OPINION | DOUG SZENHER: Don’t count chicks

Overconfidence could doom efforts

For about two decades either side of the turn of the 20th century, one of the best chess players in the world (and still considered among the greatest ever) was Emmauel Lasker of Germany. He became world champion in 1894, successfully defending his title five times before losing the crown in 1921.

Unless they were independently wealthy or fortunate to have a rich patron, most chess masters in Lasker's era needed considerably more income than they could earn from infrequently scheduled formal competitions in order to make ends meet, and he was no exception. He had a Ph.D. in mathematics, taught at German, British, and American universities, published books, and was recognized as a leading algebra theorist by his contemporaries. Having a day job, Lasker was unable to devote as much preparation time for matches and tournaments that current top chess players can, due to more events and much higher prize money today.

Not long after World War I ended, Lasker was on a steamship bound for a major tournament in New York City. While walking through one of the lounges he noticed another passenger at a table, gazing at pieces arrayed on a chessboard, apparently studying a pre-arranged endgame problem--a common exercise for chess players, then and now.

The other man spotted Lasker looking at the board and asked him if he played chess. "Oh, once in a great while," Lasker replied. Technically a true statement, although enormously disingenuous.

The other passenger immodestly volunteered that he was a quite skillful player, and suggested they play some chess. To determine their relative playing strengths, he offered to first remove his queen--the most powerful piece--thus giving Lasker a huge advantage. If Lasker won, they would play again, with the other passenger instead removing a different, lesser piece. Deciding to have a little fun, Lasker agreed. He managed to lose that game, and a second one, despite the queen advantage, without being obvious he was tanking; using both contests to gauge the other passenger's skill level.

After the second loss, Lasker remarked that there must be some benefit to playing without a queen; possibly allowing greater mobility for the other pieces. He asked to play a third game, this time giving his opponent the queen handicap. The man sputtered that Lasker's suggestion was absurd, since he'd already lost twice with a queen advantage, but Lasker insisted.

Naturally, Lasker quickly and efficiently took the unsuspecting fellow to the cleaners, then won a second game in a romp, again without benefit of a queen. The other passenger wanted a rematch with each at full strength, but Lasker politely declined, thanked him for a pleasant diversion, and excused himself to resume his stroll around the ship, no doubt leaving the poor guy scratching his head in frustration and confusion.

Perhaps the man spent the rest of his life wondering what happened that day. Or maybe he asked to see the ship's passenger manifest and realized that the "Dr. Emmanuel" he'd met actually had a highly recognizable--at least to chess fans--last name.

World literature--historical and fictional--is replete with accounts of a wide variety of competitions where some combination of overconfidence, hubris, sloth, and/or ignorance led to a humiliating, sometimes devastating, downfall for the odds-on favorite. Goliath versus David; Hare versus Tortoise; Liston versus Ali; Bonaparte versus Wellington; Mean Stepsisters versus Cinderella; Man O' War versus Upset; B. Clinton versus White; H. Clinton versus Trump; Baltimore Colts versus New York Jets; British Empire versus Gandhi ... The list is practically endless.

As the next presidential election approaches, Democrats and progressive independents have been upbeat for several months in the wake of surprising recent successes in special elections involving candidates and culture-war issues in battleground and red states that may indicate a shift in voter sentiment away from past conservative dominance. Coupled with the unprecedented and ever-expanding legal difficulties faced by the likely Republican presidential nominee, and the self-inflicted GOP meltdown in the U.S. House of Representatives, some folks may be counting their 2024 chickens before the eggs have even been laid, much less hatched.

While such electoral results are encouraging to those who favor inclusiveness and oppose efforts to restrict individual freedoms and the democratic process, there is a real danger that an attitude of complacency will subconsciously creep in, leaving progressives vulnerable to being blindsided. Instead, pro-democracy advocates of all manner should double down, working even harder in the coming months to achieve their goals.

Skeptics might want to ponder just three words, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune's embarrassingly large front-page headline on Nov. 3, 1948: "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Doug Szenher of Little Rock retired from doing public/media relations with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality after previously working as a newspaper reporter in Hot Springs and Texarkana.