The Poisoned Chalice Strategy

A poisoned chalice is something that seems good at first (a beautiful cup filled with delectable wine) but after the person accepts the cup and drinks from it he or she discovers that it is poisoned. This has strong similarities to the “white elephant tactic”. However, the difference lies in the objective of the tactician and the awareness of the target. In the case of the “poisoned chalice” the objective is the swift and covert destruction of an opponent while with the “White Elephant” it is to create a burden that ultimately exhausts the opponent – but is one they cannot refuse. In short, they are aware that they are being targeted but are powerless to prevent it. One tactic is swift; the other lengthy.

“Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
to plague the inventor; this even-handed justice
commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
to our own lips. He’s here in double trust:”

This is one the earliest (and clearest) references to the poisoned chalice and is dated to circa 1600. It is an extract from one of William Shakespeare’s tragedies – Macbeth.

However, the origin of the name probably predates this record by 1570 years.

“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ And He took the cup, (chalice) and gave thanks and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink ye all of it; for this is My blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matthew 26.26-28.) “This do in remembrance of me.”

In biblical terms the whole of Jesus’ life was a “Poisoned Chalice”. He was given a great and glorious task by his father “God” (if Christian) to save mankind. However, it would also mean his mortal and painful death as proof of his divinity. (How can you be resurrected if not first dead?) One of his last acts is to drink from a chalice while knowing that he has already been betrayed.

A further reference to this tactical concept comes (allegedly) from Saint Benedict of Nursia (born in Nursia Italy c. 480 – died c. 547) a founder of Christian monastic communities.

The idea was referred to in one of his exorcisms, found on the Saint Benedict Medal:

“Vade retro Satana! Nunquam suade mihi vana! Sunt mala quae libas. Ipse venena bibas!”

(Begone Satan. Never tempt me with your vanities! What you offer me is evil. Drink the poison yourself!).

As there has recently been so much publicity relating to Dan Brown’s “the Da Vinci Code” we feel it is necessary to mention that this tactic has nothing to do with either religion or the numerous conspiracy theories that are now commonplace. It is a reference to the origin of a tactic – nothing more.

How does it work? The principles are simple:

  • First select a target
  • Disguise the mission as something the target will wish to do for what ever reasons will motivate them.
  • Allow (manipulate) the target to accept a “mission” that is certain to cause the target to fail (or destroy themselves)
  • As soon as the target has accepted the “doomed” mission … work to increase the penalty associated with failure
  • Overtly support the mission
  • Covertly undermine the mission
  • Wait until the target fails
  • Make the failure as public and painful as possible

This tactic works well on ambitious and “greedy” people that see the rewards first and consider the consequences of failure last.

An interesting addition to the history of the term, “Poisoned Chalice” is the book by the same name written by Jeffrey Freedman. The story tells of a long-forgotten criminal case where the communion wine of Zurich’s main cathedral was poisoned. The plot of the story is irrelevant but the concept is important. What matters to the tactician is that the victims drank willingly because they believed they were accepting something good (salvation) but were in fact being murdered.

The British newspaper, The Telegraph, ran a story on its website in July 2007. An extracts from this article is as follows:

Stamford Bridge job now a poisoned chalice

“They call the England manager’s position the impossible job but that description could quite as easily be applied to whoever tries to take what has become a poisoned chalice at Chelsea.”

And … another extract, this time from the Guardian Unlimited published in November 2004:

Poison chalice’ warning to NHS pay body

“NHS (National Health Service) managers have warned that the body representing NHS trust managers, has taken on a “poisoned chalice” by agreeing to take over the job of determining staff pay and conditions.”

As can be seen from the above, the concept of the “poisoned chalice” is, at the very least, well understood by the media but the truth is that most people are wary of challenging tasks and very alert to the possibility of being given something to do that may be destined to fail. There is an interesting aspect to this tactic where it is used in reverse.

In this instance a person is persuaded that a genuine task or mission is a “poisoned chalice” and pre-doomed to failure.

The person responsible for the task quickly begins to doubt the motivations of those that assigned it. They become suspicious, pay more attention to the politics than the job and may even abandon the task altogether. The task can then be “rescued” by the tactician who can then claim the credit for the success while exaggerating the failure of the previous person.

No description of the poisoned chalice is complete without a reference to the legend of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail. In brief, it was for a time believed that the chalice used at the “last Super” or the “cup” used to catch the blood of Christ as he was crucified, would pass on everlasting life to any that should drink from it.

King Arthur sent forth his knights on a quest to find this most wonderful of objects. Most were destroyed or in some way injured in this quest. The story goes that, at last, one man, Galahad did find it and was taken with the chalice directly to heaven. For Galahad the grail was salvation but for most of the knights it was definitely a poisoned chalice.