Kobayashi Maru.

A friend once told me about an experience he’d had in the army. During basic, he was getting a real hard time from a trio of a big alpha male and a couple of cronies. They were going to be the bosses of the barracks even if it meant the three of them beating the crap out of him enough times until he got the message. He took it for a while and then thought about it. He found a good makeshift club and waited until he found the leader alone.

He attacked him from behind and without any warning. He beat the hell out of him – nothing permanent but enough to put him down hard and keep him down. Over the next few days, he stalked and did exactly the same to the other two. When they got over their injuries, they never went near him again, nor anyone else.

By the end of basic, he’d already been talent spotted as officer material and went on to have a highly respected and honourable career in the military. The three thugs never made it through basic, because any volunteer army goes to some trouble to weed out people like that. It can’t afford such liabilities because despite what people might think and only when necessary, the professional military is in the business of delivering controlled and measured amounts of violence, not putting weapons into the hands of bullies who can’t be trusted not to get carried away hurting people.

I was staying with an old friend for a few days and as he knew I liked a game of cards, he invited me along to his weekly session of poker with some of his pals. It was much as you’d expect; mostly a bunch of family men enjoying a bloke’s evening together, a few laughs and jokes, a few drinks as we played for reasonably modest stakes.

Then I noticed something.

One of the players was using false shuffles and cuts, and more tellingly holding the deck by what’s called the “mechanic’s grip” when he was dealing. It’s only ever used by magicians or cardsharps and sure enough, his cards were coming off the bottom of the deck while we got the usual pot luck off the top.

He was cheating and he was good at it too, more because he knew how to keep a bunch of marks on the line rather than being a technically good card manipulator. He’d been steadily taking money off them for some time but never enough to really frighten them off; just ensuring he finished up on the money most evenings and allowing a big winner once in a while to keep them coming back. The game was a steady little earner for him. His winning hands were good but never suspiciously great.

His method of cheating was as old as the hills. He pilfered good cards from his discards until he’d surreptitiously assembled a good hand. When his turn to deal arrived, he palmed the good hand onto the bottom of the deck and then simply dealt it to himself from there.

I played badly through the evening, shuffled clumsily, lost money steadily, folded my hand a lot and cursed my run of bad luck. Of course I received some good-natured stick for my lack of skill from them all but seemed to only get irritated by his remarks.

The atmosphere between the two of us grew steadily worse as I drank a little too much and my niggling of him really started to get under his skin. Towards the end of the evening, I proposed playing for considerably higher stakes, which was enough to frighten everyone else around the table but us two into folding. He was just going to deal, and as I’d seen him adding his stacked hand to the bottom of the deck, I knew he’d arranged something good for himself.

He took the bait because I’d got to him and he was going to teach that mouthy bastard across the table a very expensive lesson. Losing self-control and playing cards for money is a bad combination. I kept raising away petulantly and he re-raised until it got a bit too rich for even his blood, so he called.

We both showed our hands. He’d a good one alright but not as good as the ace-high flush I was holding.

You see, I’d also been steadily pilfering cards one by one from my discards throughout the evening until I’d built up that killer flush. After that, it was just a matter of gradually irritating him until it was time to swap out the hand I’d been dealt in the big money round for the flush I’d assembled. He’d been cheating, but I’d out cheated him. He suddenly realised that and couldn’t say a damn word about it because I might tell the gang what he’d been up to, and the results of that wouldn’t be pretty – the blow off phase of a good con, but I was giving him a decent head start.

In 1929 Henry Stimson, serving as Secretary of State under President Hoover, closed the State Department’s code-breaking section with the memorable words  – “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.” That noble-sounding decision came back to haunt the USA on the morning of December 7 1941 when Japan crippled the US Pacific fleet at Pear Harbour without bothering with a formal declaration of war. After that, it suddenly became perfectly okay to read other gentlemen’s mail.

The next year at the battle of Midway, the US fleet under the leadership of Admiral Chester Nimitz sank four Japanese carriers and took substantial lumps out of nearly every other ship of the line in their fleet. What was supposed to be a Japanese ploy to draw out the US fleet and destroy it, became a devastating ambush of their own fleet.

