Wittgenstein’s Poker. More than just an Academic Fairy Tale

December 12, 2022

Wittgenstein’s Poker is a ‘serious’ treatment of ‘a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers’ . This is how the book describes itself on its cover, by English authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow.

After the first chapter, I already saw it as having features of a detective story. The meeting, which is presented as a critical incident, is described with evidence from interviews with the surviving witnesses. 

Readers are taken through the unfolding investigations into the background of the two main characters, two of the era’s most illustrious Austrians, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, at a time shortly after the defeat and death of their even more famous countryman Adolf Hitler.

Their monumental confrontation took place in a crumbling committee room in King’s College, Cambridge, in October 1946. Popper, a visiting speaker possibly encouraged by celebrity philosopher Bertrand  Russell, had arrived with his intention of demolishing the theories of the home favourite Wittgenstein. The verbal battle deteriorated into a possible assault as Wittgenstein seized a fireside poker and wielded it threateningly at Popper before stalking out of the room. Curiously, the location of the weapon, the famous poker, remains a mystery to this day.

The book, to me, is a fascinating read, partly justifying the claims on the cover, and meriting its niche success. The structure is unusual. As a thriller, it is unusual, with the famous ten minute poker-waving incident revealed at the start.

The remainder of the book delves more deeply into the history and upbringing of the two protagonists, and building up a psychological rather than a philosophical explanation of what might have contributed to the Tweedledum and Tweedledee fracas.

Wittgenstein and Popper were both brought up in Vienna, the former into the family of the wealthy business magnate, ‘second only to the Vienna branch’ of the Rothchilds. Popper, in contrast was born into middle class comfort of a family excluded from the highest social circle of Viennese Jews admitted into the opulent Wittgenstein Palais.

Their first encounter was a meeting at Cambridge at a serious debating society already dominated by the brilliant and charismatic Wittgenstein, and attended by the best known philosopher of his generation Bertrand Russell. 

We learn in the book that Popper arrived as guest speaker to discredit Wittgenstein’s contribution to philosophy, in the presence of Wittgenstein’s mentor Russell. The 

The authors, brilliant journalists by profession, had shown the skills of engaging the reader without dangerous misinterpretations of their subject. So, they offer the reader only glimpses of the core aspects of Wittgenstein’s own distaste for Russell’s work which took the unreadable book (Russell’s own comment) Principia Mathematica three volumes and nearly 2000 pages to reach completion. 

In contrast, Popper had reached prominence for his popular and influential work The Open Society and its Enemies, admired by, among others Bertrand Russell. 

Popper’s line of attack was intended to reduce Wittgenstein’s attention to language as only dealing with puzzles not core philosophical problems. Wittgenstein’s work is also a rejection of accepted philosophy including Russell’s but through series of statements which were themselves neatly described by the authors as ‘opaque to the lay reader, and not much more transparent to the specialist (p55).

Anyone finding this story fascinating, may be ready to try the magisterial biography of Wittgenstein by the philosopher Ray Monk. Edmonds and Eidenow certainly did, as their account of that fateful battle follows Monk rather closely. 


England Cricket re-enters the stone-age

August 19, 2022

As homo-sapiens developed, our ancestors learned increasingly smart ways of surviving, which give them an edge over their predators. We became evidence of the theory of natural selection and survival  of the fittest. Sometimes, an individual would flourish by a sort of regression to an earlier pattern of behaviour with temporary success. I write with one example of stone-age behaviour on my television screen, showing the new approach from the England cricket team. 

The new captain, Ben Stokes, is at the crease, surviving, but in full twenty-twenty cricket mode. His team is facing almost certain defeat by their South African opponents. The plan is going seriously wrong.

The plan involves attacking ferociously regardless of conditions, including the skills and tactics of the opposition.


Stokes pursuing his plan lashes the ball to a waiting fielder. England are on the brink of a humiliating defeat.

What went wrong? I search my memory banks for other examples. I remember a well-known chess player who was accused of playing cave-man chess.

The romance of the caveman remains. For example, there is a whole school of chess today with followers learning about the approach


The initiator, Kevin Bachler, explains the origin of the name

The nickname Caveman and the concept of caveman chess was thrust upon Kevin in 1981. At the time he was an Expert, working to become a National Master. Kevin had just finished playing fellow Expert Jack Young at a tournament at the College of Lake County – a college that held a number of chess tournaments in the 1970’s through 1990’s.

