13 January 2020

Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry

You might spot the 'Smothered Mate' (in 5 moves), 
but is there a quicker and even more elegant way to win?

Dulan Edirisinghe, former National Chess Champion and currently the only chess columnist in Sri Lanka, writes about the game in ways that make the reader sometimes wonder if it’s actually broader philosophical matters that he is principally concerned with. Sure, it’s about chess. There’s ‘chess language’ — Chess positions. puzzles, theory, lore and illustrative anecdotes. And yet, perhaps because any game or in fact anything can yield insights into other things, a bit of unraveling can open a window into a larger universe. Dulan is particularly good at that kind of thing.

Here’s an example. In a piece titled ‘When good moves block better ones,’ Dulan offers a simple experiment made of two positions, almost but not quite identical, and asks the reader to find the checkmate. The first is easy. It’s a classic pattern most chess players are familiar with — the Smothered Mate. In the second the opponent’s bishop prevents the Smothered Mate. 

There is a checkmate though, where an unusual maneuver is employed. It’s elegant. The second puzzle, when solved, shows that the maneuver could not only have been used in the first puzzle, it would result in a swifter checkmate. 

What happened? Dulan explains thus.

It’s a cognitive trap. Our pre-existing knowledge inadvertently impedes our ability to reach an optimal solution. Psychologists call this phenomenon “The Einstellung Effect”. In fact, by attempting to solve the above problems, you took part in the chess version of the famous “Water Jar Experiment” conducted in 1942 by an American psychologist named Abraham Luchins.’ 

Sometimes it is an unconscious fascination with routine that traps us. Dulan’s article reminded me of a classic passage in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel García. At one point, Fernanda del Carpio misplaces her wedding ring. Everyone looks for it. Finally it is her great grand mother-in-law, Úrsula Iguarán who finds it.

Úrsula, who had long since lost her eyesight, in the course of trying to come to terms with her condition, ‘realizes that all of her family members follow basically the same path each day, performing the same actions and saying the same things and that only when they deviate from routine do they tend to lose something.’ So, she is able to deduce where Fernanda had placed her rings simply by registering what she had done differently that day. The others, perhaps unconsciously subscribing to Úrsula’s theory, simply traced Fernanda’s routine. Úrsula, was one step ahead, for she had discovered the key to finding lost things — outside the routine, away from the given and received.

Routines are convenient. They have their uses. They dull innovation though. At times. In general, we go with patterns because the laws of average are what make them and therefore there’s a greater likelihood of accurate prediction.

But then, what of the poetry that we may miss? Some transcripts are not visible. Some are made to be invisible while others are deliberately kept hidden. The sacred is a secret or is secretive, a friend told me a long time ago. Úrsula’s story tells us that sight does not necessarily give vision. 

Routines and patterns can have blinding effects. Maybe this is why we delight more when the wrecking of routine and the retiring of pattern reveals the world in colors hitherto unimagined. It could also mean that there’s more enchantment in this world than we are ready to believe. All the poetry the world has and needs is already written. It’s in a language we don’t believe exists or that we are too comfortable in routine and pattern to learn.

Expertise and knowledge can work against you, Dulan points out. They can work against enchantment, elegance and the music of the unexpected, one might add. 

This article was first published in the DAILY NEW [January 13, 2020]