Modern chess tournaments have been around since 1851. The game of strategy has roots that trace back to the earliest days of India and has spread around the globe, gaining a reputation for being a ‘thinker’s game’. Considered a game that combines attack and strategy, chess boards can be found tucked in the corner of an executive’s office, on tables in the park and in school classrooms all over the world. It transcends nationalities and gender and is enjoyed by young and old. Can this beloved game be more than a simple board game? Is there a parallel between chess and business that can be explored and investigated? What is it about the game of chess that attracts so many entrepreneurs to the board?
This article will look at the components of the chess principles that can make you a better corporate strategist. It will look at 1) the parallels between chess and business, 2) the main principles from chess that can be applied to business, 3) lessons from World Chess champions for becoming successful entrepreneurs, and 4) examples of chess strategies in business.
PARALLELS BETWEEN CHESS AND BUSINESS
Perhaps you’ve seen a chess game – either live or on television. They are typically very dignified events with players patiently waiting their turn, calmly stopping the clock to signify the end of their move. Each player fervently studies the board, anticipating their next move, running through potential scenarios in their head. This can be a far cry from the business world, where competitors attack simultaneously from all sides, the internal struggles of a company can have an effect and a host of other elements which can all be put into play at the same time. However, the parallels between chess and business are clearly evident. Companies put chess principles into action on a regular basis, often without even realizing that they are strategically positioning their pieces in a series of moves that have been utilized multiple times through the years.
When considering the parallels between what happens on a chess board and what happens in a board room, there are some elements that these two environments have in common. The game of chess is about war. Specifically, it is about protecting a prized piece, and engaging in war with the opponent who wishes to defeat you. There are differing strategies for both offensive and defensive play, and the wise chess player will have experience with both. Corporate strategy is much the same: protecting something of value (the company) and engaging in war with the opponent who wishes to win. The business person who can successfully navigate offensive and defensive tactics will be an asset to a company in the game of business.
Chess requires careful planning, time management, and the motivation to act.
Why You NEED to Play Chess – Dr. Donna Thomas-Rodgers | Speaker | Business Expert
MAIN PRINCIPLES FROM CHESS THAT CAN BE APPLIED IN BUSINESS
Know the aim of the game
Perhaps one of the most important principles one can take from the game of chess is to know the aim of the game. A beginning chess player who is struggling with the fundamentals of the game will be easily defeated by the more experienced, practiced player. Understanding the main goal of the game is imperative for any player who wishes to be competitive. The goal of chess is to protect the king, while trying to eliminate the other player’s king. By trapping the king in a ‘checkmate’, the king is rendered useless and the game is over. In other words, the aim of the game is to decimate your opponent’s army and vanquish the king. Decimate and dominate, as quickly as possible.
It is equally important to understand the aim of the business to remain competitive. Is the company’s aim to sell more products than a competitor? To provide outstanding customer service? No matter what the ‘business’ of the business is, it is essential to understand the goal of the company. Everything else that is done must be approached from the perspective of reaching that goal. The company that is competitive must understand that their competitors are out to win. By engaging in a war with another company for market share, the goal must be to win.
Plan before making a move
With the end goal in mind (protecting the king), the chess player can begin to plan moves and potential responses to that move. Many chess players memorize opening moves to start the game, setting up a series of events that they can deal with easily. The successful chess player can foresee moves several turns ahead, which will allow for easily planning successive moves and strategies.
A similar approach must be taken in business. Before jumping into business practices and plans, the successful entrepreneur will take the time to plan, not only for their immediate moves, but for the next few moves they will need to make as well.
Manage time and resources wisely
It is a reality of the game: the pieces are engaged in a war, and some pieces will be lost. It is expected – after all, if no one ever took out their opponent’s pieces, not much would happen on the game board. Through poorly planned moves, better strategy by the opponent or a strategic sacrifice, not all pieces will make it through the entire game. Within the game, the execution of a move that is not well thought out can be taken advantage of by the opponent. A well-played countermove can completely change the face of the game, and move a player from the offensive to the defensive. Similarly, a well-planned sacrifice can give a player the advantage in a few moves. These small sacrifices can mean the difference between winning and losing in a chess game.
