From the chess board to the board room, what can business learn from chess?
There is an Indian proverb that says chess is a sea from which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe.
What may appear to some to be a board game, albeit a rather complicated one, is to others a confounding obsession, a deeply personal challenge, an intellectual battle, a psychological arm wrestle. To succeed at the game requires tremendous dedication – often many years of full-time specialised training – and also the ability to strategise, to mobilise forces, to make sound decisions but also audacious, unpredictable moves. You must understand your own strengths and have the ability to read those of others, and anticipate them.
Which, when you think about it, sounds a lot like the qualities required for success in business: focus, strategy, structure, discipline, expertise.
And, indeed, some have made the connection between the two demanding disciplines. David Cordover is a former Australian junior chess champion and a partner in Chessworld, a franchise chess equipment business operating in several Australian states.
“Business is just a game,” he says. “And knowing a couple of strategies absolutely helps you. The more I learn about business, the more I think it’s so, so simple – and it’s so like chess.
“The key thing in business is to focus and to have a plan. Chess is exactly the same thing.”
Though many countries claim to have invented chess, it’s commonly thought to have begun in India, evolving from the sixth-century Sanskrit game chaturanga.
The modern version of chess emerged in the 19th century. Today it is one of the world’s most popular board games, played recreationally and competitively either online or at social, club and tournament level.
The governing body is the World Chess Federation, or FIDE, which presides over tournaments, titles and rankings.
“To my mind there are two sorts of chess players,” says Gary Bekker, FIDE’s representative in Australia. “The first group are players I would describe as chess bums. They are very good chess players, but not so good at anything else.
“The other group are made up of those who are brilliant at everything. They have an excellent memory and a flair for anything that involves mathematical puzzles and problem-solving skills. They are not only chess masters but also successful in their business pursuits. They can be excellent sharemarket investors and have a head for managing businesses, for foreseeing problems and how they might be overcome.
“The problem is that usually you have to be either very dedicated to business or to chess,” Bekker says. “There are very few who are excellent at both.”
Those that excel in either discipline talk about the importance of establishing a blueprint for success, but being prepared to deviate from it as the need arises.
Former world champion Garry Kasparov achieved the highest FIDE rating of all time (2,500 is required for grandmaster status), and since retiring from the game has written extensively about chess, politics and business.
He says at the elite levels of chess it’s as important to consider your rival’s actions as it is your own. “In business, too, successful strategists think not just about their own new products, pricing and marketing, but also about how their rivals will respond – and how to respond to them,” Kasparov wrote in Fast Company.
“Smart executives … must understand that their competitors are at least as smart as they are. In chess, I know that my rival sees everything I see. Even if I do the unthinkable – a bold unprecedented move designed to leave him gasping – I must assume he has anticipated it and will have an equally daring answer. Call it the courage to accept humility.”
Guy West, 48, is an international master (a FIDE rating between 2,300 to 2,400), a former Australian chess champion, six-time Victorian champion and has represented Australia at 10 chess Olympiads. He also has enjoyed success as a share trader and is now a partner in Smartgambler.com.au. West attributes his achievements in both domains to “determination rather than inspiration”.
“In chess, perseverance is extremely important, and shouldn’t be underestimated,” says West, who in the lead-up to his Australian championship win in 1996 devoted four hours a day to chess study – in addition to the many hours he spent playing.
“Many people in business will tell you the same thing – that if you survive the first five years you’ve got a very good chance of being successful. In chess and business, it’s certainly not enough just to be talented.”
Bruce Pandolfini is a world-renowned chess teacher (he was portrayed by Sir Ben Kingsley in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer) and the author of Every Move Must Have a Purpose, a tome offering guidance to applying the principles of chess to other endeavours such as business.
He says most great chess players think only as far ahead as they need to, usually just a few moves. “Thinking too far ahead is a waste of time,” Pandolfini says. “The information is uncertain. The situation is ambiguous. Chess is about controlling the situation at hand. You want to determine your own future. You certainly don’t want your opponent to determine it for you.”
The real issue, he says, is not how far ahead you think, but how well you think at the moment it is required. Good thinking, Pandolfini says, is all about making comparisons. If you see a good idea, think of a better one. Weigh them up.
