The Hoopocratic Oath

Image: IStock

Junior basketball coaches are charged with quite a responsibility. As they help mold young players, they are shaping young people.

In order to become bona fide doctors of medicine, suitably qualified medical professionals must swear the Hippocratic Oath of “primum non nocere,” – that in their roles as care givers, they will strive to first do no harm. They pledge that the individuals in their care will be no worse off after treatment.

I’m wondering if a similar pledge could apply to basketball coaches – let’s call this the Hoopocratic Oath. Hear me out.

Now I know that basketball isn’t a matter of life and death (although some might say that b’ball is far more important than that). But it is important to those who play it, especially junior ballers.

And the sport has exploded in recent years. All across Melbourne, and indeed the country, you’ll find multicourt stadia filled on weekends with the sound of leather slapping the floor, whistles shrieking, coaches bellowing.

Given the steep rise in playing numbers, there is also a continuing demand for mentors; someone has to teach the young hoopsters the basics such as correct shooting form, plays such as the old give-and-go and screen-and-roll, and of course to do the subbing and allocate court time.

It’s a task that requires a considerable time commitment, and no small amount of effort. Certainly, those selfless individuals who take on these responsibilities deserve the sports’ thanks.

With basketball’s rise, however, so too have ascended professional opportunities for coaches. Even outside of the elite echelons, it’s possible to make a career from coaching basketball, one way or another. Secondary schools, semi-professional leagues such as the NBL1 or state leagues, or working directly for associations all provide opportunities.

Therein exists some tension. Coaches may see their roles as that which advances their own careers – winning for instance, or having a certain number of players graduate to elite programs. Ensuring that all those in their charge enjoy and benefit from the coaching experience may not figure prominently in their overall plans.

These types of coaches become more conspicuous at representative level. A giveaway might be the use of vernacular such as “put heat on the rim” and “stick it” rather than “drive” and “shoot”. They often know their win-loss record, and will be ruthless to preserve or better it.

Meanwhile, half their squad might barely break a sweat, and can spend games looking glum.

The Hoopocratic Oath, therefore, is about ensuring that all junior coaches understand they are leading youngsters in a game, and must therefore strive to keep the “fun” in “fundamentals”.

With this in mind, the oath would have to address appropriate coaches’ talk to players.

I’ve seen coaches of junior teams call timeouts, angrily point at players, and then quickly start designing complex plays.

Surely at junior level the conversation needs to start with a positive – recognition of what worked well in the first instance. There should be acknowledgement of effort – filling the lanes on a break, blocking out, helping out on D – and not simply a rant accompanied by a clipboard-focused communication.

Out-of-game talk is also vitally important. I heard a troubling story recently from a young Australian whose US college scholarship was rescinded (which happens more often that might widely be known) after three years.

“I think the team would be better off without you on it,” was how the coach broke the devastating news to the young man.

There is a better way to discuss such matters, especially at universities that pride themselves on developing “the whole person”. (Or is this college hoops’ fiendish plan for preparing young people for a ruthless and heartless world?)

When it comes to training, the Hoopocratic Oath would put a line through the “three Ls” – lines, laps and lectures.

There are alternatives to forcing young players to line up to do drills (and spending more time waiting than participating), run laps of the court as punishment for a misdemeanour or infraction, or compelling them to listen to a long coach’s peroration.

How about having them participate in game action, and learn while doing? Or, for novice players, setting aside time for drills that either don’t require a ball, or where every player has their own?

Where coaches spot something technically awry, some helpful guidance could be proffered. Yet I have seen kids come back from elite camps and squads with worse skills than before they left, which make you wonder what was taught.

It goes without saying that coaches, even young athletic ones, should refrain from participating directly in game-action drills, and certainly from dominating when numbers demand their inclusion.

For games, coaches – if not clubs – might consider having reduced numbers in uniform. Is it really necessary for junior teams to have five to seven players on the bench?

And what could be learned from all this, you might ask?

Hopefully, that at its best basketball is truly the beautiful game – a team pursuit whose elements, almost uniquely among team sports, can be practised alone.

These days at the elite level – NBA and international hoops – basketball is dominated by three-point shooting and dunks, with diminished emphasis on the mid-range game, and on ball and player movement.

For junior players, however, the three-point arc is located a formidable distance from the basket. Given so few junior hoopsters would be capable of making one-third of even completely unmolested attempts from beyond the arc , surely it makes more sense to encourage the search for the deuce?

Perhaps inspired by the likes of rare talents such as Stephen Curry and Damien Lillard, junior basketball is dominated by scoring-oriented and dribble-dominant guards. It’s rare these days to encounter a game played among participants with a pass-first mindset.

Perhaps as part of the Hoopocratic Oath, it’s the coach’s role to remind players they are playing a team sport, and to discuss now-exotic concepts such as ball movement, moving without the ball, making the extra pass, giving the ball off early (a la Josh Giddey), making the pass before an assist (the so-called “ice-hockey assist”), competing for rebounds …

We know that not every player on every team will reach elite status, or even progress beyond the level at which they’re currently playing. That’s why it’s important to try to make each outing fun and rewarding.

Is this all a bit idealistic and unrealistic? Perhaps.

However, it could be worth keeping in mind the advice offered by basketball’s founder, Dr James Naismith: “Be strong in body, clean in mind, lofty in ideals.”

Ostriches, guns and God

The extraordinary power of false narratives.

Perhaps it’s simply part of human nature to want to hear and tell stories. Like the “fight or flight instinct”, maybe its hardwired into us. Inchoate. Part of our essence.

Long before we were a written culture, humans shared tales via the spoken word. As our ancestors sat around fires or huddled in caves, they told stories of battles, lineages, creation myths, tales of the hunt, the dreaming, of past conquests, vanquishments and lessons learned. We dreamed up gods to worship and prophecies of things to come.

Ghost stories, parables, fables, myths and sagas explained our history and made sense of it.

We learned that stories have power (which is doubtless why politicians are always trying to “control the narrative”). Even as they enthral, our tales can also evoke, provoke, excite, amuse, entertain – even control. When a story is sufficiently potent, it can draw masses to houses of worship, or even inspire them to sacrifice their lives for the promise of something better in the hereafter.

Consider the egregious story of the “stolen” US election, which built such momentum that it led – unprecedentedly – to a throng descending on the US Capitol Building, with dire results. The story of US greatness and impregnability might be at play in the lack of urgency a year on in responding to Donald Trump’s outrageous behaviour.

It would seem false stories are just as potent as the genuine article, and maybe even more so.

Most of us have been warned at one time or another not to stick our heads in the sand, or worse, accused of doing the same.

The phrase refers to the supposed practice of the flightless African bird, the ostrich, of plunging its head into soil in an ill-fated attempt to avoid danger.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the phrase has come to mean “to refuse to think about unpleasant facts, although they will have an influence on your situation.”

A classic Warner Bros cartoon featured Foghorn Leghorn and his “son,” a misplaced ostrich, who emerged from his oversized egg only to thrust his head earthwards at the merest hint of discomfort.

