I love chess and often think that much of what makes me a “good” chess player helps me in business. I know articles about Chess, business and strategy have appeared in periodicals such as the Harvard Business Review, that luminaries as distinguished as Benjamin Franklin have written about the “game of kings” and you could write volumes and volumes about the most basic components of a game… I can’t possibly go into this level of detail but wanted to share a few of the key ideas Chess had made me think about.
1. Always think ahead
The top Chess Grandmasters are able to think “20 moves deep”. What does that mean? Well, to be the greatest you need to be able to visualize the moves you and your opponent are likely to play by as many as 20 turns ahead. It’s a staggering feat that requires intense concentration and inductive reasoning skills.
And the relevance to business?
It’s not about the next move, or the move after, it is about the move after that. Successful people don’t respond, they anticipate. You need a plan, and you need a narrative.
Even being able to think 3 or 4 moves ahead will help prepare you for longer term success, helping structure your plans, decide how you allocate your resources and even manage short term set-backs. It’s an obvious idea but in an age where information and gratification is immediate and where businesses/ individuals have aggressive targets, too many of us simply respond.
(I often think this is relevant to careers. People often play what’s in front of them, not thinking strategically about where they want to be in the longer term and making sure they have the necessary tools and skills to enable this.)
2. Use your resources efficiently
Chess is fascinating because both players start with exactly the same resources. There is only one innate advantage – which player goes first. Everything else is down to you.
The best players “develop” all their resources (they bring them into the game) quickly. Their pieces work in synergy with one other, controlling space and working towards a specific objective. The best chess players are also able to arrange their pieces (their resources) so each does more than one thing (that might be defending a certain position while attacking another position, for example).
Like bad managers, the worst chess players don’t do this. They overuse certain pieces while neglecting others. Their pieces don’t work towards a common goal. They don’t multi-task, and so on. This doesn’t matter when you are playing other poor (inefficient) players, but against the best, efficiency is paramount.
3. Theory is a good starting point but it will only get you so far
Like a traditional story, each Chess game can be divided into 3 parts: the beginning, the middle and the end. The end is defined as the point when your King becomes active, while the beginning is the part of the game focused on development (the middle is basically everything else).
The beginning, unsurprisingly, plays a hugely important part in defining the style of game you will be playing (open vs. closed positions, etc.) and is usually steeped in theory. There are literally hundreds of opening lines that can be learned. Each has a specific strategy, or approach, which appeals to one’s playing style or may respond to your opponent’s perceived preferences. Again, the best players in the world study opening theory religiously and are able to play as many as 30 moves from memory (amateurs like myself may know 5 – 10 opening lines intimately.)
The point is theory can only get you so far. Once you get past “move 30” (or however far you’ve studied), you are on your own. Theory will help you set-things up, but at some point you need to use intuition and apply some good old elbow grease. No-one can play an entire game from theory (not against decent opponents anyway – lines like the Scholar’s Mate are purely theoretical winning strategies, but very few Chess veterans would fall for this!)
The counter point to this is, of course, the better prepared you are, the more advantage you will have in the opening (and usually the remainder) of the game. Two identically brilliant players will be defined not by their end or middle games, but by the quality of their opening repertoire (their preparation).
What does this mean in business? You should understand the principles, the strategy, the ideas… but ultimately this will only solve part of the problem… the rest you need to solve yourself.
4. “Know thy enemy, know thy self”
When I was starting out I used to focus almost exclusively on developing my own pieces and to ignore what my opponent was doing. This was a huge error.
Successful chess players not only create opportunities for themselves, they think about what their opponent is trying to do and they stop or respond to it. This requires reading their moves, understanding them and what they are trying to achieve.
Now this isn’t always possible in business but there is still a lesson to be learned: if you focus too much on what you are doing, you can quickly find yourself being overtaken by a competitor who was quietly going about their own thing. You always have to pay attention to your opponent, anticipate what they are doing and respond.
5. Move order is essential
One of the most fascinating parts of becoming a good chess player is learning the importance of move order. Two identical positions can have vastly different outcomes just by changing the move order (literally the sequence of moves that you make with your pieces to achieve a certain end) or inserting a move between plays (a “Zwischenzug”).
It is a complicated idea and best understood with a chess board in front of you (or a more apt teacher), but the learning is simple: challenging yourself to think differently about a set problem, adjusting things as trivial as ordering, can lead to much better results. A huge amount of process re-design I have done has followed this fairly simple concept.
6. You need to weigh-up every decision
Currency exists in Chess in the form of pieces, tempo (or moves) and space. Assuming you don’t make any huge blunders (and things like King safety are not ignored), you spend and accumulate this currency in order to win the game (to checkmate your opponent’s King). Every decision you make has to help you achieve this objective. For example:
- If you move a piece repeatedly before exchanging it for a static piece of your opponent’s, you have lost tempo and your competitor will get a move advantage
- If you trade a higher value piece for a lower value piece, you are losing “firing power”
- If you retreat your position (or don’t advance far enough) you are giving up space
So there is a cost to every decision, and you need to ask yourself if you are spending this “currency” knowingly, willingly and correctly. Likewise, you need to ask if your opponent is doing this. It ties in with the ideas about efficiency mentioned above. Recognizing and properly assessing what each decision means will help you achieve your objective. Too often we make decisions quickly, or without understanding the full consequences (often we have to), and as good quality Chess players know, this can be fatal.
7. You don’t always win, but you learn a lot from losing
One of the features of modern chess is the amazing array of software that allows you to analyze your performance, identifying weak moves (or better lines), etc. And needless to say, the best players think about what they did wrong, they review their mistakes, ask where they could have played a better move and they learn from them.
It’s a simple message, often repeated, but “you learn more from your loses than your wins”. This is certainly true in chess, and I think holds true in business too. Critically assessing what went wrong, or what could have gone better, will help the quality of future decisions.
At the highest level, Chess, like business, is about miniscule advantages. The player who plans ahead, who uses his resources efficiently, who thinks about what they are doing and what their opponent is trying to do, will win. More than anything, this is what Chess has taught me.