Searching for the Exclamation Points

The wild surprise twists of brilliance that uplift art, and life.


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   “Chess”   by Pablo Picasso (1911), unquestionably a diagonal thinker.

“Chess” by Pablo Picasso (1911), unquestionably a diagonal thinker.

Years ago I went through a short-lived chess phase. I no longer remember any of the standard openings, or even the last time I played. But I do recall something about the way chess matches are transcribed.

In chess notation, each move is recorded using an algebraic code that denotes the positions and movement of pieces across the squares of the board. It’s pretty straightforward, a way of conveying the minimal amount of information needed to recreate any match in the interest of studying strategy and learning about the history of the game.

But this notation doesn’t reveal a game’s full story. That’s why notators often accompany the transcriptions with annotated shorthand, or little symbols that attach qualitative judgments — praise or criticism — to moves. Mostly, they use exclamation points and question marks.

If you check out notations of Bobby Fischer matches (or those of other greats — though Fischer’s style was the truly wild one), you might notice more exclamation points than usual. If they seem out of place, it’s because in a way, they are. They’re reserved for moves that blow people’s minds.


“One of the Single Most Powerful Chess Moves of All Time”

As Wikipedia succinctly sums up: “If a move is followed by an exclamation mark (!), the author is surprised by the move’s quality…. Repeating a symbol (e.g. !! or ??) adds emphasis.”

Here’s an example. In 1956, when Fischer was just 13 years old, he played in what is referred to in chess world as the Game of the Century. For his eleventh move, he placed his knight in square A4. People are still talking about it, and they likely will as long as there are chess players in the world:

“Reuben Fine awards this move three exclamation points (in The World's Great Chess Games) and calls it ‘a brilliant reply.’ Flohr and Botvinnik in 64 called it ‘a shocking and stunning move.’ Fred Reinfeld called it ‘one of the most magnificent moves ever made on a chessboard,’ and recently Grand Master Jon Rowson referred to it as ‘one of the single most powerful chess moves of all time.’”

Three exclamation points!!! The flashes of brilliance Fischer showed in that game would continue. In short order, the young man would electrify the world and achieve the unthinkable, wresting the title from the Russians — the first American to become world champion.


  “  Bobby Fisher  ”  (2008), painted portrait by  Thierry Ehrmann , courtesy of Flickr's Creative Commons.

Bobby Fisher (2008), painted portrait by Thierry Ehrmann, courtesy of Flickr's Creative Commons.

It’s funny to think that all of his tremendous accomplishments, all of his brilliant victorious matches and tournaments, are made up of solitary chess moves. But it’s the sheerly singular moves — the ones with exclamation points next to them, dashed down with glee by experts he consistently managed to astonish — that make him legendary.


“There Are Places I Remember”

Back around the same time I learned of another place where exclamation points are used, and in the same way: guitar tablature. I think the first time I noticed it was in a transcript for the Beatles song “In My Life.” There’s a funny chord change when Lennon goes from E minor to a G major 7 chord, and whoever notated the song had added an exclamation point there to register respect for the notion.

What do these moves have in common? They were given exclamation points because they instilled wonder and delight.

But it’s not just the moves in and of themselves. Play a game of chess and move your knight to A4, and chances are it will prove at best inconsequential and likely disastrous. Write a song going from E minor to G major 7 and maybe it will sound just fine, but probably not extraordinary. So what is it about Fischer’s and Lennon’s (potentially McCartney’s actually) decisions that warranted such admiration in others? What chess moves or chord changes or paint strokes or standup routines or camera shots deserve to be elevated in this way?

The answer is always context. The reason I started reminiscing about chess in the first place was because of something a creative director said to me. In the first draft of a project, the words were fine and the tone was fine, but all together it was too general compared to the specific story he wanted to tell. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t right. It was too broad, and needed an edge, something sharp that jutted out. Something that would mess things up a little. His point was that we needed to latch on to something that made this story unique, expressing why it was being told at all. You have to dig for that element.

Now, no professional would submit work that is “bad,” per se. (Or, more precisely, professionals only submit work that they think is good.) Something can be really good but still quite not fit. It has to be right. But what is right? It always depends, and it’s often a matter of taste (though in chess it can be as much about domination as artfulness). A painting or design might be judged to be derivative and ordinary . . . till the artist adds something striking to one part of the composition, somehow elevating it all — although adding a similar stroke to another piece would destroy it. An Elliott Smith song might start off like a simple folk ballad, till he throws in a particularly nasty chord change that grabs your brain yet still seamlessly holds the whole thing together. And a leading theory of humor is that something is funny when familiar elements are juxtaposed in a surprising way. A punchline requires context; alone it would be meaningless.

There are no “correct” moves. Sure, there might be several good moves or even one optimal move at any given time. But it will always depend on the position of the pieces on the board, not to mention what side of it you’re on, and perhaps most of all what happens next, including all the future opposing moves that are outside of your control.


Success, Like Happiness, Cannot Be Pursued; It Must Ensue”

It was Viktor Frankl who first taught me this lesson, in his extraordinary memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, largely describing his experiences in numerous Nazi concentration camps. He attributed his survival partly to his own pyschotherapeutic theories, the promotion of which led to his accomplishments as a renowned psychiatrist after the war.

Frankl used chess as an example to teach his recommended method for pursuing happiness in life:

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: ‘Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?’ There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life.”

This insight serves as the keystone to his philosophy: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to do now!”

In chess, in music, in painting, in food, in poetry (shout out to e. e. cummings), in life, there are no correct actions or formulas to follow. It’s when free thinkers divert from the formulaic, pursuing some slightly ill-advised turn that surprises even cynics who’ve seen it all, that something special is allowed to happen, perhaps even earning a few exclamation points in the margins.

But as Frankl warned elsewhere in his book, best not to try too hard:

Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

So here’s to all the wild fearless diagonal thinkers willing to risk wrecking it all, just for a chance to take us all someplace new.

Here’s to all those exclamation points — and all the ones yet to come. 


Posted on August 17, 2016