The Smoking Chess Player, or What Not to Worry About

Today’s Fable Friday takes us to the world of high-level chess. Many years ago the grandmasters Aron Nimzovich and Emanuel Lasker were discussing the ground rules for an upcoming match. Nimzovich was very sensitive to smoke, and Lasker was used to smoking one cigar after another, but to placate Nimzovich Lasker agreed he wouldn’t smoke.

So the game began and after just five moves, Lasker pulled out a big cigar, bit off the end and stuck it in his mouth. Astonished, Nimzovich jumped from his chair and ran to the umpire.  “He said he wouldn’t smoke and now look what he is doing.”  The umpire said, “Well, he’s not smoking.”  Nimzovich replied, “But he threatens to smoke!”

In the game of chess, while you must always press your opponent, you must also deal with your opponent’s threats, considering what to do if he should move here or there. It’s a most important part of the game.

But in the sales world many companies waste too much energy worrying what some other company is doing.  “I understand (Name of company) is getting into the Healthcare space.  What do you know about that?” I am asked.  Aside from the fact that I have non-disclosure agreements with clients I always reply that I know nothing about competitive factors, and I generally don’t.  Nor do I care what a company’s strategy is.  I’m only interested in whether they implement it well and are successful.

Years ago in Wellesley, MA I worked for a great consultant, Don Henley (yes, that was his name, not the musician), and Don once told me, “You could take all these company strategies and publish them in the newspaper and it wouldn’t make any difference.  The winners are the ones who execute.”

So the lesson is, select a market segment you desire, a need you can fulfill, and then passionately outplay everybody else, concentrating on serving the market well, and don’t waste time worrying about what everyone else is doing.  This is one of the tenets of Jim Collins’ excellent book “Good to Great.”

Execution is what wins, provided you focus on every element of it.  So if your people are out selling and they tell you they make 5 calls a day, learn just what is happening on those calls.

I remember reading in Shakespeare’s  “Henry IV” a scene in which the impetuous and aptly named Hotspur argues with his cousin Glendower, who boasts, “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.”  Hotspur replies, “Why so can I, or so can any man, but will they come when you do call for them?” Or, translated here for our purposes, “When you call on customers do they buy?”

Great sales managers and coaches focus on the right things.  Do you?

Now here’s a discussion topic I want to start with you for next week. Please read this informative blog post by Darryl Demos of Novantas, a top-notch consulting firm. 

Mr. Demos tells us that his firm did a study and concluded that retail bank branch managers who spend their time selling more and coaching less have higher performing branches.  Now you know I write a lot about good coaching, so it may surprise you to know that I agree with the conclusions.

We’ll talk about it on Tuesday, but for now please read the article and

Think Like Your Customer



About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at

One Response to The Smoking Chess Player, or What Not to Worry About

  1. Mike Emmons says:

    This is a great parable. You can watch people and see how much the threat or mere possibility of an outcome affects their decision making, myself included. It’s not just that some people avoid risk, it’s that they have beliefs that are not supported by facts and do not have appropriate strategies that mitigate the risk. Since Lasker had agreed not to smoke, Nimzovich should have brought a small spray bottle capable of extinguishing a cigar.

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