Jack and Kevin were doing a post-mortem analysis, and FIDE Master Albert Chow walked up and was watching. The game was fairly tactical in nature, and Jack and Kevin were both willing to explore ideas that were “off-the beaten path”.

After a few minutes of watching, FM Chow shook his head and said to Kevin “You play stone age chess. You play like a caveman!” Of course, Kevin’s friends immediately ran with this and the nickname “Caveman” was born.

However, my own recollection, from this side of the Atlantic, is of an English caveman, Michael Basman, a contemporary of mine, who went on to become an international master, and one of the most imaginative players of his time. I can do better than quote the Wikipedia summary of his unorthodox style.

He is a prolific writer, who has made many contributions to the field of chess openings, and is particularly known for frequently choosing bizarre or rarely played openings in his own games, including the St. George Defence (with which English Grandmaster Tony Miles once famously defeated the then World Champion Anatoly Karpov), the Grob (for Black and White) and also The Creepy Crawly

You get the basic idea. Kevin and Michael were opponents of playing following conventional rules. They did so by developing ingenious ways of defeating the conventional. 

Turning back to cricket, the analogy partially holds. In an earlier published podcast, I suggested cricket leadership often followed as sequence in which a more radical leader replaces a more traditional one, only got the sequence to repeat itself. Perhaps, I suggested, it is a pattern to be found in the appointment of Popes.

In chess, at least, the caveman tactics can be assessed for its effectiveness. In overview there was an early epoch in which even the strongest chess players aimed for all out attack, whether playing white or black, and regardless of the strength of the players.

But in time, the strongest players established the benefits of balancing attack and defence. A few remained to delight other chess players with their romantic approach, but the best results went the the players repaired to stick to the principles they were discovering.

In short, the current plan of the English cricket team is the relic of a bygone age. Romantic, enjoyable to watch, but ultimately in need of serious rethinking.


As I write, the last England wicket falls. Sky fills in the time with transmission of the 100, a new form of cricket which is regressing to an earlier romantic form, a hybrid of cricket and baseball.

Fidel Castro: On evauating a leader’s charisma

November 28, 2016
Fidel Castro
The rules about not speaking ill of the dead are increasingly suspended. Most posthumous remarks about Fidel Castro this week tell us more about the speaker than the Cuban leader. The venom of much of the recent Presidential election remains
A colleague of many years  once told me how Fidel assembled his closest followers into a room shortly after he seized power, and then dished out posts as best he could. I remember it was someone with a passing understanding of finance who had to take control over the central bank.
Top leader
Castro has fascinated me as being one of two cuban leaders whose names appear at the top of lists when charisma is being discussed.  The other is, of course Che  Guevara.
 I wrote a light-hearted piece about The Castro Charismatic Scale,  at the time of the 2015 Labour leadership election. The idea for students of leadership was to show how dubious it is to believe in such league tables.
Jeremy Corbyn
Based on impact on his or her followers, Jeremy Corbyn came somewhere towards the middle of the list, ahead of the other candidates.
To Eagle-eyed Susan, the first to spot my bungled spelling of Mr Corbyn (now corrected).

Sleepless in September. The debate that kept giving

September 28, 2016


An Insomniac watches the Clinton/Trump debate but fails to gain respite

In the early hours of Tuesday September 27 2016, in down-town Woodford, England, your editor tried to overcome insomnia by watching the Clinton/Trump shoot-out.

It didn’t work. Confused, and more awake than ever, I stumbled to bed at around four am in our time zone (we have built a time wall around our British borders. A beautiful magnifisplendous wall).

The Pinocchio count

Eighty million people watched the debate in America.  Maybe they were looking for enlightenment.  Or entertainment. For me there was more of the latter.  It was cage fighting, with referees monitoring the truth count. One referee marked it as Donald 34 Pinocchios, Hillary 4.

I know the significance attributed to the event by those who were once regarded as experts.  But who knows in this so-called post-truth, experts are dumb, trust me I’m not an expert, world? So I’m just confused.

The Cage Fight

If I hadn’t been told, I would have had trouble figuring out what was happening. A rather gentle and serious referee tried to get a good clean fight, no gouging, hair grappling, no personal abuse. To little avail. The one in red, the neater more clinical fighter sliced and diced her opponent.  The larger fighter was more aggressive, but seem to leave his opponent unscathed as she smiled in a slightly scary way at his flailing efforts.

