Time to Sacrifice the Queen

I read an article in Readers Digest way back in 1993 that’s kinda stuck with me ever since, not least because I scanned the three pages of the article and added them to my stockpile of photos and random imagery accrued over the years, but because the entire idea that conventional thinking need not necessarily be the only way to approach anything made a lot of sense to me. The article is a condensed excerpt from Robert Fulghum‘s book Maybe (Maybe Not): Second Thoughts from a Secret Life – (you might, btw, know of Robert Fulghum’s work without knowing you did – he wrote Everything I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten).

I thought of the article the other day, and it occurred to me to blog it as I’ve been unable to find it anywhere online. So without further ado, it’s time to sacrifice the queen…

Time to Sacrifice the Queen by Robert Fulghum

An unconventional chess tactic points the way to unlocking the secrets of creativity

Within my secret life there are touchstones. Ideas, phrases, facts and notions I refer to time and time again – as often as I would consult a map when travelling. Among these treasures is a story from the world of chess.

I’m told that during an international competition many years ago, a man named Frank Marshall made what is often called the most beautiful move ever made on a chessboard. In a crucial game in which he was evenly matched with a Russian master player, Marshall found his queen under serious attack. There were several avenues of escape, and since the queen is the most important offensive player, spectators assumed Marshall would observe convention and move his queen to safety.

Deep in thought, Marshall used all the time available to him to consider the board conditions. He picked up his queen, paused, and placed it down on the most illogical square of all – a square from which the queen could be captured by any one of three hostile pieces.

Marshall had sacrificed his queen – an unthinkable move, to be made only in the most desperate of circumstances. The spectators and Marshall’s opponent were dismayed.

Then the Russian, and the crowd, realized that Marshall had actually made a brilliant move. It was clear that no matter how the queen was taken, his opponent would soon be in a losing position. Seeing the inevitable defeat, the Russian conceded the game.

Marshall had achieved victory in a rare and daring fashion – he had won by sacrificing the queen.

To me it’s not important that he won. Not even important that he actually made the queen-sacrifice move. What counts is that Marshall had suspended standard thinking long enough to entertain the possibility of such a move. He had looked outside the orthodox patterns of play and had been willing to consider an imaginative risk on the basis of his judgement and his judgement alone. No matter how the game ended, Marshall was the ultimate winner.

I’ve told that story countless times. And on the check-list of operating instructions for my life this phrase appears: “Time to sacrifice the queen?”

Now hold that thought while I pull out a childhood reference from my touchstone collection. As a boy, I had a building set made up of interconnecting wooden parts – spools and rods. Six years ago, when I taught art in Seattle, I used a similar set in a test at the beginning of term. I wanted to know something about the creative instincts of my pupils. On a Monday I’d put a small set of the wooden pieces in front of each pupil, and give a brief and ambiguous assignment: “Make something out of these. You have 45 minutes today – and 45 minutes each day for the rest of the week.”

A few pupils were hesitant at first. The task seemed frivolous. They waited to see what the rest of the class would do. Several others checked the instructions and made something according to the sample model plans provided. Another group built something out of their own imaginations.

Almost always, at least one pupil would break free of the constraints of the set and incorporate pencils, paper-clips, string, notebook paper and any other object lying around the studio. And once I had a pupil who worked experimentally with the set in his free time. His constructions filled a storeroom in the studio and more space at home.

I rejoiced at the presence of such a pupil. Here was an exceptionally creative mind at work. His presence meant that I had an unexpected teaching assistant in class whose creativity would infect other pupils. I thought of him and other such pupils as “queen sacrificers”.

Affirming this kind of thinking had a down side. I ran the risk of losing those pupils who had a different style of thinking. Without fail one would declare, “But I’m just not creative.”

“Do you dream at night when you’re asleep?”
“Oh, yes.”
“So tell me one of your most interesting dreams.”

Invariably the pupil would spin out something wildly imaginative. Flying or on another planet or in a time machine or growing three heads. “That’s pretty creative. Who does that for you?”
“Nobody. I do it.”
“Really – at night, when you’re asleep?”
“Try doing it in the daytime, in class, OK?”