Without taking anything away from the achievement of the brave fighting men involved, what was really behind such a stunning victory was that the main Japanese naval code JN-25 had been broken by American codebreakers. The whole Japanese battle plan was known in advance, and Nimitz used that knowledge ruthlessly to break the back of their naval power in the Pacific. He read their mail and eviscerated them.

They’re just stories but they’re not fiction, not theory, just real world things, rude data. You make of them what you will, and if they mess up all your beautiful ideas of how we should behave or how things should work, you better start working on a beautiful new theory. The world is as it is. The only thing that ever changes in it are individuals who decide they won’t accept that dismal idea.

My army friend, because the world is as it is, should have taken his beatings like a macho military man, even though it was three onto one. He couldn’t win that game, even one on one, so he changed it and he won. He took them out and they’d never come near him again, not only because they knew they’d have to kill him to stop him doing exactly the same thing again, but because by unleashing that natural leadership thing in him, they’d inadvertently recruited his first command in the barracks, who’d now follow behind him straight through the very portals of Hell itself, confident he’d lead them out the other side.

For him, it was never about the pain of taking a good hiding, it was always about a recognition and an absolute refusal to give up, to hand authority over to a bunch of street corner thugs. They wanted him to play their no win game of three onto one, so he changed the game.

I’ve never in my life played a dishonest hand of cards at an honest table because quite simply I love playing a game of cards well, but when someone is cheating, all the rules come off. The problem was never exposing him as a thief. Anytime I wanted to do that, it’d be as simple as grabbing his right wrist, twisting it upwards and showing the palmed cards he was about to add to the bottom of the deck. They were mostly construction men being cheated out of their hard earned wages and wouldn’t need me to draw any frigging diagrams. Blood would have flowed and that’s the sort of situation that so easily gets out of control.

At the same time, there was no way I was going to let him continue thieving from my friend. So yes, I cheated because I had to find a way out. Two Wongs can sometimes make a Wight, as an oriental friend of mine once slyly observed. Nobody ended the night in hospital, a holding cell or with a manslaughter charge hanging over their head. I do have a moral code, but it does incline to the roughty toughty side of the street. I gave the thief a day’s head start before telling my friend and asking him to redistribute the winnings with the other players.

Is it honourable to read someone else’s mail? Why not address that one to the war grave that the USS Arizona became or the other two thousand or so souls along what was called battleship boulevard. Somebody wants to play fast and loose with the rules, even the rules of war, then the gloves come off. You sowed it, you’re gonna reap it.

Does that mean there are no rules at all?

That’s not a question you should ask of me, but of yourself. I have my own Rules of Engagement and I do stick to them, just as long as everyone else is playing by the rules. If they decide to ignore them, then it becomes open season and they’re fair game. Even then, you have to decide for yourself which particular lines you won’t cross.

Kobayashi Maru was a fictional training exercise in the TV series Star Trek. It had been specifically designed in such a way as to be totally unwinnable; whoever took it was going to fail the test no matter what they did. The only person who did pass it was of course Captain Kirk, and he did so by the simple expedient of reprogramming the exercise to allow him to succeed.

The question is – was he cheating?

To my mind no, because once he realised he was in a rigged game, then changing the rules was a sensible and proportionate response. You either accept three against one, or you change the situation. You allow a cardsharp to get away with stealing money from people or you change the situation. You either fight a scrupulously clean war, whatever that is, against a brutal enemy who ignores what few rules there are, or you change the situation.

There is a school of thought that you don’t have to play in a rigged game, but in reality all that does is allow them to keep getting away with it. That’s not some type of honourable draw, it’s just handing them a win every time.


Related articles by Pointman:

Why would anyone believe a single word coming out of their mouth?

A climate of deception, deceit, lies and outright dishonesty.

Click for a list of other articles.

25 Responses to “Kobayashi Maru.”
  1. flyingtigercomics says:

    Reblogged this on Flying Tiger Comics and commented:
    Does that mean there are no rules at all?

