The Queen's Gambit – and the power of the familiar

22 November 2021

The Queen’s Gambit was a huge hit and, for a period during lockdown, it sustained numerous conversations at Zoom drinks parties. It also inspired many of us who had rather forgotten about the exciting nip and tuck of a game of chess to get our boards and pieces out and be soundly beaten by our kids.

So, I was interested to read in the newspapers recently that, capitalising on a resurgence in the popularity of chess as a result of The Queen’s Gambit, a company called World Chess is again contemplating a stock market flotation. World Chess runs the gaming service that underpins the world chess championship. The pull of a TV series is, it seems, sufficient to refresh an investment proposition which had previously rather struggled for oxygen.

And this led me to reflect more generally on the power stories, of what has gone before, of what we are familiar with. As Michael Heseltine once said: “Read history, because everything has happened before”.

This theme has a number of strands:

  • the importance of stories in making ideas accessible and attractive;
  • the pluses and minuses of habits;
  • the role which precedent plays in building a legal and regulatory system;
  • the role of followership in political and business leadership; but
  • does slavish adherence to the familiar crowd out innovation?


Years ago I was talking to a helpful person (Charlotte) who advised on presentational techniques. She said basically this: “For public speaking all you really need is energy and stories. Now, imagine a butterfly flying around the room and describe it, energetically.”

I took this advice to heart and started throwing more stories - concrete real life examples - into my presentations. I found that if I could illustrate some not very exciting regulatory point with a story I could hold my audience more readily. Chris Saul Plc is contemplating a takeover bid for Elvis Costello Plc, where Mr Costello owns 15% of the shares. Can the bidder make the cash offer to all shareholders more attractive to Mr Costello by offering him, in addition, a lifetime supply of Fender Signature Jazzmaster guitars?

There is a deeper point here as interestingly explained in the attached article by David Robson His core thesis is that we humans need stories because they help us develop as social beings.

His starting point is the Epic of Gilgamesh which was carved on Babylonian tablets 4,000 years ago and is the oldest surviving work of great literature. The King of Gilgamesh is an arrogant tyrant who is challenged by the stranger Enkidu and ultimately learns the value of co-operation and friendship. This theme of the importance of humility and decency runs through stories across time from Homer’s Odyssey to Pride and Prejudice. Mr Robson points out that the average adult spends at least 6% of the waking day engrossed in fictional stories. This, he hypothesises, is not just about escapism but it also helps us to assimilate the world around us, teaches us about other people and hones our empathy and core values.


There is something comfortable about habits. The 7am cup of Espresso, Thought for the Day at 7.50am, a Coronation Chicken roll for lunch and that well-earned glass of Pinot Noir at 7pm.

A “habit” is a routine of behaviour which is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. Rather amazingly, research conducted relatively recently indicates that 43% of our daily behaviours are formed out of habit.

Clearly there can be “good habits” and, as Ed Sheeran observes, “bad habits”. So, the interesting question is how we can educate ourselves to embrace more of the former and less of the latter.

Psychologists tell us that there are three components to habit formation: the context cue, behavioural repetition and reward. They also tell us that goals can become habits. So, I decide that I need to get fitter and I start getting up at 6.30am to run in the park. Initially it’s a chore but as time passes it becomes automatic and my reward is that I see the sun rise over London and when I get back I feel better (and rather saintly). Similarly with breaking bad habits. I notice that I cross my arms a lot in meetings but I see others doing it and realise that it can look defensive. So, I check myself and over time break the habit and am rewarded with a sense of openness.

With all that in mind, it is worth taking a(nother) look at:

  • Philip Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in which he takes us on a journey through the maturity continuum (dependence, independence and, most engagingly, interdependence) and articulates the habits: (i) be proactive; (ii) begin with the end in mind; (iii) put first things first; (iv) think win-win; (v) seek first to understand then to be understood; (vi) synergise; and (vii) sharpen the saw; and, on the theme that practice is the key to success and perseverance is essential:
  • Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking which powerfully explains why success follows from understanding failure - beneath the surface of success….is a mountain of necessary failure.