It’s a phrase that’s in common parlance.

Here’s the thing, however: Ostriches don’t bury their hands to avoid danger, and never have.

The untruth relates to a fantastical piece of travel journalism from ancient historian Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD).

In Book 10, Chapter 1 he writes of ostriches, “they imagine when they thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”

It’s thought this single sentence is the source of the misunderstanding, which has now lasted about 2,000 years. It’s very evocative, which might help explain its “stickiness”.

The way you hear gun-toting Americans talking about their Second Amendment rights, one might imagine that the framers of the US Constitution had in mind a society where everyone has a legal right, if not responsibility, to own and carry their own firearms. Indeed, the story many Americans understand is that these sacred words allow just that.

I’m not sure that this is the case, but then again, I’m not a US citizen nor a pettifogging shyster, merely someone interested in language.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Stunning in its brevity, the Second Amendment also stands out for its lack of clarity and for its disjointedness.

Since it’s but a single sentence, one might think the second part is connected with what comes before – that the right to bear arms is dependent on the arms-bearer being part of a militia, and a well-organised one at that.

Ratified in late 1791,  the most influential framer of the Second Amendment was said to be James Madison, whose primary concern was that a federal army could be kept in check by state militias if necessary.

Still, in 2008 a conservative-dominated US Supreme Court held that the amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a gun for self-defence.

The idea that the second amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Research by Robert Spitzer found that every single law journal article discussing the Second Amendment through to 1959 “reflected the Second Amendment affects citizens only in connection with citizen service in a government-organised-and-regulated militia.”

The “individualist” reading is a recent phenomenon, and decidedly not what the framers intended, regardless of that recent ruling.

Justice John Paul Stevens (a Reagan administration appointee, so hardly a liberal bleeding heart) submits a revised Second Amendment in a book calling for the US Constitution to be changed.

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the militia shall not be infringed.”

Firearms rights is a cause positioned at the heart of the conservative authoritarian political right in the US. It seems incongruous, somehow, that Christian tenets also sit within the potpourri of conservatism beliefs, whose espousal of the free market and pro big-business policies seem counter – if not diametrically opposed – to the Bible’s teachings.

I’m thinking here of “Do unto others …”, “Turn the other cheek …”, “The meek shall inherit the Earth …”.

The stark words from Matthew 19:24 state clearly that the Biblical Jesus had little truck with materialism.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” the passage states.

(Before I quote any more biblical passages, I should state that my own beliefs run to agnostic.)

Some years ago, prominent rugby union player Israel Falau was banned from playing following a controversy over some homophobic social media posts. Folau had posted on Instagram that gay people were destined for hell.

At around the same time Folau gave a sermon in his Sydney church linking the bushfires ravaging parts of Australia at the time (in 2019) to legalisation of same-sex marriage and the decriminalisation of abortion.

Meanwhile, however, Folau was signed to a four-year $4m pact with Australian rugby, surely placing him in the camel-competing cohort as outlined in the Book of Matthew quote above.

Not only that, but Folau, like many professional athletes, is bedecked in tattoos, which according to the Old Testament’s Book of Leviticus (19:28), are strictly taboo.

“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves,” the passage says.

What made Folau think he was a Christian, when clearly, he was in contravention of his religion’s own rules? His obscene wealth and ink made sure of that.

Surely kindness and acceptance rather than judgementalism and hostility should be top of the tree when it comes to preferred Christian characteristics? Jesus was a friend to prostitutes and the destitute, and thought the world of commerce had no place in the house of God.

Sadly, though, the major religions have logged a long and inglorious history of acts based on their faiths’ superstitions and myths rather than depredations (from above, where else) to mean well and do good.

I didn’t set out to write a piece about deplorable Christian brothers or Nazi-funding popes, but it’s fair to see the “big three” religions have committed their share of repugnant acts. Only considerable cognitive dissonance makes such duality possible. And as Philip Adams reminds us, arguing about religion is like arguing about who has the best imaginary friend.

Other well-known facts that are not true: that a frog will allow itself to be boiled alive if the cooking process is gradual (the frog will hop out when it gets sufficiently uncomfortable); that 10,000 steps per days is optimal for human health (the number is based on a 1960s study of Japanese factory workers and has no real-world corollary – although it probably isn’t a bad idea); and that we humans use only 10 per cent of our considerable brain power (debunking the films Lucy and Limitless, and putting in jeopardy our overperforming future selves).

Acquiescent amphibians, cowardly flightless birds, even unkind and uninformed so-called Christians – one can to a degree understand how such misunderstandings developed over time.

But how should we think about those who believe not just those misnomers, malapropisms and false narratives that have found their way into our culture, but have actually gone further and embraced a pack of lies – say that COVID vaccinations contain nanobots, or that a paedophile ring is operating among “elites” – politicians, actors and those in their community?

In her book Qanon and On, Van Badham details cases of non-radical individuals being sucked in by the vortex of online cults such as Qanon and others via chat rooms such as 4Chan.

Such realms provide a degree of comfort and sense of control for marginalised and vulnerable individuals. And because they are ring-fenced off from reality (for instance claiming the ABC or the New York Times are left-wing skewed and full of untruths), all the forms of media these folks access contain confirmation bias.

Some of those who marched in the Capitol riots on January 6, 2001, had undergone a deep radicalisation and conversion within months of first venturing into the online conspiracy cults.

I have a science teacher friend who, once a member of the Greens, morphed into a conservative and anti-vaxxer over the past few years. During Melbourne’s most recent lockdown he was extremely concerned and agitated that the lockdowns were merely an excuse for the state government to impose a police state.

Badham’s advice is to keep such individuals engaged but don’t attempt to dissuade them of their strange beliefs. Stay in neutral conversational territory.

In other words: Don’t bury your head in the sand.

No time to watch bad movies

The pandemic and resultant lockdowns meant that for the second year in a row the release of films was regularly readjusted throughout 2021. Film aficionados had to regularly recalibrate their expectations as distributors altered schedules to maximise returns.

Originally my plan was for this list to be an assembly of the 10 best films I saw for the first time last year. With those limitations it would have included such classics as To Catch a Thief (1955), Roman Holiday (1952), and Dunkirk (2017).  

Yet as the year wore on and cinemas opened, I changed tack, realising there were plenty of new films from which to choose. That said, I twisted the rules slightly to accommodate a few movies stumbled upon on SBS on Demand, a fantastic resource for film lovers.

Interestingly enough, the only film on my list mentioned in Oscar conversations was Dune. The Academy, however, has different criteria to me, with my list based only on viewing enjoyment.

No Time to Die was my favourite for the year, with the others in no particular order.

No Time to Die
The last Bond outing for Daniel Craig sees a retired 007 (his number has even been re-assigned), enjoying a minimalistic solitary (though eminently stylish) life in Jamaica when once again he’s called upon to save the world, rescuing us all from the mad delusions of an insane megalomaniac.