    That’s not a question you should ask of me, but of yourself. I have my own Rules of Engagement and I do stick to them, just as long as everyone else is playing by the rules. If they decide to ignore them, then it becomes open season and they’re fair game. Even then, you have to decide for yourself which particular lines you won’t cross.


  2. Blackswan says:


    You’re right – there are times when we simply have to fight fire with fire … literally.

    Ask any Aussie fireman. He’ll tell you that to stop a raging forest wildfire in its tracks, the best form of defence is offence, and back-burns are lit that will deprive the oncoming fire-front of fuel. The conflagration meets a second version of itself, and ultimately subsides into a smouldering ruin.

    However, it isn’t long before the blackened landscape is tinged green with fresh uncontaminated growth, seeds germinate, surviving wildlife returns to claim new territory and the cycle of life (and death) begins again.

    Sometimes, appealing to a crook’s better nature is pointless because he simply doesn’t have one, and playing him at his own game is the only language he understands.

    It’s how police officers from Narcotics and Child Protection squads secure convictions – they play in the bad guys’ sandbox according to their rules, but always their focus is bringing the dealers and paedophiles to justice and protecting their communities from the predatory creatures among us.

    But what to do when our leaders in government betray us – lie, cheat and steal from us?

    ‘Kobayashi Maru’ indeed.


  3. Adam says:

    Winners are grinners.


  4. hoppers says:

    Loved the card game story. Agree entirely. When 1 side chooses to break the rules, the gloves are off.


  5. Blackswan says:

    The Australian Greens leader Bob Brown was visiting a Sydney primary school and the class was in the middle of a discussion related to words and their meaning, so the teacher asked Mr Brown if he would like to lead the discussion on the word ‘tragedy’ and he asked the class for an example of a tragedy.

    A little boy stood up and offered: ‘If my best friend, who lives on a farm, is playin’ in the field and a tractor runs over him and kills him, that would be a tragedy.’
    ‘Incorrect,’ said Brown. ‘That would be an accident.’

    A little girl raised her hand: ‘If a school bus carrying fifty children drove over a cliff, killing everybody inside, that would be a tragedy.’
    ‘I’m afraid not’, explained Brown, ‘that’s what we would refer to as a great loss’.

    The room went silent. No other children volunteered. Brown searched the room.
    ‘Isn’t there someone here who can give me an example of a tragedy?’

    Finally, at the back of the room, little Johnny raised his hand and said:
    ‘If a plane carrying you and Michael Mann and Al Gore and all the Green politicians was struck by a ‘friendly fire’ missile & blown to smithereens, that would be a tragedy.’

    ‘Fantastic’ exclaimed Brown, ‘and can you tell me why that would be a tragedy?’
    ‘Well’, said Johnny, ‘it has to be a tragedy, because it certainly wouldn’t be a great loss, and it probably wouldn’t be a bloody accident either!’


    • meltemian says:

      Love it!!! Thanks Swanny, that made me laugh out loud.


    • Graeme No.3 says:

      I prefer the story of the English visitor being shown around a tasmanian animal sanctuary, and seeing Bob Brown lecturing 2 acolytes near a pen from which was coming snarls and groans.

      “What’s that?” ” That’s the Tasmanian devil, a mean, nasty, untrustworthy animal with an insatiable appetite” was the reply.

      “Interesting, and what is the animal called?”


  6. Very entertaining story Pointman. The ethics virtually play no role when a gentleman reads the mail, but it becomes indeed important when the gentleman does something (or not) with the mail contents.


  7. Otter (ClimateOtter on Twitter) says:

    I recently used somewhat similar tactics against a person where I post my climate articles / information. Just when he thought he’d gained the upper hand, I came back from a different direction. That led him to make a few mistakes which I then jumped upon… as soon as he tried something different, I hit him with the next change of tactic.

    He’s gotten very quiet towards me of late, but I am NEVER going away.


  8. NoFixedAddress says:

    Interesting reflections Pointman.

    Bullies and thieves should always be dealt with as expediently as possible, where possible, and more power to your friend and yourself for your respective actions.

    It is not always straightforward when acting alone and, I think, does require one to contain a flexible centre of balance.

    The code breakers were, and not lessening the bravery of the Allied Forces that fought at Midway as you say, the unsung heroes.

