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Friday, November 21, 2008
Do finance and chess mix?

Well, yes, if you get your metaphors correct…

I was reading an article about the forthcoming UK budget, this morning, by the Grauniad's political editor Patrick Wintour. I wasn't so much taken with his arguments about the economy as with his cavalier use of metaphor, tantamount to publicising his own ignorance of sporting terminology. Here's how the article opens
The run-up to any budget, or indeed the lesser pre-budget report, is a game of cat and mouse in which the government tries to massage public expectations, and keep the opposition guessing.

In terms of managing expectations, the government may be struggling, as the planned fiscal stimulus rises from an initial £15bn to estimates of £30bn. But in terms of the chess game with the opposition, the government is claiming checkmate.
Now, if anyone in the government is 'claiming checkmate', then they are wrong to do so, too, but I see no sign of that. 'Checkmate' means that the game is over – it comes from the Persian Shāh māt (the King is defeated) - and that one side has won. Surely that isn't what Wintour means: the game is very far from being over.

I wonder if, before I explain which chess term Wintour should have used, he would be likely, now challenged, to offer, instead, the less final notion that the government has the opposition 'on the back foot'. Here, I must revisit another of my strictures about sporting terminology: the expression is invariably used to mean 'on the defensive', assuming that no attacking strokes are made while 'on the back foot'. This isn't true, as we shall see.

(And in case you're totally nonplussed by the 'foot' expressions, 'on the front foot' means that the stroke is played with the weight on the front foot. Similarly, 'on the back foot' means that the stroke is played with the weight on the back foot. This, of course, excludes the many strokes involving weight transfer.

In cricket, defensive strokes are actually played on either foot. One defends on the front foot to balls that are well pitched up, i.e. that strike the ground close to the batsman. One usually plays on the back foot to short-pitched balls. The ideal ball, from the bowler's point of view, leaves the batsman not knowing whether to play forward or back. I'm glad we've got that straight.)

Just to give you a flavour of the attacking strokes played off the back foot, here are a few from memory: the glance, the square cut, the late cut, the fine cut (nothing to do with marmalade) and leg glances of all descriptions (except those applying to well-turned ankles). Even if we concede that there are relatively few attacking back foot shots, those I have listed surely demolish the notion that 'on the back foot' means defensively. At the very best, the expression should mean 'having reduced options' but I see very little sign of that in the many examples I have looked at.

Here's where I step out to the crease – not 'up to the plate' (aargh!) – and put Wintour right. He should have written: '…the government has the opposition in zugswang.'

Zugswang means that the player to move has no valid option that will not make his position worse. Whether you are right or wrong in your analysis, Wintour, old fruit, please understand terms properly before you use them; I'm not always going to be around to put you straight.

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