Yes, yes, we’ve seen it before, but somehow the 25th iteration of the superspy franchise is rather a bit more moving, engaging and nuanced than expected, honouring Craig’s own tuxedoed era, but also that of his predecessors.

Dune
Who would have thought that the thick pulpy Frank Herbert sci-fi novels with panel van art on the covers, which had their heyday in the 1970s, could be so absorbing on screen? Clearly the potential was seen by helmsman Denis Villeneuve, who has learned from his mistakes on the extravagantly dystopic Blade Runner sequel and silly Arrival (come on, how do cephalopods construct spacecraft; they can’t even hold a screwdriver!) to make this thoroughly thrilling space epic.

Perhaps there is some truth to what they say about books and covers.

In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten,2014)
In this Norse action/thriller Stellan Skarsgård plays a mourning snowplough driver (Nils) hell-bent on revenging his son’s murder at the hands of a ruthless drug cartel. There are unexpected laughs aplenty in this unconventional blacker-than-black Scandi noirish outing.

The Girl in the Fog (La Ragazza Nella Nebbia, 2017)
After a long hiatus, the MO of a notorious serial killer is once again being observed in the fog-shrouded and ominous climes of the Italian Alps. Is a local teacher the unlikely perpetrator, or is he being set up? The great Toni Servillo and Jean Reno feature.

Wrath of Man
Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham reunite from their Lock, Stock days in this tricky Tarantinoesque action outing. Statham plays H, who is clearly over-qualified for his new gig as a security van guard, perhaps pursing his own agenda, with vengeance very possibly on his mind.

The French Dispatch
Once again Wes Anderson delights and divides with this most Andersonian fun and fastidious Francophile film. The attention to detail is astonishing, the plots meandering, the gestalt pleasing.

Army of Thieves
An aspiring Teutonic safe cracker with a historian’s appreciation of the skill-set hooks up with a gang of hip young international millennial thieves to execute the heist of heists in Europe’s picturesque cities. This was one the best of the original Netflix kinetic actioners, which also include 6 Underground, Red Notice, Kate, and The Misfits – all great and all super enjoyable.

Boss Level
A tie with Army of Thieves (and another Netflix high-concept offering), you might describe Boss Level as Groundhog Day meets John Wick, with perhaps a soupçon of Grosse Pointe Blanke and a dash of Kill Bill added. As my good friend D put it this is a “muscular throwback action movie, personified in the stubble and grit of leading man Frank Grillo”. Yes it is, and mighty entertaining too.

Pig
Nicolas Cage puts in his best performance in years as a dishevelled truffle-scrounging loner in this stylish though uneven epicurean outing. When his eponymous truffle pig is stolen Robin (Cage) heads to the big(ish) smoke, layers peeling away as his sad story is slowly revealed.

Riders of Justice
The great Mads Mikkelsen plays a distraught army veteran whose path of rough justice is set out following an encounter with a trio of conspiracy-minded IT geeks.

Free Guy
Surprisingly delightful family-friendly escapade, featuring Reynolds as a character (Guy) within a video game who insists on his right to grow and change.

Six film classics to explore in lockdown six

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief.

It’s taken me some time to come around to the appeal of “old” movies. There was a time when I thought there wasn’t much worth watching before, say, the late 60s. The charisma of the Golden Age stars, the antique production methods, the of-their-time plots – I was unimpressed. Yet as I have gotten a bit older and begun to understand the arc of recent history a little better, my eyes have been opened to the gems I may have neglected.
The world was still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War in the 1950s and early 60s. Life was uncertain for many, tenuous even. Having lived through such testing times, with its absences and loss of life, it’s little wonder audiences craved escapism, colour, romance and whimsy on screen.
Perhaps in our own unusual moment, the old movie classics may still have a place and a purpose.

Calamity Jane (1953)
Musicals may not be your thing (they’re certainly not mine) but in this age of cynicism and fear, watching a film in which characters spontaneously burst into song and dance may be just the salve you didn’t know you needed until you experienced it. This delightfully diverting bonbon starring the astonishingly talented Doris Day is thoroughly entertaining – and deserving of multiple adverbs. If it’s authenticity about the old, lawless west and the Black Hills of Dakota in the 1850s you seek, the sublime Deadwood may be more to your liking. This, however, is unalloyed entertainment from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whip crack-away!

To Catch a Thief (1955)
When a series of jewel thefts on the French Riviera bear a familiar modus operandi, suave retired burglar John “the Cat” Robie (Cary Grant) is immediately suspected by the authorities. To prove his innocence, Robie sets out to catch the new Cat in the act. Along the ways he meets wealthy heiress Francie Stevens (Grace Kelly, in her final film with director Alfred Hitchcock). Romance and intrigue collide. This is a beautiful film to look at, with the amazing costumes by Edith Head as spectacular as the picturesque French seaside locales and the appealing cast.

The Court Jester (1955)
The film title may not be instantly recognisable, but the sparkling dialogue in this clever dose of medieval mayhem and skulduggery almost certainly would be. A classic scene involves shenanigans surrounding a poisoned pre-joust toast in which Danny Kaye’s eponymous character must recall that while the chalice from the palace contains a pellet with poison, the vessel with the pestle has a brew that is true. But of course, the chalice from the palace breaks, replaced by a flagon with a dragon …

The Nutty Professor (1963)
What it lacks in flatulence and fat suits, the original iteration of this Jekyll-and-Hyde tale more than makes up for with the wit, charm and talent of Mr Jerry Lewis, who plays both the delightfully square but kind Professor Julius F Kelp, and his alter-ego, the too-smooth crooner and lothario, Buddy Love. Alas, the potion responsible for transforming the dorky academic into a handsome aggressive jerk only lasts a limited time. This leads to all sorts of confusion on campus and at local club the Purple Pit, and a showdown between Love and love.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Gentleman thief Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen, the “King of Cool”) gets his kicks, and part of his company’s revenue, by designing elaborate heists. But will he be brought undone by savvy and sassy insurance investigator Vicky Anderson (Faye Dunaway)? Dunaway, incidentally, also turns up in the excellent 1999 remake, playing a psychotherapist. This is one cool, even slightly cold film. From the split-screen opening credits and jazzy soundtrack to the fantastic wardrobe of the leads, the cars, and the depiction of Crown’s enviable lifestyle, this is one smooth, stylish escapade.

The Italian Job (1969)
Not to be outshone by what was happening in Hollywood, in the last decade of the 60s, the Brits produced this highly stylised and engaging heist classic. Charlie (Michael Caine) is just released from prison when he finds out about his associates’ unsuccessful attempt to pull a once-in-a-lifetime job in Italy (hence the title). Setting about organising the job himself, Charlie pulls together a misfit crew of specialists and oddballs, with a squadron of sporty Minis taking centre stage. There are songs (“Self-Preservation Society”), the mafia, cockney rhyming slang, Benny Hill and great lines (“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”) involved.

Hard nuts, clangers and the fat side

The obscure language of Australian rules footy often confuses rather than clarifies.