    Not only that but the next year, April 1943, they cracked the itinerary of Japanese Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbour attack and other strategies, which enabled an American squadron to down his plane.

    There is a ‘tad’ of a back story to that one (involves some Australians)!

    The Kobayashi Maru test and ‘Kirk’s’ solution I hadn’t heard of before but it reminds me of the Gordian Knot, in a different context.

    I actually have no problem, with some caveats, if my Allies want to check my emails. I actually have nothing to hide.

    Foolish, on occasion, I may be but I would prefer that good folk understood that I support a bottom line.

    And if good folk step out of line I am prepared to bring them back.

    Real leadership is not control but maintaining discipline.


  9. NoFixedAddress says:


  10. NoFixedAddress says:

    And if all else fails,


  11. NoFixedAddress says:

    And I am the man from the East


  12. NoFixedAddress says:

    I have told ‘some’ folk that America, with their current leadership, is my enemy.

    And guess what, England, the country I would rely on most, is a place that deserves an awakening because it is now unreliable.

    Shit is happening all around us.


  13. Truthseeker says:

    “Two Wongs can sometimes make a Wight …”

    The actual saying (from less politically correct times) is “Two Wongs do not make a White”. I am pretty sure that nasty undead creatures was not what your oriental friend was referring to.


    • hoppers says:

      If you live in Australia, one Wong is quite enough thank you. (Apologies to non-Australians among us, Blackswan et al will understand perfectly where I’m coming from)


      • Blackswan says:

        Yep, even one Socialist/Marxist/Labor/Green Senator would be enough, but she is surrounded by a coven of them.


  14. Lars P. says:

    Hey Pointman, everybody likes the story and now I come with critique… the story sounds too nice… much too nice….

    I got stuck at this:
    “That noble-sounding decision came back to haunt the USA on the morning of December 7 1941 when Japan crippled the US Pacific fleet at Pear Harbour without bothering with a formal declaration of war.”

    “In fact, U.S. code breakers had already deciphered and translated most of the message hours before he was scheduled to deliver it.”

    Your story creates the impression that the US simply slept in a magnificent indifference, ignoring the treacherous japanese which attacked, but this story is simply not true.
    The US was listening and they had already deciphered the japanese code. The “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.” meme is false. They were obviously reading the ambassador’s mails even before he did.

    There was no change in politics to facilitate the victory at Midway, the code was already broken before the war, and the efforts continued with each new version of the code, of course intensified during the war.

    So was wondering what part of the story is true? Was your friend really persecuted by a trio alpha male, or was he the thug that the trio managed to first oppose as a group, but he broke them one by one and they realised they could either walk all the time together or accept his rule…. The story may be different if it is told by the other side…
    A lot of “believe me” is needed there.

    The card story …. What would have happened if the “other” would have caught you while cheating? Would your friends still believe you did this only because “he was cheating”? Would that end well?

    And about Kirk.
    Well, Alexander the Great broke the Gordian knot in an original way, the idea to find a different way is with us since the times, as it was with the Egg of Columbus, however for Kirk to reprogram a test to allow him to win… ok that is cheating. It is not the same knot as others tried to open, it was only wearing the same name.

    So yes, sometimes you need to play the game differently to win it, but sometimes there are un-winnable situations, and that might be a good lesson for Kirk, but ok he is just a movie character…


    • Graeme No.3 says:

      Lars P.
      “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail” was said, by Stinson (?) in 1927 and the USA had very little de-cyphering effort until 1939. Even after 1939 there was little funds devoted.

      the USA group did translate the message to the japanese Ambassador before his staff decoded it. It was a Sunday and people weren’t at work on both sides. This is why the Ambassador delivered the letter after the attack.
      The message didn’t say anything about an attack, nevertheless a warning was sent to Pearl Harbour BY TELEGRAM. It was delivered to the Army base by a japanese-american on a motorbike riding through the bombs (and loose shells), and the General just dropped it in the rubbish bin.

      The Midway attack involved another cypher which had to be broken. Indeed the USA had to cope with constant changes throughout the War.