The business world is remarkably similar. Companies who wish to succeed may find themselves in a position of sacrifice, in order to gain a better market share or position down the road. This can be seen in a company who spends capital on equipment with the expectation that business will pick up and they will need to be prepared. It can also been seen in a company that re-invents itself through staff cuts and organizational changes in order to remain competitive in the market. Sacrificing a few key pieces can lead to a greater reward later.
Use all the available pieces
There is a temptation among novice chess players to immediately begin moving the king and queen around the board. While the player may be exhibiting a clear understanding of the goal of the game, the process of protecting the king and queen may be hazy. The young player must learn to maximize the availability of all of the pieces on the board and use that availability to an advantage. By using all of the pieces available, the king can be adequately protected and the other pieces are allowed to manage the elimination of the opponent’s pieces.
Players often forget that the entire board can be utilized in the game, and concentrate on the central corridor of the board. Looking for ways that the entire board can be used to engage with the competition is crucial. It not only expands the playing field, it provides additional opportunities for overtaking the opponent, as well as spreading out the other player’s resources. This can be an asset when attempting to make a run for the king.
Likewise, in a business setting, it can be tempting to focus on a few key areas. This can be seen in the company who pins their hopes and dreams on the shoulders of a ‘star employee’, or the company that bases their success on one product or line. While these methods may occasionally work, over time they have proven to be largely unsuccessful. Using the skills and abilities of all of the ‘players’ or employees, the company can establish a pattern of working towards success where everyone is involved. This creates an environment that thrives on teamwork and cooperation, helping to push the company farther than it could go with just a few individuals.
Similarly, by expanding the available products and services offered, the business can challenge an opponent on several fronts, increasing the probability of success.
Keep an eye on the clock
While not utilized in every game, in tournament play the player is racing against the clock to make a move. At the end of their move, the player must tap the timer to signal that they have completed their move. Disciplined players know that they have a limited amount of time to act, and are prepared to make decisive moves. The inexperienced player will spend their time thinking about potential moves and may waste their move, frozen with indecision about which move is best. To prevent this, experienced players have prepared (often for months or even years) and have memorized potential moves and strategies. They can recall, at a moment’s notice, if need be, the move that they need to make.
Business practices also require strategic thinking and planning, balanced with the ability to make quick decisions as necessary. While not every decision must be made on the spur of the moment, there are always situations that require action due to external forces. By preparing in advance for potential situations, the entrepreneur can make decisions which appear to be quick, but are in reality the result of months of studying and preparation. Conversely, business leaders must also know when to take the available time to consider options before making rash decisions. Even when an immediate decision appears to be the best option, further evaluation may reveal an alternative that ultimately is better.
Know your opponent
Chess is a game of strategy and skill. As a game between two players, face to face, it is also a psychological game that involves knowing an opponent’s body language, temperament and strategy. Underestimating an opponent can result in defeat, simply because of the psychological advantage the opponent had. Luring an opponent into playing a different style of game, exhibiting unease or hesitancy through pauses or hesitant moves can all be part of the strategy an opponent undertakes during a game. Being prepared for the type of game that an opponent is likely to play will help in getting ready for the game, as well as increase the odds of a victory.
The same strategy must be applied in the business world. Knowing the competition is vital to being competitive in the marketplace. Understanding the moves and motivations of an opponent, as well as being able to counter any possible moves that are made will ensure that the competitor is not able to gain an advantage. In addition, by studying an opponent’s strategy, there is opportunity for finding ways to outwit the competition and make inroads into winning the game.
Finding the balance
There is a balance in chess between analysis and intuition. Even with months and years of preparation and study, there is a human element that cannot be foreseen. The player must have a keen sense of intuition to not only predict what moves the competitor will make, but to react appropriately, regardless of the move made. Chess is an infinite game, with literally millions of potential moves available. It is impossible to know and plan for every contingency all the time. With so much preparation work, there is still a moment in the game when the player must simply move based on their intuition. Whether it is to predict an upcoming move, or to make an offensive move based on a perceived weakness, the player will ultimately be playing with their gut.