Every sport has its own special language and terminology to describe play and rules. This lingo helps those who participate make sense of the game, to make play possible.

Some of these are basic and widely known – baseball’s home run, cricket’s leg before wicket, and rugby’s scrum come easily to mind. Others are more complex or arcane, such as the terms used in royal (aka real) tennis, such as penthouse and tambour, or polo, with its chukkas, hooks and bumps.

Tennis has its deuces and half-volleys, and golf its albatrosses, plus-fours and mashie-niblicks. Basketball features double-dribbles, alley-oops and pick-and-rolls.

Australian rules football (not to be confused with the AFL, which is merely the name of the elite national competition) has its own rich cache of terms. Consider torpedo punts, kicking through the big sticks, shepherds (nothing to do with flocks), handballs and ruck-rovers. These are all time-honoured terms those familiar with the game would doubtless have heard many times.

Yet the specialist language associated with our national game seem to be expanding, and at a rapid rate over the past couple of years.

Kicking to the fat side (that is, where fewer players are gathered), underground handballs, scoreboard pressure (aka scoring), frontal pressure, pressure acts, scoreboard relief, elite disposal skills by hand or foot (i.e., being skilled at kicking and handballing), slingshot football, strategic leading patterns, clangers (kicks that are intercepted or sent out of bounds), unrewarded running, conversion ratios, defensive unit or back six …

These are terms that would leave old-time aficionados of the more-then-100-year-old game nonplussed, if not angry.

It should be noted that the game’s official glossary of terms has probably not altered all that much in the past 20 years. Rather, it’s ad hoc terms perhaps invented by the AFL’s considerable coaching fraternity that could be to blame.

In times of yore (say the 50s, 60s and 70s) the elite competition for the sport was the semi-professional VFL. In those days nearly all the players and coaches worked day jobs; sport was a part-time commitment.

With the advent of the national competition in 1990 considerably more money arrived from television deals. Coaching staffs rapidly expanded, as did the remit. In the past coaches had been expected to do little more than put out the witches’ hats at training and provide mangled halftime speeches.

Despite COVID-related cost-cutting trimming overall personnel counts, every AFL club has a huge non-playing contingent of administration and medical staff, trainers, and assistant and specialist coaches.

A barely understandable patois allows these professionals to communicate with one another, and sometimes, the outside world, too.

Now coaches bang on about metres gained, playing through “the corridor” (the middle of the ground), players building tanks (aka running capacity), and doing the “one per centers”. The last is a statistic that relates to a variety of actions that benefit a team, but are infrequent or defensive, including knock-ons, spoils, smothers, and shepherds.

Having attended a corporate or academic short course in the offseason, you might also hear a coach pepper his postgame media conference with references to the “journey” (which might refer variously to a game, season, career or perhaps simply a kick), and “learnings” taken on board (i.e., lessons, or things the team has learned).

The sport’s professional commentariat is complicit in the creation, use and expansion of this alternative specialist language, perhaps to help justify its existence.

Is there a sports league more commentated upon, analysed and subject to post-mortem than the AFL? It’s hard to think of one. Some games have a panel of four or more commentators calling the play, with a few “boundary riders” also shoving microphones into players’ faces.

In contrast, long-time soccer commentator Martin Tyler manages to call games by himself, often in a studio on the other side of the world from which a game is played. He describes the action, but also provides the expert or “colour” commentary too. If there are any tidbits to share about coaches’ comments from during the week, or the inside scuttlebutt about the clubs and players, Tyler has that in spades and on demand. Tyler is also unafraid to let the action on screen speak for itself, understanding that sometimes on TV, silence is golden.

Some terms seem to be more popular with commentators than elsewhere in the footy realm. The implausible “gut running” is one of these. Surprisingly, this does not mean “running down the guts”, because (see earlier reference), the middle of the ground is referred to as the sacred corridor. No, “gut running” is something else entirely, defined by the Urban Dictionary as a “form of high-speed, long-term bipedal perambulation apparently performed only by AFL players. What other kinds of ‘running’ there are is not entirely clear.”

Commentators are also fond of “hard nuts” of which there seem to be fewer around these days. A hard nut is player of limited skill, talent and polish, but who maintains his place in a team based on his aggressive, committed and/or sometimes dirty play. Hard nuts (erstwhile St Kilda player Stephen Baker is a classic example) are defensive specialists, and often assigned negating roles, usually on players with “silky skills”.

Silkily skilled players lacking toughness and more concerned with their looks and taking speccies than anything else might derisively be referred to as a “prancing pony” – although I’m willing to admit this term might not have much currency outside the Dillon family. Geoff Raines and Warwick Capper were textbook examples.

Sublimely skilled players possessing adequate toughness but equal parts fairness and “class” are considered “ornaments to the game”. Melbourne great Robbie Flower, Kangaroo legend Keith Grieg and St Kilda icon Rob Harvey are ornaments worth celebrating.

And of course, ornaments to the game minimise the clangers and execute the one per centers.

More of the write stuff

Is there a secret sauce for being a successful writer?

Manhattan Nocturne by Colin Harrison is a compelling tale of urban intrigue and morally compromised characters, and the cynical and redoubtable New York columnist from whose perspective the story is told.

The narrator is a seasoned pro – an old hand whose fingers hurt, eyes are failing and back aches from too many days at the desk. He drives a beat-up old banger to assignments, doesn’t take notes “because the good shit sticks” and sometimes shares wisdom and observations from his life as a tabloid hack.

The best of these are some nuggets handed down by an even more wizened ink-stained mentor: “They’re not little stories; it’s all part of one big story,” and “Sometimes you have to lay brick”.

The latter phrase is a reference to the newspaper caper, where “Chronos rules” and deadlines are king. In these circumstances, scribes don’t have the luxury of having writer’s block. There is space to fill, and a column is due. Forget style and craft – when deadlines are imminent, the text just has to be there.

Writers have tools for dealing with their self-sabotaging habits, or with their perfectionist tendencies. I mentioned to my dad a while ago that I struggled with perfectionism at times – and he laughed like I hadn’t heard him laugh in years. What I meant was that in wishing to produce something of a quality, I often struggled to produce a single word. In the same way that many of my fitness regimes had struggled to secure a solid (or any) foothold, so too my writing projects had failed to escape imagination and actually reach a screen or paper.

So long as nothing is happening, perfection is still attainable.

“People delay because they think they have to be in the right mood to get something done,” says writer Andrew Santella, author of Soon, a book exploring procrastination. “They convince themselves that their mood will change in the future, so the future would be a more suitable time to act.”

Perhaps this underlines Harrison’s point: that texts, like abodes, must be constructed brick by brick. And that maybe I should be thinking “shack” rather than “mansion” in my metaphorical houses of words.

“If we make writing mystical, we place it out of our control, we give ourselves another reason not to do it,” says crime writer Laura Lippman. “If we hold our ideas to the standard of blinding love at first sight, then they will be few and far between.”