FIDE’s Bekker says it’s important to note the difference between tactics and strategy.
“Tactics is all about what’s happening in the next two moves,” he explains. “Strategy is present in the overall position of the pieces on the board. Good chess players pay attention to both, correctly balancing immediate concerns with long-term strategy.
“It’s the same in the business world for a manager. What’s happening in the office and the day-to-day affairs of the company [its tactics] might all be going extremely well. Meanwhile, strategically, the company might be incredibly unprofitable. But a good manager will be able to modify as changes come along.
“And of course, the two affect each other,” Bekker says. “How your company performs day to day – the attention it pays to customer service and to details – impacts on its strategic direction, and vice versa.”
Says Kasparov: “Great chess players cannot lose sight of the mundane details. In business you might call this … the everyday operations that, if left untended, will undermine your organisation.
“One ill-considered move, or non-move, seemingly inconsequential at the time, can leave you hopelessly behind.”
The Melbourne Chess Club, established in 1886 and now located in inner-suburban Fitzroy, seems about as far from the business world as it is possible to get.
On a Monday night, the nondescript building, home to one of the oldest chess clubs in the world, is busy but quiet. It is tournament night. In one room there are several tables of players earnestly hunched over chess tables and punching clocks when they’ve completed their moves. In another, much larger room, the weekly tournament is taking place, and there is no talk at all.
This is clearly a male domain. There are no women anywhere, and the males present, ranging in age from perhaps early 20s to late 60s, seem not overly interested in socialising. Fashion, for most, is an afterthought.
Because chess has been around for so long, many of its manoeuvres have been codified. So, the moves I see players making – especially at the start of games – have been executed many times before, and are even allocated names, such as the Sicilian, Slav or French Winawer openings. There are many of these, and when chess aficionados talk about strategy and homework, they are often referring to the study of past contests: openings, endgames and technique.
Chess strategy has been analysed and refined since the 15th century, so its study can represent a lifetime’s work – and sometimes there is a fine line between passion and addiction.
“You tell yourself that it’s just a game,” jokes club member Scott Stewart. “But then you find yourself playing four tournaments a week. There should be a Chessaholics Anonymous.”
Another club member, Marcus Raine, loves studying old games – he can speak with authority about contests that took place in the 1930s – and talks about the beautiful aesthetics evident during great contests.
“Chess clubs,” he says, “are a bit of a sanctuary from the world.”
Chess in Australia operates very much under the radar.
In Russia, where chess has been played since the 11th century, the prohibitively cold climate lends itself to indoor pursuits. Chess teaching, learning and culture has a considerably more prominent place in wider society.
Kasparov, for instance, began learning under grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik from the age of eight, his towering chess talent eventually making him famous and wealthy.
“When chess is taught in Europe it’s done so as something that enhances academic results in terms of improving problem solving, pattern recognition and memory,” FIDE’s Bekker says. “And all those skills are handy in a business sense.”
Gerrit Hartland from Canterbury (Victoria) Chess Club, where Australian grandmaster Darryl Johansen teaches, says chess also helps with concentration and logical thinking.
“You see the development of a young player who comes to us at the age of seven,” he says. “Bit by bit they learn to concentrate. They learn patience, which is one of the toughest things to teach a small kid.”
Whether or not youngsters adroit at chess harness their skills to later forge a successful professional life away from the chess board is another question.
“It’s a matter of time,” says international master West. “Most people who are successful in chess devote a whole life to it.”
Yet some do master both. Joop van Oosterom, for instance, is a billionaire Dutch businessman and chess enthusiast who became the world correspondence chess champion.
Dato Tan Chin Nam is the main owner for horse trainer Bart Cummings, and a chess enthusiast who sponsors tournaments. He frequently names horses after chess nomenclature.
There are many others, though, who find those forces on the board to which Hartland refers as irresistibly mesmerising, and from which it’s difficult to break free.
As eclectically talented as these players are, to them chess as a metaphor for business is therefore something of a moot point.
“Chess is chess,” Hartland says. “That’s the end of it.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.