instances of reinforcing feedback generating explosive situations in upper management of large corporates. The high level managers, being board members in multiple corporate entities, keep supporting each other’s insane salary expectations, thus creating an unhealthy positive feedback. If the shareholders, on the other hand, decided the salary packages, their own self-interest of minimizing expenses and increasing the dividend (and the implicit conflict) would have generated a more moderate equilibrium.
The rule of conflict is at work at much larger scales as well. In a democracy, political parties often assume conflicting world views and agendas. Their conflict, ratified through the electoral process, ends up reflecting the median popular view, which is the way it should be. It is when their conflicting views become so hopelessly polarized (as they seem to be in the US politics these days) that we need to worry. Even more of a worry would be when one side of the conflict disappears or gets so thoroughly beaten. In an earlier post, I lamented about just that kind of one-sidedness in the idealogical struggle between capitalism and socialism.
Conflicts are not limited to such large settings or to our corporate life and detective stories. The most common conflict is in the work-life balance that all of us struggle with. The issue is simple — we need to work to make a living, and work harder and longer to make a better living. In order to give the best to our loved ones, we put so much into our work that we end up sacrificing our time with the very loved ones we are supposedly working for. Of course, there is a bit of hypocrisy when most workaholics choose work over life — they do it, not so much for their loved ones, but for a glorification, a justification or a validation of their existence. It is an unknown and unseen angst that is driving them. Getting the elusive work-live conflict right often necessitates an appreciation of that angst, and unconventional choices. At times, in order to win, you have to break the rules of the game.
In the last post we examined life from the perspective of evolutionary biology. Now let’s move on to philosophy. There is an important philosophical difference between the perspectives on life in the East and the West. These views form the backdrop to the rules of life, which shape everything from our familial and societal patterns to our hopes and prayers. How these rules (which depend on where you come from) do it is not merely interesting, but necessary to appreciate in today’s world of global interactions. In one of his lectures, Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan made a remark that the basic stance vis-a-vis life (and death) in the West is that life is a good thing to have; it is a gift. Our job is to fill it with as much happiness, accomplishments and glory as possible.
The Eastern view is just the opposite – the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Hinduism, which gave birth to Buddhism, says things like this world and the cycle of life are very difficult (Iha Samsare Bahu Dustare in Bhaja Govindam, for instance). Our job is to ensure that we don’t get too attached to the illusory things that life has to offer, including happiness. When we pray for our dead, we pray that they be relieved of the cycle of life and death. Deliverance is non-existence.
Of course, I am vastly oversimplifying. (Let me rephrase that — this oversimplified version is all I know. I am very ignorant, but I plan to do something about it very soon.) Viewed in the light of these divergent stances against the conundrum of life, we see why westerners place such a premium on personal happiness and glory, while their eastern counterparts tend to be fatalistic and harp on the virtues of self sacrifice and lack of ambition (or its first cousin, greed).
To an ambitious westerner, any chance at an incremental increase in personal happiness (through a divorce and remarriage, for instance) is too good an opportunity to pass up. On the other side of the globe, to one brought up in the Hindu way of life, happiness is just another illusory manifestation not to be tempted by. Those caught in between these two sets of rules of life may find it all very confusing and ultimately frustrating. That too is a macro level pattern regimented by the micro level rules of the game.
We started this series with chess and then moved on to the socio-political topology of a typical corporate landscape. Both could be understood, in some vague and generous sense, in terms of a simple set of rules. If I managed to convince you of that satement, it is thanks to my writing prowess, rather than the logical cohesion of my argument. I am about to extend that shaky logic to the game of life; and you should be wary. But I can at least promise you a good read.
Okay, with that reservation stated and out of the way, let’s approach the problem systematically. My thesis in this series of posts is that the macro-level patterns of a dynamic system (like a chess game, corporate office, or life itself) can be sort of predicted or understood in terms of the rules of engagement in it. In chess, we saw that general pattern of any game (viz. structured beginning, messy mid-game, clean endgame with a win, lose or draw) is what the rules prescribe. In this last post, we are going to deal with life. In a trivial analogy to chess, we can describe the pattern like this: we are all born somewhere and some point in time, we make our play for a few years, and we bow out with varying amount of grace, regardless of how high we soar and how low we sink during our years. But this pattern, though more rigorously followed than our chess pattern, is a bit too trivial. What are the salient features or patterns of human life that we are trying to understand? Human life is so complex with so many aspects of existence and dimensions of interactions among them that we can only hope to understand a limited projection of a couple of its patterns. Let’s choose the pattern of family units first.