Some web-based referees marked the fight a technical KO for the fighter in the red corner.  Others had it for the one with the unique grasp of the English language and more creative hair. He also had a near knock out with a move in which he cried “I’ll show you what’s in my lunchbox if you show me what’s on your iPad.”

Fascinating, dramatic, but the millions wanted a knock-out. In that they were disappointed. For me, the fighter in red was closer to what I thought a winner looked and sounded like. But as a complete outsider, what do I know?

Post Post-truth

The Guardian, that well-known unbiased source of news, spoke much sense (i.e. agreed with me), the next day [September 27]:

By traditional standards, the first televised US presidential debate on Monday night produced a clear result. Hillary Clinton’s experience, grasp and temperament proved superior qualities to Donald Trump’s forcefulness, rambling and egotism. Fears that Mrs Clinton’s recent bout of pneumonia would cause her to stumble proved unfounded. Instead, Mr Trump’s sniffing caused more comment on the night. But the question, in this most unpredictable of elections and in a new media world, is how far traditional standards matter any more.

The Guardian Editorial [September 27 2017]

The 2016 Olympic Games: An example of the apotheosis of hysteria

August 31, 2016

Immanuel Kant

The coverage of Team GB’s successes in the 2016 Olympics makes a fascinating case example of a cultural shift from the legendary British stiff upper lip to an embrace of emotional reactions to change. It may also help understand the persistence of charismatic leaders and their unconditional acceptance by cult-like followers

Read the rest of this entry »

Pogba’s fantasy signing ends

August 11, 2016

Paul Pogba.jpg

One of the most cited stories of the football pre-season is about Paul Pogba’s move from Juventus to Manchester United.  Journalists have been able to fan interest. Or maybe fan interest has been able to encourage journalists

For several months, for football fans, the signing (or non-signing) of Pogba has been the story (or non-story) of the day.

Read the rest of this entry »

Muhammad Ali: the charismatics’ charismatic

June 7, 2016



At times, there is little to add to what has already been said and written about Muhammad Ali. This is one such time. In the twenty-four hours after his death, the story dominated the headlines around the world.

I would like to add one personal observation

I should have written more

Leaders We Deserve has posted examples of many charismatic leaders.  I should have written more about Ali. If he had no talent beyond his sheer physical appearance he would have been discovered (and possibly been exploited) into super-celebrity status.

Against exploitation

His life, in complete contrast to one that could have been a passive acceptance of fate, was an articulate gesture against exploitation. Against treatment of black people in America. Indirectly against exploitation of all those American soldiers fighting in Vietnam.  Against what he called his “slave name” CassiusClay.

And within these broader beliefs, he fought against his own exploitation, and found his personal resolution in adapting the Muslim faith.

He put to use his great talents. A dazzling speed of thought and movement which propelled him to the world championship in boxing, and an astonishing display of verbal dexterity and self-promotional skills in his very public appearances.

His career was illuminated and at times seriously disrupted as he was seen as an uppity and dangerous enemy to the American establishment.

Towards a post-charismatic world?

There is little dispute about the uniqueness of his talents. Historians will have to reach conclusions about his impact on the twentieth century and beyond.

To say there will never be another Muhammad Ali, is another way of saying that we are moving into a post-Charismatic World, and trying to figure out the implications of that process.

The Queen, The Pope, and the Fidel Castro Conundrum

April 26, 2016


The Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations help explain the nature of charisma

The concept of charisma continues to fascinate students of leadership.  This morning [21 April, 2016], Reginaphilia raged and reached unparalleled levels across the realm.

Somehow I had missed the truth that should have been staring me in the face.  I have been compiling lists of charismatic individuals in business, politics, sport, show-business.  but I had completely overlooked the claims of Queen Elizabeth II. Even when she was (charismatically) portrayed by that charismatic actress Helen Mirren, I still didn’t get it.

My moment of truth

I nearly missed the moment when truth was revealed to me this morning.  The BBC had retained its customary tone of all things monarchic, that is to say deep respect, with the occasional few moments airtime for someone to make the republican case, in the interested of ‘balance’

“Over then to Windsor town where the people had been queuing for a glimpse of HRH.”

How long had they been waiting? Four days and nights, I learned. Roughly the time tennis fans queue for a handful of tickets at Wimbledon. Loyalists is too mild a word for those at the front of the queue. These were utterly loyal and compliant subjects.