Once a player learns to find the balance between skill and intuition, their game ability generally improves. Some of the greatest minds in chess have found great success during the times when they went with their feeling instead of their skill.
Entrepreneurs must find the same balance. There is no replacement for the ability to rely on sheer instinct. In the business world, this is often referred to as thinking outside the box, and is often the source of great creativity and achievement. Successful marketing campaigns, surprise products and other by-products of intuition can be the difference between winning and losing.
Ten Things Business Can Learn From Chess
LESSONS FROM WORLD CHESS CHAMPIONS FOR BECOMING SUCCESSFUL ENTREPRENEURS
Garry Kasparov: One of the youngest World Chess champions, Kasparov claimed the title at age 22 and is considered one of the most accomplished players of all time.
Chess is a battleground. The game of chess is not a nice, quiet game. It is about demolishing the enemy, according to Kasparov, and should not be played any other way. Business, therefore, must also be considered a fight to the end.
Make yourself comfortable in enemy territory. By convincing a competitor that you are comfortable on their ground, you may be able to trick them into making a move into your territory. This can only happen if you have practiced working in the enemy’s holdings. Familiarize yourself with the enemy and then make plans to take over.
Peter Thiel: One of the early investors in Facebook and the founder of Paypal, Peter Thiel has history as a chess master.
Know the value of the pieces. Each piece in a chess game has a specific value. By knowing the value, it is easier to make decisions about game strategy and placement. Similarly, knowing the value of employees and other associates, it can be easier to make business decisions regarding job responsibilities and more.
Understand how the pieces work together. According to Thiel, there are two types of players in every setting: nerds and athletes. Nerds tend to be the thinkers who avoid conflict, while athletes make every situation into a competition. In Thiel’s opinion, each company needs both to be balanced and successful.
Justin Moore: Child chess prodigy, Justin Moore was ranked in the top 20 youth chess players in the United States by the time he was a teenager. Moore is now CEO of Axcient, a cloud services provider.
Relentless focus. According to Moore, too many companies lose sight of their goal and get sidetracked into reactionary activities. As a chess player, Moore understands the value in planning an endgame, and explains that businesses must model the same behavior. By not being waylaid by the activities of a competitor, it is easier to remain focused on the ultimate goal of the company.
Recognize Patterns. Observing the repeated methods of an opponent can give an indicator of what their next possible move may be. The same principle applies in business: by observing the patterns of business, the entrepreneur can make predictions of what the market will do and act accordingly. In addition, adjustments can be made as necessary to improve and expand business activities.
EXAMPLE OF CHESS STRATEGIES IN BUSINESS
When Japan first began to introduce their cars to the world, they were facing the automotive giants of the United States. The early 1970’s were a time of innovation and change, and the market was ready for an alternative automobile manufacturer. Knowing that there was no way to dominate the American market through profit, Japanese car makers launched an attack straight from a chess player’s manual.
Utilizing the strategies of having multiple advantages as well as the willingness to sacrifice, the Japanese were content to sacrifice profits in order to gain market share. They introduced their cheaper, energy-efficient cars to the market and waited. The American public, fed up with rising gas prices and more expensive cars, began to buy the Japanese cars. As the American car companies caught on and began to offer a cheaper car of their own, it was too late – the Japanese cars had flooded the market. They have continued to hold a large portion of consumer business in the United States car industry ever since.
Companies that failed to use strategic thinking and planning are a reminder to other business leaders to employ chess techniques in their industry. One has to only think back a decade to remember the photography industry giant Kodak. Failing to plan ahead for the competition’s move, Kodak found itself outflanked and outplayed with the introduction of digital photography. Unprepared to counterattack, Kodak has struggled to regain even a small footing within the camera marketplace.
Sitting down to play a simple game of chess can be an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. The deceptively pleasant game can bring important lessons into corporate board rooms, a fact that may have executives inviting people to ‘play a quick game of chess’ before heading into negotiations. Applying chess principles into corporate strategies can not only improve the overall strategy, it provides insight into the competition and provides methods for winning in the corporate game.