Chess and the Law


The following excerpt from a piece published in The New Yorker, May 3, 2010 — ‘Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial’ by Janet Malcolm — illustrates a use of chess as a metaphor for legal practice:


Borukhova began losing the game very early in her cross-examination by Leventhal. Clearly, nobody had told her not to spar with him. Scaring should have warned her away from exchanges like this one:

Q. Your husband, Mr. Daniel Malakov, he sued you for divorce, didn’t he?
A. He applied for divorce.
Q. He sued you for divorce, correct? He filed an action suing you for divorce, correct?
A. He applied for the divorce, yes.
Q. Did you understand my question, ma’am?
A. If you are asking if he applied for divorce, yes, he did.
Q. He brought the action for divorce against you, correct?
A. Correct.
Q. You didn’t bring an action for divorce against him, did you?
A. No.
Q. After Daniel sued you for divorce or applied for divorce — to use your term — that was after your daughter had been born, correct?
A. Correct.
Q. And Daniel applied for divorce when your daughter was still an infant, correct?
A. No.
Q. She wasn’t an infant?
A. No. It was April ’05.
Q. How old was she?
A. She was almost two and a half years old.
Q. That’s when he sued for divorce?
A. That’s when he applied for divorce, yes.

Leventhal moved on, letting Borukhova have the last word in the ‘sued’ vs. ‘applied for’ debate — and leaving her looking stubborn and evasive. The exchange could be taught in a course on trial technique: it illustrates the way a good cross-examiner, like a good chess player, will inflect long-term strategy with short-term opportunism. Like his quick, darting tread, Leventhal’s quick, darting mind instantly grasped the misstep that Borukhova had made when she corrected his ‘sued’ with ‘applied for.’ He saw the vulnerable pawn that would be his in two or three moves and played them.