So, as promised (and please forgive my cavalier approach or rather attitude ), here is my take on a complex topic, utilizing (SOME of) the colorful characters that I’ve mentioned heretoforth as illustrations
The widely misconstrued concept of vulnerability, is, and has been, censured by society – rather, its nemesis, confidence, has been lauded by peers and professionals alike. However, to be in a vulnerable state does not negate the fact that such a person is confident; on the contrary, vulnerability fuels bravery. It encourages creativity and allows the decision maker to alleviate him or herself from rigid social norms and to be able to “think outside of the box.” In a sense, vulnerability acts as the liaison between what the great Sigmund Freud popularized as our conscious and unconscious states. When making critical decisions, it is paramount that one uses vulnerability to surface one’s primitive survival instincts.
Chess is the ideal medium to study vulnerability in because of its unique amalgamation of art and science. The royal game has been long known to be, according to the philosopher and author of one of most influential works of Western culture, Johann Von Goethe, the “touchstone of the intellect,” and has also been hailed by Scientific American as the “drosophila of cognitive science,” due to its epitome of mental expertise. Contrary to popular belief though, many of the best decisions taken in chess were made not through confidence but through vulnerability. Such decisions can be seen by Mikhail Tal, who is generally known as one of the most emotional and reckless World Champions in history. From his game against Evgeny Vasyukov in the USSR Championship, he writes:
I will never forget my game with GM Vasiukov on a USSR Championship. We reached a very complicated position where I was intending to sacrifice a knight. The sacrifice was not obvious; there was a large number of possible variations; but when I began to study hard and work through them, I found to my horror that nothing would come of it. Ideas piled up one after another. I would transport a subtle reply by my opponent, which worked in one case, to another situation where it would naturally prove to be quite useless. As a result my head became filled with a completely chaotic pile of all sorts of moves, and the infamous “tree of variations”, from which the chess trainers recommend that you cut off the small branches, in this case spread with unbelievable rapidity. And then suddenly, for some reason, I remembered the classic couplet by Korney Ivanovic Chukovsky:
“Oh, what a difficult job it was. To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus”.
I don’t know from what associations the hippopotamus got into the chess board, but although the spectators were convinced that I was continuing to study the position, I, despite my humanitarian education, was trying at this time to work out: just how WOULD you drag a hippopotamus out of the marsh? I remember how jacks figured in my thoughts, as well as levers, helicopters, and even a rope ladder. After a lengthy consideration I admitted defeat as an engineer, and thought spitefully to myself: “Well, just let it drown!” And suddenly the hippopotamus disappeared. Went right off the chessboard just as he had come on… of his own accord! And straightaway the position did not appear to be so complicated. Now I somehow realized that it was not possible to calculate all the variations, and that the knight sacrifice was, by its very nature, purely intuitive. And since it promised an interesting game, I could not refrain from making it.
However, vulnerability does not only occur in restless, impulsive players. Take, for example, a game by the polar opposite to Tal, Anatoly Karpov, from his Candidates Match against Lev Polugayevsky:
At the start of the fifth round I was unusually sluggish, while Polugaevsky (for the last time in the match) was able to make quite effective use of his home preparation. White managed to obtain an absolutely won game and I was put in the position of having to give up a Rook for a Bishop, the only alternative to immediate resignation. What happened then seemed at first glance completely incomprehensible to those uninitiated in the secrets of chess and to those superficial thinkers who call such things “luck” or the result of hypnosis, or, even more ludicrously, of witchcraft. During all this time, the words of a popular song kept running through my head over and over again: “Everything is so foggy…” Of course, subconsciously I was aware of my advantage in the score, which had been achieved with some difficulty in the previous part of the match. Nevertheless, these repeating lines from the song somehow lulled me, and I sat at the board as in a fog, thinking that everything was just fine. I was seeing a lot, in fact, but nothing was really any good. Polugaevsky also seemed to think I was rather subdued.
It should be noted that in matches, generally beginning somewhere around the third or fourth game, you begin almost to step into your opponent’s shoes, to sense his moods and desires. Sometimes you guess his thoughts, or at least their direction. Polugaevsky probably did not feel that anything odd was happening to me, but rather that I was calm because inwardly I had written the game off. But it was still up to him to win the game, while I, paradoxically, seemed indifferent. It begins to sound almost funny – as though I had a psychological advantage. And this was what defeated him!
Evidently, what these two World Champions have in common is nothing but vulnerability when making critical decisions. To be able to be confident but also vulnerable at the same time was Karpov’s secret; the prime reason why many GrandMasters may not understand Karpov’s success is because his ingenuity stems from an elusive physiological state.
But seriously, this type of decision-making also has its similarities to the widely-studied synesthesia, or the mixing of the five senses when solving a task. Many psychological experiments done by the cognitive scientist S. Luria in the 1920’s show that synesthetics often see numbers as people or colors, or a combination of many senses. However, according to the cognitive scientist S. Ramachandran, humans are all born with some degree of synesthesia, and only relinquish it consciously because, due to social norms, it is simply not acceptable to think in terms of colors for numerical figures – although there is strong enough evidence to suggest that such mental blurrings are still present during our subconscious psychical processes, as evidenced by the incomprehensible dreams during sleep. Many artists openly display synesthetic-like symptoms, and celebrities who have admitted that they have synesthesia range from Vladimir Nabokov to Kanye West (now just Ye).
Consequently, the great “GrandMasters” in any field are often compared to artists, the fact of which signifies that disregard for social norms is necessary to create something. The key is that when one is vulnerable, one rids oneself of the constraints of the situation, allowing oneself to think artistically. Realistically, any art form is an expression of human energy, in that the creator focuses his or her “vulnerability” either onto a canvas, through a song (which was the method I used to “tap into” myself, but that’s for another day ), over a chess board, or whatever the medium may exist as.
In the wonderful Brene Brown’s TEDtalk,”The Power of Vulnerability,” Brown explains that people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe that they are worthy of reciprocation. They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be to be who they are, which is essential for connection. These wholehearted people believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. According to Brown, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” In a sense, the nucleus of our emotions can be traced to a single state of vulnerability, and that is why, when making critical decisions, those who exhibit a strong “womens’ intuition” often make powerful choices.
So, when making decisions in chess or in life, it’s important to flaunt the imagination and to let oneself be vulnerably seen, even though there is no guarantee of a successful outcome. This task is excruciatingly difficult – to practice gratitude in those moments of terror, when one wonders, “Can this decision really be good?” or “Can I really be right about this choice?” However, without vulnerability, a whole host of ideas will be latent, opportunities will be missed, and the individual will never see those pleasures that he or she is innately entitled to over the chessboard.
Well, I hope, dear readers, that this short exploration so to speak sheds some light on how, in the final analysis, the ideal creative state always correlates to a vulnerable disposition. But seriously, stay tuned for one of my favorite chessgame played by the “Indian Tal” K. Ratnakaran which further illustrates the concept of what I will heretoforth refer to as the technique of “vulnerability scanning!”
Until next time!
This content was originally published here.