So, think prosaic and practical rather than spiritual and otherworldly.

Prolific novelist Stephen King says the scariest moment is always just before you start.

“”Don’t wait,” advises writer Napoleon Hill. “The time will never be just right.”

Author Hugh Lofting didn’t have ideal circumstances when he composed Dr Doolittle. Rather, he wrote the children’s classic in a series of illustrated letters sent home to his own children from the British trenches during the First World War.

Frank Herbert didn’t wait around for the muses to visit him before sitting down to crank out the singular world of Dune.

“I don’t worry about inspiration, or anything like that,” Herbert said of his writing practice. “Coming back and reading what I have produced, I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, ‘Well now it’s writing time and now I’ll write’.”

When it was writing time, one author who seemed to have little trouble filling column inches was Charles Dickens. Fuelled by his solo peregrinations, with 32km frequently covered in walks through London, Boz, as he referred to himself, constructed veritable walls of words, phalanxes of paragraphs, canyons of chapters, and small libraries of books.

As it was for Harrison’s decrepit columnist (and, let’s face it, every writer) the clock was ineluctably ticking on Dickens. With his novels written in instalments, deadlines were a regular occurrence and challenge, but one the prolific scribbler could surmount with astonishing imagination and application. In his dextrous hands, words accumulated.

Dickens had a way of making sure word limits were reached, once describing a character having a grin that agitated his countenance from one auricular cavity to the other (from ear to ear in other words).

Fellow writer Wilkie Collins was once advised by Dickens to make his readers “laugh, cry and wait.” There was often substantial waiting as Dickens’ labyrinthine plots played out. The “waiting”, in fact, was the thing. The essence.

Another writer who used his perambulations as an intrinsic component of the creative process was poet Wallace Stevens.

For 40 years Stevens worked at an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. He used the 3km walk to work to compose in his head the poems that made his name. Timing words to the rhythm of his steps, he would dictate compositions to his secretary upon arrival at the office.

Other writers rely on more traditional tools of creation: their imaginations, pen, and paper.

Many years on from the books that made him famous (London Fields and The Rachel Papers), Martin Amis maintains a disciplined daily writing habit that commences mid-morning and continues to late afternoon. Beginning a new work within days of completing a book, Amis still writes seven days a week, and takes few holidays.

Interestingly, he doesn’t intricately plan out his novels in advance, but rather writes somewhat organically; the novels go where they go. Indeed, Amis is somewhat critical of novelists who do plot things out too carefully. You wonder what he would make of JK Rowling, who plotted the entire Harry Potter series out in spreadsheets.  

Frances Ford Coppola has said that not knowing how to do something never stopped him from giving it a try.  It’s an attitude that has served Coppola well, especially in his successful post-directorial life as a winemaker.

A surprising number of successful artists lack what might be considered skills essential to their craft.

Paul McCartney, Phil Collins and Dave Grohl can’t read music. Fashion designer Thom Browne has no sketching ability.

Restaurant reviewer AA Gill suffered so badly from dyslexia that he dictated rather than penned his columns because no one but he could understand his writing.

“The perfect,” wrote polymath Barry Jones in his recent book, “is the enemy of the good.”

Jones was talking about political policy, but the aphorism applies widely, and perhaps particularly to writing.

Another scribe has weighed in with advice for those who might follow in his steps.

“If you wish to be a writer,” said philosopher, author, and former slave Epictetus, “write.”

The best films from 2020

Because I usually watch new movies at the cinema, and of course these were mostly shut in 2020, I’ve had to improvise a little bit with this list of the 10 best films from last year. A few weren’t actually new, but just new to me – the first time I’d seen them. That said, despite a few major releases being delayed, there was some rather decent viewing to be had. Please note: this spiel does not include references to “pivoting”, “unprecedented” nor, “We’re all in this together”.

Calamity Jane (1953)
Not normally drawn to musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood, this delightfully diverting bonbon starring Doris Day was thoroughly entertaining. Whip crack-away!

The Dry
AFP detective Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) returns to his Mallee home to attend the funeral of an old school mate, Luke, accused of the murder-suicide of his young family. When he’s asked by Luke’s parents to look into the crime, the trail of clues lead to an unlikely source, and helps solve an older, equally troubling death from Aaron’s past.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Eurovision is so hammy and camp that it basically sends itself up. Yet Will Ferell and Rachel McAdams take things a step further as unlikely Icelandic contestants, Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdóttir. Elves are involved, and the film contains the song “JaJa Dingdong”.

High Ground
Set in 1919 in Arnhem Land, High Ground explores relations between the Indigenous community and the unwelcome police presence, and how misunderstandings and entrenched prejudices have devastating consequences. A nuanced script is buoyed by wonderful performances, led by old hand Simon Baker.

Made in Italy
It has been many years since the death of Natalia, mother to Jack (Micheál Richardson) and wife to renowned artist Robert (Liam Neeson). Perhaps repairing their dilapidated house in Tuscany can also help mend the fissures in their relationship in this picturesque drama/comedy made more nuanced by the film’s connection to real life. (Neeson is actually father to Richardson, whose actress mother Natasha died in a skiing accident in 2009 when he was 13).

The Old Guard
In this kinetic and nifty actioner, Charlize Theron plays the head of a cadre of immortal super soldiers who have battled throughout time to keep evil at bay. Could Big Pharma be the foe that brings them undone?

Revenge (1990)
OK, I had already seen the original cut of this Tony Scott masterpiece (as described by Quentin Tarantino) before, but not the Director’s Cut, which is much tighter and propulsive than the original edit, focusing more on the doomed lovers (Kevin Costner and Madeline Stowe) and less on the ruthless husband they cross (Anthony Quinn). Sumptuous and sultry.

Some Like it Hot (1959)
After two male musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) witness a mob hit, they disguise themselves in drag and flee. Laughter and confusion ensue in this clever and subtly subversive diversion. The dialogue sparkles, and the cast too shines. And if you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss about Marilyn Monroe is about, this is a good place to start.

Tenet
Although I really didn’t like this time-travelling mind-bender from Christopher Nolan that much on first encounter, I subsequently relaxed into it. It’s possible to enjoy this slick, visually splendid (but silly) film if you just let your mind go. Your body will follow.

The Translators
In this tricky off-kilter French suspense film, it always feels like we’re a little behind the action. But that’s the deftness of the script on display in this formidable cross-cultural outing, whose storyline centres around the translation of a major new thriller as orchestrated by its unscrupulous publisher.

Charlize Theron as Andy, spiritual leader of The Old Guard.

Time for a change

Whether you consider it the start of a revolution or of a crisis, the development of quartz technology profoundly changed watchmaking and society upon its release in the last year of the 1960s.

December 1969 was a pivotal moment in horological history. This was the moment Seiko released the first commercially available quartz wristwatch – the Seiko Astron – powered by a battery.

