Chess Trap

Chess Trap

 Author by Stephen Balzac


I was recently presenting my talk, “Zen and the Art of Leadership,” at a large conference. At some point during the afternoon, I went looking for some coffee. I found that one of the companies at the conference was sponsoring a Coffee Kiosk, with all manner of specialty coffee drinks. Just what I was looking for! The vendor handed me a steaming hot latte in a very colorful paper cup printed with the sponsor’s logo.


Paper cup, hot coffee. Not a good combination. No, it didn’t go flying and I didn’t burn my fingers, but that was only because I put it down quickly. Reflexes are good for something I guess!

When I asked the vendor for a cardboard sleeve, he gave me a mournful look and said, “I can’t. The company doesn’t want to cover their logo.”

Right. A colorful cup that was too hot to hold and a sponsor that was so concerned about their image that they wouldn’t allow their paid vendor to give people cardboard sleeves.

Fortunately, the conference center also had coffee stations and their stations were equipped with a plentiful supply of cardboard sleeves. I was thus able to hold my cup without burning my fingers. Of course, the sponsor’s logo was almost completely covered, but I have to admit that really didn’t bother me. In fact, if the comments I was hearing from other patrons of that coffee kiosk were any indication, the sponsoring company might have been happy that people couldn’t easily see who they were.

That was probably not the objective the company was aiming for. Let’s face it, you don’t sponsor a fancy coffee kiosk and not want to show off. However, by not thinking through what they were doing, their publicity plan didn’t quite work out as expected. While one might argue that any publicity is good publicity, I’m not sure that being remembered for burning people’s fingertips qualifies. The secondary benefit, that of having people walking around with the colorful cups, only worked for those getting cold drinks.

Moving away from coffee, this little incident reveals a more fundamental problem. The concept of unintended consequences is hardly unknown, yet it seems to happen with alarming frequency. In the game of chess, it has a slightly different name: overconfidence. The overconfident chess player becomes so focused on his brilliant strategy that he fails to notice the checkmate his opponent is setting up. In fencing, very much a game of physical chess, the same concept applies: the fencer who becomes too focused on her strategy becomes vulnerable to the counterthrust of her opponent.

Now, in the case of our coffee klutz, there’s obviously no opponent waiting to take advantage of the situation. In many ways, that makes the situation worse: the people who made the mistake don’t get the feedback that their plan didn’t work out quite as expected. While there’s always another chess match or fencing bout, businesses don’t necessarily have that same luxury.  Sometimes those unintended consequences can be extremely expensive.

The real question, of course, is what do you do about it? How do you avoid those unintended consequences or sudden attacks of over-confidence?

Both the chess player and the fencer become over-confident as a result of becoming too excited, too focused on what they are doing. They see victory in their mind’s eye, and, to all intents and purposes, become hypnotized by that image. This sort of tunnel-vision is not all that different from that described by drivers who report that they “saw the tree coming right at them, but couldn’t turn away.”

Now, chess is sedentary and fencing is anything but. What about life in the office? It’s generally somewhere in between, although usually closer to chess. The tendency to experience tunnel-vision is even more common in the office than in a chess match. Why? Chess players review their games with their coaches. They study their mistakes, they practice, and they learn to recognize their own personal set of warning signals that they are in danger of becoming hyper-focused. As a result, they learn when to stop and expand their focus in a match so that they don’t become over-confident. While practically anyone can play chess, it takes a lot of effort to become good at it!

The manager or executive in a company needs to practice the same skills: she needs to become aware of her own cues and learn to mentally take a step back when she feels herself starting to hyper-focus. Unlike chess, she may need to actively seek out feedback on her plans lest she not learn that they weren’t working, especially since feedback may be otherwise delayed by weeks or months from the actual planning phase.

Whoever came up with the idea of sponsoring the coffee kiosks has hopefully learned from the experience. Perhaps next time, they’ll have plain cups with colorful sleeves! Conversely, if that person didn’t attend the conference, they might not know how things worked out and hence will be likely to make the same mistake in a different situation. Next time, the stakes might not be quite so inconsequential.


Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” and “Organizational Psychology for Managers.” He is also a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or [email protected]