The basic set of rules in human life comes from evolutionary biology. As a famous man put it, nothing in biology (or life itself, I would think) makes sense except in the light of evolution. On the other hand, everything from gender politics to nuclear family units makes perfect sense as the expressions of the genetic commands encoded in our DNA, although we may be stretching the hypothesis to fit the facts (which is always possible to do) when we view it that way. Let’s look at the patterns of gender relations in family units, with the preamble that I am a total believer in gender equality, at least, my own brand of it.
Evolutionary biology tells us that the instruction encoded in our genes is very simple — just live a little longer, which is at the root of our instincts for self preservation and reproduction. In the end, this instruction expresses itself as a man’s hidden antipathy toward monogamy and a woman’s overt defense of its virtues. Although this oft-repeated argument can be seen as a feeble attempt at justifying the errant and philandering behavior of man, it has simplicity on its side. It makes sense. The argument goes like this: in order to ensure the continued survival of his genes, a man has to mate with as many partners as possible, as often as possible. On the other hand, given the long gestation period, a woman optimizes the survival chances of her genes by choosing the best possible specimen as her mate and tying him down for undivided attention and for future use. Monogamy indeed is virtuous from her perspective, but too cruel a rule in a man’s view. To the extent that most of the world has now adopted monogamy and the associated nuclear family system as their preferred patterns, we can say that women have won the gender war. Why else would I feel scared to post this article? Weaker sex, indeed!
Evolutionary biology is only one way of looking at life. Another interesting set of rules comes from spiritual and religious philosophy, which we will look at in the next post.
A more complex example of how the rules shape the patterns on the ground is the corporate game. The usual metaphor is to portray employees as cogs in the relentless wheel of the corporate machinery, or as powerless pawns in other people’s power plays. But we can also think of all of them as active players with their own resources engaged in tiny power plays of their own. So they end up with a corporate life full of office politics, smoke and mirrors, and pettiness and backstabbing. When they take these things personally and love or hate their co-workers, they do themselves an injustice, I think. They should realize that all these features are the end result of the rules by which they play the corporate game. The office politics that we see in any modern workspace is the topology expected of the rules of the game.
What are these famous rules I keep harping on? You would expect them to be much more complex that those of a simple chess game, given that you have a large number of players with varying agendas. But I’m a big fan of simplicity and Occam’s Razor as any true scientist should be (which is an oblique and wishful assertion that I am still one, of course), and I believe the rules of the corporate game are surprisingly simple. As far as I can see, there are just two — one is that the career progression opportunities are of a pyramid shape in that it gets progressively more difficult to bubble to the top. The other rule is that at every level, there is a pot of rewards (such as the bonus pool, for instance) that needs to be shared among the co-workers. From these rules, you can easily see that one does better when others do badly. Backstabbing follows naturally.
In order to be a perfect player in this game, you have to do more than backstabbing. You have to develop an honest-to-john faith in your superiority as well. Hypocrisy doesn’t work. I have a colleague who insists that he could do assembly-level programming before he left kindergarten. I don’t think he is lying per-se; he honestly believes that he could, as far as I can tell. Now, this colleague of mine is pretty smart. However, after graduating from an IIT and working at CERN, I’m used to superior intelligences and geniuses. And he ain’t it. But that doesn’t matter; his undying conviction of his own superiority is going to tide him over such minor obstacles as reality checks. I see stock options in his future. If he stabs someone in the back, he does it guiltlessly, almost innocently. It is to that level of virtuosity that you have to aspire, if you want to excel in the corporate game.
Almost every feature of the modern corporate office, from politics to promotions, and backstabbing to bonuses, is a result of the simple rules of the game that we play it by. (Sorry about the weak attempt at the first letter rhyme.) The next expansion of this idea, of course, is the game of life. We all want to win, but ultimately, it is a game where we will all lose, because the game of life is also the game of death.
Richard Feynman used to employ the game of chess as a metaphor for the pursuit of physics. Physicists are like uninitiated spectators at a chess match, and they are trying figure out the rules of the game. (He also used sex, but that’s another story.) They observe the moves and try figure out the rules that govern them. Most of the easy ones are soon discovered, but the infrequent and complex ones (such as castling, to use Feynman’s example) are harder to decipher. The chess board is the universe and the players are presumably the Gods. So when Albert Einstein’s said that he wanted to know God’s thoughts, and that the rest were details, he probably meant he wanted to know the rules and the strategies based on them. Not the actual pattern on the board at any point in time, which was a mere detail.