It was an astonishing technological achievement. Consider for a moment that the Apollo 11 lunar landing took place in June 1969, a good six months ahead of Seiko’s time-telling landmark. (When you think about it, this probably makes the Moon landing that much more incredible.)

Wristwatch purists refer to this moment as the beginning of the Quartz Crisis – for them it’s the fall of Pompei, the rise of the Black Plague and the demise of Australian carmaker Holden all rolled into one.

Until this moment, if you wanted to sport a watch on your wrist, it had to be one of the traditional kind – a clever configuration of gears, cogs and springs powered either by the movement of the wearer’s body (automatic) or by winding (mechanical). The same method, in other words, as watches had hitherto been constructed for hundreds of years.

The new tech was warmly embraced by the masses, and for them (us), the Quartz Revolution ushered in a new age of more efficient and accessible time-keeping. Quartz watches are cheaper, more accurate and considerably more reliable than their analogue predecessors, and require no expensive maintenance.

As with all uprisings, there were winners in this revolution, but also victims. In the former category were companies such as Casio, and later on Swatch, which sold (and sells) affordable, colourful, collectable and semi-disposable watches in extraordinary quantities.

Later on, brands such as Fossil got in on the act with its classy (albeit made-in-China) aesthetic.

Among the vanquished in the new environment were centuries-old houses of horology located in remote picturesque Swiss cantons.

Designing and assembling automatic and mechanical timepieces the old-fashioned way is a rather time-consuming and labour-intensive enterprise. Each part of the process requires skill and patience to expertly and painstakingly assemble the wrist instruments, piece by complicated piece. (But realistically, perhaps nothing like the 11 months Breitling claims it takes to put together, balance and test its Navitimers.)

Mechanised processes have sped things up since the days of yore, and many brands today use hastily assembled generic automatic movements rather than those created from scratch in-house. Still, it doubtless takes time.

Many traditional watch brands initially survived the Quartz Revolution, and then thrived. Consolidation kept some brands alive. For instance, Longines, Omega, Certina, Tissot, Hamilton, Rado, Blancpain and Glashutte are all part of the epic Swatch Group.

In the 90s mobile phones took off. White-collar workers who already had the time available to them on their computer screens now had it at the ready on their phones as well. For many, a wristwatch, however unobtrusive, became an unnecessary encumbrance.

Luxe brands such as Rolex had long played up the exclusiveness of their offering. Now, with the need to tell the time via a watch less compelling than ever – time was, after all, everywhere, all at once – wearing a fancy timepiece became something else: a display of status, an act of defiance, even.

Traditional watchmaking isn’t going anywhere. Sure, it may have been superseded, but it has its steadfast adherents, just as vinyl records do.

Although they must have taken a hit during 2020, the luxury traditional watchmakers know there is a ready collectors’ market for their shiny wares. Whether it’s a Vacheron Constantin Overseas (upwards of $25,000) or an Orient Bambino ($200), there are afficionados, obsessives, fanciers, collectors and horological geeks collecting them.

Early on in the Quartz Crisis, some luxury marques panicked, thinking the superior performance of their battery-bearing brothers would mean their own swift demise without immediate wholehearted adaptation. Roger Moore’s James Bond wears a square-shaped quartz digital Omega in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Most of the upmarket houses have at one stage or another produced a quartz offering in their portfolio. Some still do. In fact, most ladies’ luxury watches are quartz-based.

The luxury brands tend to focus on the superior performance of quartz, sometimes investing in advanced versions. Longines, Breitling, Bulova and Grand Seiko all produce a super-accurate quartz timekeeper.

And what of quartz now? Well it’s still around too, still ticking along. The 50th anniversary of the technology came and went without a lot of fanfare, even in the horological world (an alternative dimension for sure, which prioritises matters timepiece-related above all others). Seiko released a special-edition solar-powered GPS Astron to mark the occasion and the achievement. Although the Astron name has been shared by other solar-powered models, it seemed a strange and somewhat careless way to recognise the ground-breaking technological advance of 1969. It’s somewhat akin to releasing an electric vehicle to honour the anniversary of the V8, perhaps.

Like many these days, Lee Child’s indestructible fictional action hero Jack Reacher has no need for a timepiece. Wherever he is, Reacher has the uncanny ability to simply know the time.

As for me, I prefer to wear a watch, despite the fact I can check my phone or PC to determine the hour of the day. Like the original Astron, I was born in 1969, so sticking with quartz feels like a kind of loyalty. We’re both kindred spirits of the late 60s.

Part of the reason might also be a way of thumbing my nose at the past. More than 30 years ago the watch I was wearing was dragged off my wrist during a car accident, taking with it the skin on my left palm and two-thirds of my middle left finger. Yet here I am still – I took a licking and kept on ticking.

Stretch targets

Yoga MSD 2

What lessons does yoga have for the business world, and for everyday life?

Mention the word “yoga” and you’ll get a range of responses. Some people associate it with ashrams and ascetics, a discarding of the modern way of life in favour of a quest for the more spiritual. Incense and chanting come to mind. Others think more of its physical manifestations, and of extremely flexible practitioners contorting themselves into unlikely or even dangerous poses – feet arranged behind the head, for instance.

Dominique Santana from the Australian Yoga Academy says when yoga is taught authentically it is a mental, physical, and spiritual workout.

“Yoga literally means union – of mind, body and soul,” Santana says. “It is the state of harmony achieved when all aspects of yourself are in balance.”

It might seem counterintuitive for a practice that has such seemingly lofty aspirations, but yoga and business are inextricably linked. At its heart yoga preaches the virtues of accountability, focus, stillness of mind, calmness, dedication – all practices espoused by and even necessary for business success in an era of corporate social responsibility.

Yoga’s physical benefits are undeniable, and many in the corporate world have embraced its practice as a way to unwind and relax from workaday stress.

Along with masseurs and healthier food in the canteen, you’re quite likely these days to see a yoga teacher guiding corporate types through breathing and stretching exercises on site. Managers have worked out it actually makes their staff more productive.

And there is an even more obvious connection: yoga is big business worth serious coin to those spiritual gurus not afraid of making money.

In its many and varied manifestations, yoga has been practised for thousands of years.

Yet the type most frequently practised in the West, and the most exercise-oriented, is hatha yoga, whose foundations were laid by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Sri T. Krishnamacharya and B.K.S Iyengar in India in the 1930s.

Yoga participation in Australia has grown rapidly in recent years to become the 13th-most-popular physical activity, not including walking, according to figures from the Australian Sports Commission.

Practised by 2.9 per cent of the population, it ranks ahead of Australian rules football, dancing, fishing, and martial arts.

All sorts of reasons are given for participating in yoga.

“Why you would practise yoga is because it improves the quality of your life,” says Cairns-based Nicky Knoff, who has been teaching and practising for 38 years. “You breathe correctly, it improves concentration and focus, it clears your mental landscape, it increases muscle tone and range of movement so health is improved. It improves flexibility and enhances balance.

“It helps you to connect with yourself, so you’re tuned in when anger arises, so you have to time to act rather than react. It helps you build strength, fortitude, courage, daring.”

