How About a Nice Game of Chess?

The name of this post is a line from the 1983 movie War Games. Joshua, an artificial intelligence program, has finally learned the one lesson it had not been capable of learning – when something is futile. After running many scenarios in a game named “Global Thermonuclear War,” Joshua realizes the world always gets destroyed. So it stops playing, and states “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”

A Strange Game

At times, when trying to effect change we, too, are like Joshua; We are unable to learn when something is futile. We think if we have a better argument, more data, concrete examples of the issue and how to move forward that we will win the day. Something we seem not to consider is we are working with people, and people have the ability to believe their irrational thoughts are rational.

When encountering others who believe their irrational thoughts are rational, we often run different scenarios in our heads with the expectation we will figure out the one that will overcome the irrational thought. We then put scenario after scenario into play with the hope we will hit upon the winning one; however, we often find we are running into a brick wall, and yet we continue. This is a strange game.

The great challenge, and art, is to recognize when futility has set in. Where is that fine line between putting in more effort that will succeed rather than fail?

I am reminded of an episode of The West Wing in which C.J. is listening to the president drone on about how he prepares the Thanksgiving turkey. C.J. responds in a manner that should not be done with the President. The President asks C.J. if she knew about that line you should not cross with the President. She asked if she were approaching it. He said “No, no. Look behind you.”

This is the problem of sensing where the line is. We may become so wrapped up in our argument that we lose sight of the line. We become so embroiled in finding the solution that we become Joshua running scenario after scenario. We are no longer thinking rationally. We have not learned when our effort is futile.

The Only Winning Move is not to Play

We seldom have the luxury of running hundreds or thousands of scenarios in a search for the winning move as Joshua did. Even then, for Joshua to learn when something was futile, it had to play Tic-Tac-Toe. Once anyone learns the game, the futility becomes quickly apparent. The game will always end in a draw. No one wins.

To continue to play Tic-Tac-Toe expecting to find a way to win is simply futile. The hope would be the opponent makes a glaring mistake that would allow for a win, but this is not a winning strategy.

Moving into the realm of people and our penchant for irrational thought, we have to keep a keen lookout for that fine line. At some point, we may have to recognize that the only winning move is not to play because we have entered a human game of Tic-Tac-Toe. Often, this will come after putting in great time and effort. We seldom have the luxury of not playing at all.

How About That Nice Game of Chess?

As I often write, I am not suggesting we give up. I am suggesting we play a different game, or take the game to a different group. Instead of attempting to convince the group that is digging in to protect its beliefs, what if we took the game to the group of fence sitters to see if a critical mass could be developed? Sometimes, storming the Bastille is the game to play.

The fence sitters typically are not aware they have a dog in the fight which is why they are sitting on the fence. They may be interested in what is going on, or they may be facing the opposite direction on the fence and watching a different game. In either case, we want them to consider our game. They may be the best opportunity for an open heart and mind. They may not agree with every point in our position, but they may agree with us overall. In this spirit, we can work toward a compromise that moves us forward with a critical mass that can overwhelm the group that has dug in.

Keep in mind we need to be open to the fact that we may be wrong. The objective is not to win a game of domination, but to grow through learning.