The legal and regulatory system

On the evening of 26 August 1928, May Donoghue ordered a Scotsman ice cream float (a mix of ice cream and ginger beer) at the Wellmeadow Café in Paisley. A decomposed snail floated out of the bottle of Stevenson’s ginger beer causing much distress and ill health to Mrs Donoghue. So began a court case which wound its way to the House of Lords where a majority of their Lordships found that Stevenson owed a duty of care to Mrs Donoghue. In the immortal words of Lord Atkin:

“The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes, in law, you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer’s question, Who is my neighbour? receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who then, in law is my neighbour? The answer seems to be - persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”

Thus did Mrs Donoghue’s story give us the modern English law of negligence which has been refined and developed in many other cases over the years.

Biased as I am, the common law is a fascinating layer cake of example with successive sets of facts, stories indeed, being found to be consistent with, or different from, those previously adjudicated upon.

The same may be said for many other elements of the modern regulatory system. The UK Takeover Code, for example, began as a slim booklet of rules and principles in 1968 and has developed, with the help of the experience of manifold takeover situations across the years, into a fuller set of rules and principles which sets a framework for public takeovers in a world which is inevitably much more complex.


Our political and business leaders are highly visible and their personas, behaviours and opinions are very influential. We can reflect upon the inspirational power of Winston Churchill’s oratory during the Second World War and, more prosaically today, on Elon Musk’s impact in social media - from the famous “funding secured” tweet to the recent poll as to whether he should sell 10% of Tesla on which over 3.5 million Twitter users voted.

I am seeing a daily manifestation of this on the Tube in London. It is a condition of travel that everyone wears a face covering and this is frequently broadcast over the tannoy system. And yet, only about one third of Tube travellers observe this entirely sensible and respectful rule. What is going on? We all stop at Zebra crossings, we say please and thank you and we are generally good neighbours.

I raised this question with the team at my local Tube station the other day and they said - “It’s Boris’s fault. He doesn’t seem to care and so many of our passengers don’t”. I asked why they didn’t challenge non-mask wearing travellers more and they said ruefully that if they did they often “got abuse”.

So, it seems that we have managed to develop a culture of defiance in relation to mask wearing. And I’m afraid that the example set by our leader has a lot to do with that.


It would of course be crackers (copyright D Cummings) to over-generalise on the theme that an inclination to embrace of the familiar crowds out innovation. All around the world there are brilliant people coming up with new and exciting research ideas, social initiatives and business notions every hour of every day.

But here are three thoughts on innovation with which to close:

  • in 2020 China filed 68,720 patent, trade mark and industrial design (PCT) applications. This was 16.1% up on 2019 (Covid notwithstanding), which was the first year when is surpassed US filings. In 2020 there were 59,230 US filings. It is not so long ago that popular mythology was that China was good at copying but not so good at innovating. So as Western anxiety about the rise of China continues to mount (for example in relation to Huawei), the West needs to keep the ideas flowing;
  • we are all familiar with the sad shortage of high profile tech stocks in the UK. 1.8% of the FTSE 100 is tech, whilst some 30% of the S&P 500 is tech. Who knows whether changing the listing rules to allow companies with weighted voting founder shares to obtain a premium listing, recently consulted upon, will improve the attractiveness of London to tech entrepreneurs. The current noise around THG and the precipitous fall in its share price may not help, but surely London has to do something; and
  • how terrific is Taylor Swift?! She is innovating by re-recording her first 6 albums, note-for note, because she was so upset by her catalogue being sold from under her feet. That really is bringing together the familiar with innovation.

Christopher Saul

Christopher Saul provides independent trusted advice to senior executives and key stakeholders within publicly quoted and privately owned businesses and professional service firms. His areas of focus are governance, succession and the moderation of differences.

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