She also says it strengthens the immune system, normalises weight, helps release emotional blockages, improves self-esteem, and assists in overcoming injury.

Stephen Penman is the president of the Yoga Teachers Association of Australia, and a teacher of wellness, health enhancement and lifestyle management at RMIT and Monash Universities in Melbourne. He helped conduct a national survey of yoga in Australia in 2006, interviewing 4,000 yogis (or yoga practitioners).

The reasons most commonly given for starting yoga were to improve health/fitness and flexibility/muscle tone and to reduce stress or anxiety.

Although relatively few respondents mentioned “spirituality” or “personal development” for why they began doing yoga, many cited these as a reason for continuing.

“Yoga teachers will tell you that this is no surprise,” Penman says. “People come to yoga for the physical but stay for the spiritual.”

Santana is all for enhancing and mastering “the physical vehicle” (that’s “the body” to you and me) but believes practising yoga serves a much higher purpose.

“To me the most important benefit is a sense of responsibility and empowerment that comes from really understanding the psychology and philosophy of the yoga tradition – and that is that we are all responsible for the lives we create for ourselves,” Santana says. “And what we do – the actions we take, the words that we say – have a carry-on effect to those around us.”

It’s something that Knoff is also passionate about.

“That’s why we teach yoga, because we want to have a better world,” she says. “That’s how we find we can reach people. When they look after themselves, they start looking after other people, animals, the environment. Imagine if George Bush was a yoga practitioner. He never would have gone to Iraq – no way!”

Ask yoga teachers about the connection between yoga and business and their first instinct is to talk about the anxiety-ridden suits who come to class wanting to learn how to relax.

“Let’s just take for example pranayama, or the awareness of your breath,” Santana says. “There are so many engaged in the rat-race that miss out on so much health purely because they’re not breathing properly.

“One of the things that we do with our corporate yoga training is to get people to become more aware of their breath, to stop regularly at work and take a few deep breaths. And that practice of breath awareness can completely change your life.”

James Bryan, who teaches alongside Knoff in Cairns, says corporate clients often attend with the goal of discovering how to switch off from work.

“We have one stressed-out, high-powered businesswoman who comes to class and says the one time when her brain is not whirling at a million miles an hour is in yoga,” Bryan says.

According to the result of the Yoga in Australia survey, yoga has the capacity to change one’s outlook on life.

“Generally, I am a much happier, emotionally stable person, which is a change from how I was before yoga,” commented one survey participant.

Said another: “Practising yoga increases my quality of life ten-fold. I am calmer, more balanced and more in tune with my physical and spiritual self, making me a better friend, lover and mother.”

Don’t even get yoga teachers started on how our sedentary desk-bound lifestyle is damaging our postural alignment and health. Better just to step away from the desk for a couple of minutes, stretch in the opposite direction, refocus. It could make a huge difference.

Perhaps the apotheosis of yoga and business is Bikram Yoga, a form of the practice invented by Bikram Choudhury – a self-styled millionaire, “bad boy of yoga” and Beverly Hills guru – and performed in hot rooms around the world.

Arriving in the US from Calcutta in 1976, Bikram, as he is known, opened his first studios in California and Hawaii, combining the 26 postures in his series with two breathing exercises – all done in a superheated studio (up to 40°C) in a 90-minute sequence.

Though adherents swear by its health benefits, others in the yoga community aren’t so convinced.

“It’s not yoga,” says one teacher. “It’s aerobics in a sauna.”

Bikram was Knoff’s first teacher. She first encountered him in Japan in 1970. Then when she visited him again five years later in Hawaii, Bikram sent her to the airport in his chauffeur-driven convertible.

Yet Knoff is no fan of the style, either.

“I don’t agree with it all,” she says. “I think it’s downright unhealthy.”

That hasn’t stopped Bikram Yoga becoming the style of choice for many seeking the toughest of workouts.

Mili Crncevic owns and manages The Yoga Tree in Melbourne, which teaches Bikram Yoga classes.

The advantage of the hot room, she says, is that most activities have a warming-up and cooling-down period but only 30 minutes of action. In a Bikram studio you are hot straight away; muscles are more supple and there is less chance of injury.

“That’s the way it’s done in India,” Crncevic says. “If Indians can do it, there’s no reason Westerners can’t do it, too.”

Like all Bikram Yoga teachers, Crncevic completed a nine-week course taught by the guru himself in Los Angeles and costing US$5,500. Accommodation and food were extra. In order to continue teaching she must recertify every three years, which also carries a fee.

“He’s making a mint,” she says of Bikram. “He’s a very clever businessman.”

Bikram is also extremely protective of his empire. Having trademarked his series of poses, he threatens to sue anyone he sees infringing on his yogic territory.

“I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each,” Bikram told Business 2.0. “Nobody f*cks with me.”

There isn’t a lot of philosophy in Bikram Yoga, Crncevic admits. Rather, there is a set script that Bikram insists be narrated by class teachers. The idea is that wherever you go in the world to do Bikram Yoga, you’ll have exactly the same experience.

For this reason, some have labelled it, not insultingly, as the “Starbucks of yoga”: a brilliant business model.

Yet classes at the Australian Yoga Academy and places like it can frequently change depending on the experience of participants, the season, or the mood of the teacher. Early in the new year, Santana dedicated one class to the cultivation of consciously creating new beginnings. The message, derived from Buddhist teaching, was that each single moment is an opportunity to start anew, to reinvent oneself.

The goal is for participants to experience a physical workout, but also to have the opportunity to become more flexible in their hearts and minds. One class staple is the final salutation, a Hindu word meaning “the divine in me greets the divine in you.” Namaste.

This article originally appeared in the March 2008 edition of INTHEBLACK magazine.

Knight moves

Knight moves imageFrom the chess board to the board room, what can business learn from chess?

There is an Indian proverb that says chess is a sea from which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe.

What may appear to some to be a board game, albeit a rather complicated one, is to others a confounding obsession, a deeply personal challenge, an intellectual battle, a psychological arm wrestle. To succeed at the game requires tremendous dedication – often many years of full-time specialised training – and also the ability to strategise, to mobilise forces, to make sound decisions but also audacious, unpredictable moves. You must understand your own strengths and have the ability to read those of others, and anticipate them.

Which, when you think about it, sounds a lot like the qualities required for success in business: focus, strategy, structure, discipline, expertise.

And, indeed, some have made the connection between the two demanding disciplines. David Cordover is a former Australian junior chess champion and a partner in Chessworld, a franchise chess equipment business operating in several Australian states.

“Business is just a game,” he says. “And knowing a couple of strategies absolutely helps you. The more I learn about business, the more I think it’s so, so simple – and it’s so like chess.

“The key thing in business is to focus and to have a plan. Chess is exactly the same thing.”

Though many countries claim to have invented chess, it’s commonly thought to have begun in India, evolving from the sixth-century Sanskrit game chaturanga.

