The Nimzowitsch principle: Chess leaders we deserve

December 31, 2006

Aron Nimzovitsch Chess lore is a rich source of insights about Business strategy. A recent story of cheating at Chess brings to mind what might be termed the Nimzowitsch principle. The great grandmaster had accused his opponent of ‘threatening to cheat’, asserting that in Chess, the threat is stronger than its execution. The principle seems to have more widespread applications

A recent case of cheating in Chess continues a long line of stories going back to the first chess computer (which turned out to be concealing a small but very clever chess player).

Leadership Principle
‘The threat is more powerful than the execution’

The eccentric Grandmaster Tartakower was famously known for putting off opponents by blowing cigar smoke into their faces. Once the great Nimzowitsch called foul, claiming Tartakower was cheating by placing an unsmoked cigar beside him. And (as Nimzowitsch asserted at the time) in Chess, as everyone knows, the threat is more powerful than the execution. This is but one example of a leadership principle to be derived from a knowledge of Chess lore.

Other cheating strategies

Bobby Fischer took paranoia to new heights in his claims against the deviousness of is opponents. Later world championship matches involved a host of most peculiar claims and counter claims. Garry Kasparov remains convinced that his match against IBM’s Big Blue computer was fixed.

The most recent match, which settled a Unification dispute, was nearly scuppered with the charges by Veselin Topalov of excessive toilet breaks used for computer cheating by opponent Vladimir Kramnik. (Kramnik defaulted one game as a protest but then carried on and eventually won).

Now we have the strange case of the Indian chess player whose results improved astonishingly after he had a Bluetooth device stitched into his cap, which he always wore over his ears when playing.

At humbler levels, coarse chess players have assorted means of cheating, too numerous to cover, as any organiser of tournaments will attest.

The chess leaders we deserve

After the scandals in cycling, baseball, athletics, we should not be surprised. But whatever shall we do to get the role models and leaders we deserve for the noble game of Chess?

Elephant dust, Police enquiries and the Presumption of innocence

December 31, 2006

The police leadership in the recent Suffolk Murder investigations has been widely commended. It left me pondering on the nature of police enquiries, and the absolute and ultimate necessity of the presumption of innocence in all such cases. The old story of elephant dust turns out to have surprising relevance to the argument.

The Suffolk murders

Over the last few months, the brutal murder of five young women has dominated the headlines nationally and internationally. The headlines stopped under legal embargo after a suspect was arrested and charged with all five murders.

One blogger raised concerns over the media treatment of the case. On further reflection, I began to see the ultimate necessity for the presumption of innocence in any legal case. It is acutely relevant for murder cases.

Elephant dust

Stay with me while I introduce the elephant dust. An old joke actually helped me work my way through this issue. The story takes place on a train in those long-gone days of private compartments.

A traveller gets on, and notices that the only other occupant of the compartment is behaving strangely. From time to time, he takes out a little silver box and sprinkles something around the carriage.

“What are you doing” asks the curious traveller.
“I’m sprinkling this special dust. It’s to keep the elephants away” his travelling companion tells him.
“But the nearest elephant is miles away”


“You see! Elephant dust works really well, doesn’t it?”

Back to Police investigations

Suppose the Police trying to solve a serious a major crime were to go in for sprinkling a little elephant dust? This is how we might translate the old joke.

The police arrest someone and charge the suspect with the crime. “What are you doing?” asks observers of the scene. “We are stopping the perpetrator of these heinous crimes from any more wrong-doing”, say the Police, sprinkling a little elephant dust around.

In time, despite embargoes on further reporting, questions then continue to be asked. “Can you be sure you have caught the real criminal?” Sprinkle sprinkle. “…Well, since we made the arrest, the crimes have stopped. That proves our elephant dust is working.”

Or does it?

Having pursued this particular metaphorical elephant thus far, I was struck by a further thought Maybe the Police have a cast-iron case and have caught the right person. They do not have to point to the fact that the crimes have stopped. The anxieties of the public gradually subside. So they are not deluded sprinklers of elephant dust, they really have kept the elephant away.

And yet, there is another possibility. Suppose the real criminal is still at large? He (probably a he in the case we started from) has to deal with the changed circumstances. In some circumstances he may be in sufficient control over his behaviour to figure out he would be well advised to stop his modus operandi. That way, the rest of the world would go on believing in the elephant dust theory.

The presumption of innocence

Which brings me to the presumption of innocence. We have outlined why an arrest, and subsequent cessation of crimes with the appropriate signatures, do not prove that the suspect is the criminal. We have to fall back on the presumption of innocence, lest we fall into the elephant trap, of believing in elephant dust.

A more hideous possibility

Having taken the flight of fancy this far, I now face a more hideous possibility. The arrest of a plausible and innocent suspect may well be a success in stopping the original criminal committing crimes, at least for a period. This is scary elephant dust indeed. How should we feel about this as citizens. Would we settle for such a temporary ‘solution’ to the problem if it cuts down on a series of murders?

I have had some contact with police procedures over a period of years. No officer has ever suggested in any way that such a strategy has been carried out, or even considered. So there we go. It’s all a lot of elephant dust. But what if it really is keeping elephants away? As in most police enquiries, I seem to have raised a lot of questions.

I’m not saying the Police have got the wrong man

I’m not saying the Police have got the wrong man. There is very little in the public domain on which to judge. The presumption of innocence can operate alongside an assessment that the Police investigation has been conducted in good faith, and has led to an arrest on grounds adequate to mount a prosecution. The point of concern raised by blogger PC reminds us that the Police arrested two suspects and released one around whom a lot of circumstantial evidence did seem to be gathering. This suggests that the Police believe their case to be stronger for the person whom they eventually charged. My point is a more conceptual one, indicating why, regardless of appearances, Police and Public alike have to be so rigorous in honouring the presumption of innocence.