One more touchstone now and this puzzle will fit together.

On a hot August day, I sought a cool drink under the canvas awning of a waterfront café in the old harbour of Chania on the Greek island of Crete. More than 37 degrees [100F] in still air. Crowded. Tempers of both the tourists and the waiters had risen to meet the circumstances, creating a tensely quarrelsome environment.

At the table next to mine sat an attractive young couple. Well dressed in summer fashions of rumpled linen. The man: stocky, olive complexion, black hair and moustache. The woman: lanky, fair, blonde. Waiting to be served, they held hands, whispered, kissed, giggled and laughed.

Suddenly they stood, picked up their table and stepped off the quay to place the table in the shallow water of the harbour. The man waded back for the two chairs. He gallantly seated his lady in the waist-high water then sat down himself. The onlookers laughed, applauded and cheered.

A sour-faced waiter appeared. He paused a moment. Raised his eyebrows. Picked up a tablecloth, napkins and cutlery. Waded into the water to lay the table and take their order. Waded back to shore to the cheers and applause of the rest of his customers. He returned with a bucket of iced champagne and two glasses. Without pausing, he waded back into the water to serve the champagne. The couple toasted each other, the waiter and the crowd. And the crowd replied by cheering and throwing flowers from the table decorations.

Three other tables joined in to have lunch in the sea. The atmosphere shifted from frustration to festival.

One does not wade into the water in one’s best summer outfit. But why not? Customers are not served in the sea. Why not?

Sometimes one should consider crossing the line of convention. One need not be in a classroom or playing chess. When life challenges your ingenuity, the queen may be sacrificed.

– Condensed from “Maybe (Maybe Not): Second Thoughts from a Secret Life”, Copyright 1993 Robert Fulghum, Published by Villard Books, a division of Random House Inc, New York. –

6 thoughts on “Time to Sacrifice the Queen”

  1. I also read the Reader’s Digest article in 1993, and like you it was stuck with me since. So much, that it has been present in my most important work since…Important to me, anyways. Now, you might not think much of this comment here right now, but very little in this world seems to still give me that sense of amazement we all feel as a child so I have to point of the ones that do. On the other hand, it feels so good to know I didn’t dream that article and that there’s at least one person in the world who knows what the phrase entitles. I guess what I’m trying to say, is thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi Cristina,

      Thanks for you comment – I, also, am glad to discover it’s not just me who was affected by the article :D

      My wife got me the the book Maybe (Maybe Not): Second Thoughts from a Secret Life shortly after I’d posted this, and I happily sped through it with a smile on my face. If you haven’t yet had a chance to read the full thing, I’d highly recommend it – not everything was as inspirational as the chess piece, and Mr. Fulghum shows his less than good natured side at at times, but there was a still a lot of knowledge and insight to be gleaned, and it’s something I’m very glad I’ve read.

      Best wishes,

  2. I too read the article back in 93. I remember sitting at a rather slow receptionist desk desperately looking for something to do when I first read it. I’ve lived my life “sacrificing the queen” and encouraged others to do so.
    Nice to know others out there gleened inspiration from it as well. Thanks for posting it! Was trying to find it this morning to share in a group I have. You saved me!

  3. I just sent my brother a facebook message – Looks like you’ve sacrificed the Queen, we’re both chess players and draw our interpretation from giving the most powerful piece for either position or greater material gain, but I remember reading this article in the RD, was not sure on the actual year until now. And in my message to him it was a mere hint that he has given up our childhood, broterhood and friendship to silence and distance – and I’m merely suggesting here that he has gain significant material pieces or emerged winning something.

    Good article…

  4. Thank you for scanning and saving this piece. Reading the comments, I too was mived by the feelings and thoughts it realeased in me. The original copy is filed at home in a folder titled “wisdom”. Various clippings over the years that struck a cord.
    Years ago I was working in a major trauma center and thought of the Greek couple. It was very busy, many patients in the hallway waiting. An elderly, well to do lady, was getting quite loud and upset. One of the senior residents, probably 30 at the time, listened quietly until she took a breath. Then he took her hand and ballroom danced her up and down the hall, and back to her chair.
    My first thought was this article and “why not?”.

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