The modern version of chess emerged in the 19th century. Today it is one of the world’s most popular board games, played recreationally and competitively either online or at social, club and tournament level.

The governing body is the World Chess Federation, or FIDE, which presides over tournaments, titles and rankings.

“To my mind there are two sorts of chess players,” says Gary Bekker, FIDE’s representative in Australia. “The first group are players I would describe as chess bums. They are very good chess players, but not so good at anything else.

“The other group are made up of those who are brilliant at everything. They have an excellent memory and a flair for anything that involves mathematical puzzles and problem-solving skills. They are not only chess masters but also successful in their business pursuits. They can be excellent sharemarket investors and have a head for managing businesses, for foreseeing problems and how they might be overcome.

“The problem is that usually you have to be either very dedicated to business or to chess,” Bekker says. “There are very few who are excellent at both.”

Those that excel in either discipline talk about the importance of establishing a blueprint for success, but being prepared to deviate from it as the need arises.

Former world champion Garry Kasparov achieved the highest FIDE rating of all time (2,500 is required for grandmaster status), and since retiring from the game has written extensively about chess, politics and business.

He says at the elite levels of chess it’s as important to consider your rival’s actions as it is your own. “In business, too, successful strategists think not just about their own new products, pricing and marketing, but also about how their rivals will respond – and how to respond to them,” Kasparov wrote in Fast Company.

“Smart executives … must understand that their competitors are at least as smart as they are. In chess, I know that my rival sees everything I see. Even if I do the unthinkable – a bold unprecedented move designed to leave him gasping – I must assume he has anticipated it and will have an equally daring answer. Call it the courage to accept humility.”

Guy West, 48, is an international master (a FIDE rating between 2,300 to 2,400), a former Australian chess champion, six-time Victorian champion and has represented Australia at 10 chess Olympiads. He also has enjoyed success as a share trader and is now a partner in Smartgambler.com.au. West attributes his achievements in both domains to “determination rather than inspiration”.

“In chess, perseverance is extremely important, and shouldn’t be underestimated,” says West, who in the lead-up to his Australian championship win in 1996 devoted four hours a day to chess study – in addition to the many hours he spent playing.

“Many people in business will tell you the same thing – that if you survive the first five years you’ve got a very good chance of being successful. In chess and business, it’s certainly not enough just to be talented.”

Bruce Pandolfini is a world-renowned chess teacher (he was portrayed by Sir Ben Kingsley in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer) and the author of Every Move Must Have a Purpose, a tome offering guidance to applying the principles of chess to other endeavours such as business.

He says most great chess players think only as far ahead as they need to, usually just a few moves. “Thinking too far ahead is a waste of time,” Pandolfini says. “The information is uncertain. The situation is ambiguous. Chess is about controlling the situation at hand. You want to determine your own future. You certainly don’t want your opponent to determine it for you.”

The real issue, he says, is not how far ahead you think, but how well you think at the moment it is required. Good thinking, Pandolfini says, is all about making comparisons. If you see a good idea, think of a better one. Weigh them up.

FIDE’s Bekker says it’s important to note the difference between tactics and strategy.

“Tactics is all about what’s happening in the next two moves,” he explains. “Strategy is present in the overall position of the pieces on the board. Good chess players pay attention to both, correctly balancing immediate concerns with long-term strategy.

“It’s the same in the business world for a manager. What’s happening in the office and the day-to-day affairs of the company [its tactics] might all be going extremely well. Meanwhile, strategically, the company might be incredibly unprofitable. But a good manager will be able to modify as changes come along.

“And of course, the two affect each other,” Bekker says. “How your company performs day to day – the attention it pays to customer service and to details – impacts on its strategic direction, and vice versa.”

Says Kasparov: “Great chess players cannot lose sight of the mundane details. In business you might call this … the everyday operations that, if left untended, will undermine your organisation.

“One ill-considered move, or non-move, seemingly inconsequential at the time, can leave you hopelessly behind.”

The Melbourne Chess Club, established in 1886 and now located in inner-suburban Fitzroy, seems about as far from the business world as it is possible to get.

On a Monday night, the nondescript building, home to one of the oldest chess clubs in the world, is busy but quiet. It is tournament night. In one room there are several tables of players earnestly hunched over chess tables and punching clocks when they’ve completed their moves. In another, much larger room, the weekly tournament is taking place, and there is no talk at all.

This is clearly a male domain. There are no women anywhere, and the males present, ranging in age from perhaps early 20s to late 60s, seem not overly interested in socialising. Fashion, for most, is an afterthought.

Because chess has been around for so long, many of its manoeuvres have been codified. So, the moves I see players making – especially at the start of games – have been executed many times before, and are even allocated names, such as the Sicilian, Slav or French Winawer openings. There are many of these, and when chess aficionados talk about strategy and homework, they are often referring to the study of past contests: openings, endgames and technique.

Chess strategy has been analysed and refined since the 15th century, so its study can represent a lifetime’s work – and sometimes there is a fine line between passion and addiction.

“You tell yourself that it’s just a game,” jokes club member Scott Stewart. “But then you find yourself playing four tournaments a week. There should be a Chessaholics Anonymous.”

Another club member, Marcus Raine, loves studying old games – he can speak with authority about contests that took place in the 1930s – and talks about the beautiful aesthetics evident during great contests.

“Chess clubs,” he says, “are a bit of a sanctuary from the world.”

Chess in Australia operates very much under the radar.

In Russia, where chess has been played since the 11th century, the prohibitively cold climate lends itself to indoor pursuits. Chess teaching, learning and culture has a considerably more prominent place in wider society.

Kasparov, for instance, began learning under grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik from the age of eight, his towering chess talent eventually making him famous and wealthy.

“When chess is taught in Europe it’s done so as something that enhances academic results in terms of improving problem solving, pattern recognition and memory,” FIDE’s Bekker says. “And all those skills are handy in a business sense.”

Gerrit Hartland from Canterbury (Victoria) Chess Club, where Australian grandmaster Darryl Johansen teaches, says chess also helps with concentration and logical thinking.

“You see the development of a young player who comes to us at the age of seven,” he says. “Bit by bit they learn to concentrate. They learn patience, which is one of the toughest things to teach a small kid.”

Whether or not youngsters adroit at chess harness their skills to later forge a successful professional life away from the chess board is another question.

“It’s a matter of time,” says international master West. “Most people who are successful in chess devote a whole life to it.”

Yet some do master both. Joop van Oosterom, for instance, is a billionaire Dutch businessman and chess enthusiast who became the world correspondence chess champion.

Dato Tan Chin Nam is the main owner for horse trainer Bart Cummings, and a chess enthusiast who sponsors tournaments. He frequently names horses after chess nomenclature.

There are many others, though, who find those forces on the board to which Hartland refers as irresistibly mesmerising, and from which it’s difficult to break free.

As eclectically talented as these players are, to them chess as a metaphor for business is therefore something of a moot point.

“Chess is chess,” Hartland says. “That’s the end of it.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.