“What’s it like to see the Queen?” asks the BBC reporter

“When I see her”, said one young-sounding man, “I have goose-pimples.”

“It’s her aura”, a lady of middle England explained. “I can’t move. If she spoke to me, I couldn’t speak a word.”

And then I understood.  In our modern world the old mysteries remain.  The followers sustain the belief in the divine right of the Monarch to rule over us, and afterwards granted to the offspring (male for the moment, but that’s another story). And if I had ignored The Queen, I had likewise ignored the claims of The Pope.

The Charismatic Pope

As someone outside its fold of the Catholic church, I have felt ill-equipped to follow the charismatic nature of Pope Francis. So as well as missing the Queen’s charismatic impact, I also failed to have noticed that another super-charismatic figure had emerged on the global stage.

I will let a supporter speak the case:

A year on from his inauguration, Pope Francis is showing signs of being the most charismatic Pope we’ve seen yet. What impact is he having on the UK’s Catholic charismatic movement?

It’s not the first time Pope Francis has surprised us since his inauguration just over a year ago. He’s opted to live in a simple apartment with almost no personal staff, swapped a limousine for a bus and chosen a papal name that links him to a saint known for his dedication to poverty, reform and a love of the natural world. He’s been photographed kissing a man with a rare skin disorder and embracing another with a severely disfigured face. He’s blessed a rally of 35,000 Harley-Davidson riders, hired an intern with Down’s syndrome for Vatican Radio and regularly tweets his 3.8 million followers with thoughtful, encouraging words (@pontifex)

Pope Francis has been named Time magazine’s 2013 person of the year, featured on the covers of Rolling Stone magazine and The New Yorker and was described by Sir Elton John as ‘a miracle of humility’. After just a year, his influence is undisputedly running broad and deep

But would Pope Francis go a step further – and describe himself as a ‘charismatic’? The article then outlines the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church which Francis has treated with respect while avoiding the battlefield over the place charismatic Catholicism in the church.

Time for revision

It is time for revision. I mean my own revision in finding no place for The Queen or Pope Francis in my tables of charismatic leaders. Trouble is, unlike Time, Rolling Stone, or Fortune, I just can’t decide where to place them, and whether they should displace the long-standing number one Fidel Castro.

How the Queen’s speech helped me start and finish a book

February 12, 2016


Most writers find starting and finishing a book difficult, although the bit in the middle can be quite difficult as well. I recently had some advice from HRH Queen Elizabeth II

When Mourinho Matters was published in February 2016 I acknowledged the help I received from the Queen. This post explains how the Monarch helped one of her loyal subjects in Woodford, in middle England.

Me and Mourinho

Some years ago, I reached the conclusion that Jose Mourinho was a fascinating example of a charismatic leader. I began collecting information, and posting stories about him in LWD. His multiple triumphs were recorded from the time he burst on to the scene as a young manager winning the European Champions Cup with unfashionable Porto.

A career changing event

Last November [2015] I could see that Jose’s second period at Chelsea manager was drawing to a humiliating close.

Writer’s blocked

I re-opened my files on The Special One, as materials for a book. The title was easy enough, Mourinho Matters, suggested by an earlier title, Tennis Matters. No, I can’t remember where that idea came from either.

The material for the new book came in thick and fast. But I needed a nice way of starting and ending it. Nothing quite worked. I was well and truly blocked. I just had to wait for an idea to arrive.

Then I  heard the 2015 Christmas message from the Queen. Her calm measured delivery concealed a powerful emotional content of hope. Never one to miss content, I added a note on the speech to the Mourinho file.

The Queen’s speech

An ‘aha’ moment came as I recalled another speech made, and the Queen’s reference in it to a time of personal grief, which ended in a great fire at Windsor Castle. In a very elegant way, she mentioned her own very painful annus horribilis. The time of dread.

That was an allusion to the poem written four centuries earlier by the poet John Dryden. He was writing about a great fire that had gutted London in devastating fashion. Dryden did not refer to the annus horribilis, but to the time of recovery, the annus mirabilis. the year of miracles. Maybe he figured that folk had had enough suffering without him adding fuel to the fire of memories, so to speak.

I had found my starting and finishing points. Jose’s professional career in my book starts with a section called his annus mirabilis. And give or take a few appended materials, it draws to an end with one called his annus horribilis, as a helicopter hovers over Chelsea’s training premises, hoping for a sighting of the newly-fired Mourino.

