Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

A Genius, in Retrospect

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Mikhail Tal, the Latvian chess grandmaster and one-time World Champion, played a raging, attacking, seemingly bizarre brand of chess. His willingness to sacrifice his pieces for nebulous compensation led to some embarrassing losses but resulted in many fantastic wins when his opponents couldn’t, as Tal put it, see their way out of a forest where 2+2=5.

As an improviser, I admire his courage to randomize a position and put both him and his opponent on the spot. It’s easy to think of his creations as “just games”, but he was a professional player in what was then the Soviet Union. The tournaments to which he was invited and, more to the point, allowed to participate in depended on both his style of play and his results. Of course, it wasn’t until a game was over and the chess world had a chance to analyze his moves that the verdict for a particular sequence was known.

The same consideration is true for improvisers. We don’t know whether what we do is brilliant or not until a scene is over, but we have the luxury of working with a team to make all of our choices brilliant. And that’s why I have such respect for a competitor like Tal, who told this story (paraphrased):

I was in the middle of a tournament game when I began to wonder how one might rescue an elephant stuck in a swamp. Over the next 45 minutes, I imagined a series of pulleys and levers arranged in various configurations but came to no satisfactory conclusion. Then, seeing that I was running low on time, I looked at the board and played the first sacrifice I saw.

The journalist covering the game reported that, “After 45 minutes of thought, Tal unleashed a deep and powerful sacrifice that resulted in a won game.”

We can, and should, look at the mechanics of our work, but we must never dismiss what the audience takes away from a performance. The show exists in their memory as well as ours.

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