A remarkable Indian writer and thinker, O. V. Vijayan, also used the metaphor of a chess game to describe the armed strife between India and her sibling neighbor. He said that our too countries were mere pawns in a grand chess game between giant players of the cold war. The players have stopped playing at some point, but the pawns still fight on. What made it eerie (in a Dr. Strangelove sort of way) is the fact that the pawns had huge armies and nuclear weapons. When I first read this article by O. V. Vijayan, his clarity of perspective impressed me tremendously because I knew how difficult it was to see these things even-handedly without the advantage of being outside the country — the media and their public relations tricks make it very difficult, if not impossible. It is all very obvious from the outside, but it takes a genius to see it from within. But O. V. Vijayan’s genius had impressed me even before that, and I have a short story and a thought snippet by him translated and posted on this blog.
Chess is a good metaphor for almost everything in life, with its clear and unbending rules. But it is not the rules themselves that I want to focus on; it is the topology or the pattern that the rules generate. Even before we start a game, we know that there will be an outcome — it is going to be a win, loss or a draw. 1-0, 0-1 or 0.5-0.5. How the game will evolve and who will win is all unknown, but that it will evolve from an opening of four neat rows through a messy mid game and a clear endgame is pretty much given. The topology is pre-ordained by the rules of the game.
A similar set of rules and a consequent topology exists in the corporate world as well. That is the topic of the next post.
When I was a teenager, I used to be pretty good at chess. The highlight of my amateur chess career was in the late eighties when I beat Manuel Aaron, the nine-time Indian national champion and India’s first international master. True, it was only a simultaneous exhibition, and he was playing 32 of us. True, three others also beat him. Still… Even more satisfying than beating the champion was the fact that my friend, whom we lovingly call Kutty, got beaten by Mr. Aaron. To understand why Kutty’s loss was sweeter than my win, we have to go back a few years.
Date – August 1983. Venue – No. 20 Madras Mail. (To the uninitiated — this was a train that took one from my hometown of Trivandrum to Madras. These cities were later renamed to Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai in a moment of patriotic inspiration; but I was away during that time and prefer the older, shorter names.) I was in the train going to my university (IIT, Madras) as a freshman. Unbeknownst to me, so was Kutty, who was sitting across the isle in the car (which we used to call a compartment or a bogie.) Soon we struck up a conversation and realized that we were going to be classmates. Kutty looked like a harmless character — all blinking eyes, thick glasses, easy grins and loud chuckles.
Things were going pretty well until he noticed my magnetic chessboard among my stuff. All right, I admit it, I had arranged it so that people would notice it. You see, I was rather proud of this chessboard that my dear father got me as a gift (from a cousin working in the “gulf,” of course). Kutty said, “Oh, you play chess?” He said it almost too casually, in a tone that rings alarm bells these days, thanks to experiences like what soon transpired in that baking oven of a train.
But, young and reckless as I was, I didn’t heed the warning. I used to think a lot of myself those days — a personality trait I haven’t quite outgrown, according to my better half. So I said, equally casually, “Yeah, do you?”
“Yeah, on and off…”
“Want to play a game?”
After a few opening moves, Kutty asked me (rather admiringly, I thought at that time), “So, do you read a lot of books on chess?” I still remember this clearly — it was right after my fianchetto, and I honestly thought Kutty was regretting his decision to play chess with this unknown master. I think he asked a couple of more questions in the same vein — “Do you play in tournaments?” “Are you in your school team?” and so on. While I was sitting there feeling good, Kutty was, well, playing chess. Soon I found my fianchetto diagonal hopelessly blocked by three of my own pawns, and all my pieces stuck in molasses with nowhere to go. Twenty-odd excruciating moves later, it was I who sincerely regretted exhibiting my chessboard. You see, Kutty was the national chess champion of India, in the sub-junior section.
In our IIT lingo, it was thorough poling, that chess game, much like a lot of the games that followed, for I kept challenging Kutty during the next four years. You see, I have no qualms fighting impossible odds. Anyway, I learned a lot from him. Eventually, I could play blind chess with him without the benefit of a chessboard, as we once did during our one-hour bus ride from Mount Road to IIT after a late-night movie, shouting out things like Nf3 and 0-0 much to the annoyance of the rest of the gang. I remember telling Kutty that he couldn’t make a particular move because his knight was in that square.
Although I remember it that way, it is not likely that I would have seen something Kutty had missed. He could always see a couple of moves deeper and a couple of more variations. I remember another one of our train games, a rare one where I got the upper hand; I declared, impressively, “Mate in 14!” Kutty thought for a minute and said, “Not quite, I can get away after the 12th move.”
Anyway, it was this first embarrassing chess game with Kutty that made his loss to Aaron doubly sweet. Kutty later told me that he had missed a fork, which was why he lost. Well, that may be. But you are not supposed to miss anything. Nothing is unimportant. Not in chess. Not in life.
Photo by soupboy