Down but not out

The quotes also helped me to realize that Jose was down but not out. As that other superhero played by Arnie Swartzenenger in The Terminator put it:

‘I’ll be back’.


Jose Departs: Reflections on Perceptions versus Reality

December 24, 2015

I'll be backLeaders We Deserve subscriber Paul Hinks reflects on the departure of Jose Mourinho ‘by mutual agreement’ from Chelsea Football club


For the second time in recent history, Chelsea Football Club have parted company with their most successful manager of all time: Jose Mourinho. The leadership style of the self-proclaimed Special One invites closer inspection.

Mourinho has often been referred to as charismatic – but what happens when charisma is not enough? when the leader fails to take others with them?

The Reality of Success

By the time Mourinho had left Chelsea “by mutual agreement” on Thursday [17 December 2015]  Chelsea were just above the Premier League relegation zone. They had lost 9 games already in their latest campaign, compared with just 3 games in the whole of the previous season.

This was not the form of a team capable of successfully defending their title – indeed this was unchartered territory for Chelsea who had previously successfully challenged for both domestic and European honours under the ownership and guidance of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

Chelsea’s lowly position in the Premiership table was unexpected. Most commentators struggled to explain how a squad of players could falter so spectacularly in such a short period of time.

Perhaps success was not a formality after all?

Big players, Big money, Big reputations


For those unfamiliar with football, Jose Mourinho reputation precedes him. He is a world class football coach who’s consistently delivered success at some of the world’s top football clubs.

This track record of success at different clubs provides some evidence to help validate opinion that ‘Jose’ is the ‘Special One’ – a man with some ‘magic mystical ingredient’ that helps delivers success.

With the big stage comes the big personalities and the challenge of managing big player egos – the dilemmas associated with player self-interest and hidden agendas – players and their agents who may want to engineer a lucrative transfer to another club to invoke lucrative sign-on fees?

Or perhaps footballers wives and girlfriends who would prefer to shop and live in a more cosmopolitan and glamorous city?

The footballing landscape manifests unusual and perhaps unique situations that can make the life very complex and adds unwanted pressure.

Power versus Leadership

Speculation and rumours of tensions in the Chelsea dressing room suggest Jose has had serious difficulties this season. was already on the back foot. The tipping point was the defeat that Mourinho and Chelsea suffered playing away to unlikely Premiership leaders Leicester City on Monday 14th December 2015 – ultimately a catalyst for Mourinho and Chelsea to part-company.

The Daily Mail provided insight:

When Jose Mourinho returns to work on Wednesday, he will be confronted by a group of grumbling Chelsea players who are far from happy with his scathing post-match analysis at Leicester City.

Mourinho’s use of the word ‘betrayal’ to describe John Terry and Kurt Zouma’s defensive lapse when Jamie Vardy scored in the 34th minute at the King Power Stadium stripped the dressing room of its dignity.

He has lost these players now, destroying their self-esteem in his criticism of the champions, either publicly or privately. It is a toxic dressing room now.


Mourinho’s standards are high. He expects the best from his players. During press conferences Mourinho has previously referred to his team, or individuals’ in his team, as ‘Champions’. An example of how Mourinho’s emotional intelligence is always engaged. Equally when things aren’t going so well, Mourinho’s style falters.

So when the results are not going his way so the inquiry and inevitable speculation starts in to what has gone wrong with the Special One’s charismatic ways?

Hero to Zero?

Mourinho’s very public clash with Dr Eva Carneiro was a critical moment in Mourinho’s 2015 Chelsea season and a good starting point for analysis.

The Telegraph was one of many news agencies that reported on how the Chelsea doctor had rushed on to the pitch to treat an injured Chelsea player (Eden Hazzard) when Chelsea played Swansea on 8th August 2015.

In the end, Dr Carneiro left Chelsea FC, but the damage was done. Mourinho’s misjudgement and mishandling of a single event was a pivotal moment in Mourinho’s recent period in charge.

What next for Jose?

Mourinho’s teams have consistently delivered success in silverware, the currency that fans and owners of football clubs crave most. for: silverware. Mourinho is a successful football coach in commercial terms. However, with continued success comes the increased weight of expectation. On closer inspection Jose also can be seen to leave behind a less than healthy legacy in  human terms.

But the signs are that Jose may be out, but certainly not finished. The words of another charismatic, come to mind. “I’ll be back”.