    • Pointman says:

      Hey Lars P,

      I’m fascinated at the depth of your observations on the piece and the way your mind works.

      It was a cunning move on the American’s part to allow the destruction and loss of life at Pear Harbour, even though they’d broken all the Japanese codes.

      You’re of course right; the guy who’s been losing money all night is the one you keep an especially vigilant eye on in case he’s cheated himself into that position.

      The crown topper is the insight you bring into the situation that the three guys beating someone else up are actually the victims of a bully. Obviously, him hitting their fists with his face was a dead giveaway.

      As for doubting my honesty, you’re now on strike three.



  15. diogenese2 says:

    Gentleman you are discussing here a seminal event in the history of mankind. A whole lifetime of work would be needed to comprehend the ramifications of even the smallest detail of this incident.
    The questions, alternative histories and conspiracy theories are almost infinite. In considering only the “what ifs” that emerges is that this event, like most others, demonstrates that chaos rules our little portion of the universe and that attempts to comprehend and rationalise or total futile.
    What little you assert is challengeable. The “declaration of war” was late because the ambassador insisted on typing it himself and he was a fucking slow typist. It was Sunday in Pearl Harbour and all the defenders were on leave. The Japs KNEW the aircraft carriers weren’t there yet went in anyway – reducing the impact and probably confirming their failure. The code breakers, deciphering “Climb Mount Fuji” sent the message to people who knew that Japan would NEVER attack the USA because they MUST lose (quite correct). They could not imagine the (losing)strategy that Japan adopted. I am probable wrong about most of this – but that is how it is with history! My own conception was no less chaotic and I survived the war by the slenderest chance when one of the first V1 flying bombs to reach London landed next door. I calculate my life is worth less than 1ml of Kerosene ( +/- 0.5ml). Never, ever, believe you know everything about anything.
    Knowing nothing is closer to the reality.


    • NoFixedAddress says:

      It actually comes down to the question “Do you live or die?”

      For all the great points that some ‘folk’ have given it truly comes down to ‘will you live or die’.

      I live.


  16. I’d comment a little further- while the code breaking allowed the carrier group to set up an ambush, the real winner of the battle was Commander C. Wade McClusky. When his two squadrons could not find the Japanese carriers where they were thought to be he decided to continue on, despite dangerously low fuel levels. In a few minutes the air group spotted the wake of the Japanese destroyer steaming at top speed back to the carriers(after falling behind trying to sink the submarine USS Nautilus). They followed the destroyer’s heading back to the Japanese fleet and arrived almost simultaneously with a squadron launched from the USS Hornet. McClusky’s two squadrons hit the Akagi and Kaga. The Yorktown squadron, which launched later but had better information, badly damaged the Soryu. The fourth carrier, Hiryu, launched an unsuccessful counterattack but was severely damaged later in the day. All four Japanese carriers were either scuttled a sank within a day.

    While luck and skill play a role, McClusky’s astute decision to continue his attack resulted in the destruction of two carriers and saving both his squadrons. Without those planes the remaining two US carriers would have faced 3 carriers with relatively full complements of planes.


  17. AndrewZ says:

    Was Kirk cheating in the “Kobayashi Maru” exercise? I’d say yes, because it was meant to be a test of character not a test of tactical skill. It was testing how a potential leader would react to a hopeless situation. But it wasn’t just a way for Starfleet to evaluate its recruits. It was also an opportunity for each cadet to study his or her own responses, to identify weaknesses and learn how to correct them. By changing the simulation to avoid going through this process Kirk was dodging the most important part of the test and was therefore cheating.

    He also showed narrow and unimaginative thinking in focussing all his attention on the mechanics of the exercise rather than on its fundamental purpose. Changing the parameters of the situation is often a good idea in real-life but it’s self-defeating in a training exercise that is all about your responses to that particular situation. A no-win scenario is also a lesson about path dependence, to impress on young officers that poor decisions in the early stages of an engagement can lead to unavoidable disaster later on. People are more likely to remember things that provoke a strong emotional response, so getting the cadets to act out their own deaths makes it more likely that they would remember this important lesson. Kirk clearly didn’t grasp any of that, so he failed as well.


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