9 Lessons Chess Can Teach You About Management

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This post was originally published on my medium blog in December.

I have been a chess player for most of my life. Today, I want to take this space to connect the dots on chess, management & leadership. You won’t find regular 9–5 advice on improving your life. Because I haven’t had 9–5 job anytime, so that doesn’t make me qualified.

Here I want to share my personal insights with you, which 13 years of chess experience has taught me.

So how do chess & management go together? Can they be applied to professional life? I’ll leave that choice for you to make once you finish reading the article.

1. Chess is about managing yourself, first & foremost.

A game of chess is a battle between 2 opposing forces who are led by a their respective players. It’s the player’s responsibility to make the choices on where to send his forces, how to secure his king, which pieces to trade etc. And every choice one makes has consequences. Therefore, it is very important for a player to be in the right frame of mind. As a result, managing yourself is the first step to being a good chess player.

My results have suffered when I have failed to take responsibility during a chess game.

The same translates to almost any aspect of life. Change yourself first, then change the world. There are so many cliched sayings like which come to my mind. These sayings have stood the test of time because essentially they are truths(or closer to truths).

2. There is no such things as dumb or talentless people, only people in wrong positions.

Earlier, I had a world view that someone is either good or bad. Talented or not talented. And to be honest, that’s a very restricting worldview to have. Chess changed that perspective. In chess, pieces can be misplaced. This makes them temporarily ineffective but that doesn’t mean they suck at their jobs. It’s just that they are doing the wrong job & as a player, you have to find a way to make them better.

This lesson can be easily used in management. People aren’t dumb. You just need to make them do the tasks where they are good at. When I led my team in a championship, I have been on both sides of the coin. I have assumed people were dumb, a decision which ruined our team’s vibe. Once I became aware of this, I made this small shift in perspective. I started treating my team members better. That decision worked wonders for me, as well as for my team.

3. You have to be ruthless.

Chess is much darker than it seems on the surface. I’m talking about real competitive chess, not the game of chess which you play with your friend or kids, lazily sipping coffee from the comfort of your home. You have to be merciless, tire your opponent out & just play to beat him. Hands down. The current world champion, Magnus Carlsen is very good at this. No matter how equal the position is Magnus keeps pushing until he finds a small edge. Then he works on turning the edge into victory. In the process, he keeps asking questions to his opponent, time & time again, until his opponent gives up.

One situation when I think being ruthless is the relentless pursuit of your goal or target. Keep hitting it until you get it right. Extract the best from your people, from yourself.

4. Sometimes, it’s about being a changing opinions as fast a chameleon changes colors.

This must be shocking(& even a bit exaggerated) for you to read but I’ll explain it. In a chess position, you will have advantages & disadvantages working in your favor. You have to believe in your advantages to make the most out of them, obviously. But you can’t forever stick to one advantage.

At times, a smarter strategy is to give away your current advantage & claim another advantage. This new advantage could be your earlier disadvantage. You may call this flexible thinking & the ability to adapt to the new world. My words were brutal, my headline was a bit controversial & I’m sorry for the exaggeration.

An ability to adopt to new world views is always helpful, isn’t it? Just as much as it is important to learn. It is also equally important to unlearn. Your team or your firm may have a strategic advantage over your competitor. If you can leverage it to grow faster, please do by all means. But if there is an opportunity where adopting a contrasting point of view can help your business grow at a potentially astounding rate, please consider it. Only after you have carefully done your research begin implementing this contrasting choice.

That brings me to my next point.

5. Doing tons of research on your competition

In a serious tournament, a professional chess player easily does at least 2 hours of preparation just researching what his opponent does. This way a player can evaluate what his opponent’s strength, weakness & pattern of play is.

If you are a manager or leader, I guess you already know about the first four (S.W.O.T). So I would like to stress on the last one more, which is pattern of play or work. If you are up against a competitor try to find out who is leading the team, how do they operate, what systems they have in place. The insight into how their leaders think can speak a lot about the decisions they will make. There definitely will be a pattern of how they do work. Then try to find a plan of where they are lacking, what their blind spot is & then grab that opportunity when it’s show time.

Chess professionals use to the software Chessbase to do research about the competition. For managers, social media profiles is a great place to do research (or stalking).

6. Accept the possibility that you could be wrong.

In chess, quite often when I think deeply about a position, I can’t figure a way out. In that case, I change my presumptions. It’s basically like changing the glass you wear. Many of my great decisions on the chessboard have come from this possibility — “What if my opponent’s king is no longer as weak as it was 3 moves ago? Am I entirely wrong about assuming that his king is unsafe?”

In managing your team, that could translate to something like this — “So the last time, John underperformed. Does this mean he will continue to underperform? Am I thinking & treating John based on his past results? What if he has improved from his mistakes from the last time & is performing better? What if I am wrong about John? What if I’m treating John with a cognitive bias?”

Or when it comes to competition, the dialogue would look like this — “We are a bigger brand with a bigger market & a bigger team. Is it ‘we are’ or ‘we were’? Do we still have the same edge today that we had 2 months back? Or are we just living an illusion?”

By changing your assumption, you change the way you look at things. We often view reality from a filtered perspective. It helps to consciously doubt yourself, when it comes to making great decisions.

Ego often comes in the way of asking such question. For me, it has come over hundreds of times. And that has also cost me winning my games. Another challenge to this is that sometimes you aren’t self aware to spot this flaw. We become aware of these questions during moments of self reflection.

7. Understand your competition & don’t underestimate their responses.

This one is my favorite. A better understanding of your opposition & their response can significantly improve your results. In chess, we call it prophylactic thinking. Finding the best moves not only for you, but also of your opponent is the hallmark of a strong chess player. If you selfishly think about yourself & don’t pay heed to your opponent’s intentions, one of his ideas could potentially destroy your ambitions. Predicting & finding your opponent’s best resources is the way we chess players are trained to calculate.

The same could go while managing your business. Understanding what the competition is up to & how they respond is a valuable piece of information. Based on that you can position yourself in a favorable way to meet their response. This reminds of an Indian movie, Blackmail, starring the late Irfan Khan & Kriti Kulhari.

*MINI-SPOLIER ALERT*

In the movie, two companies are competing in the sanitary hygiene space. One company is selling toilet papers, the other is selling jet sprays. The company selling toilet paper bribes the authority to cut water supply of the city, so that people buy their products. The company selling jet sprays anticipates this & the day when the water supply is cut, it sponsors water cans & in the process ends up winning people’s trust. Do I need to tell which company made more profit?

Sorry for the mini spoiler, but this isn’t the real theme of the movie.

8. Holding two contrasting ideas in your head at the same time

This is similar to point #4 I mentioned. Contrary to popular belief, chess is also about knowing when NOT to think and knowing when to think. In other cases, it’s about switching to attack while you are defending. Or switching to defense when you are about to storm your opponent’s castle.

Being direct works most of the time. But you need to have the capacity to hold two opposite ideas in your head at the same time.

Similarly, knowing when it’s time to think deeply about your team, about your competition is as important as knowing when not to THINK about it. That helps to not overthink & make quick decisions. Most of the time, it’s all about execution. That’s a reason why the Pareto’s rule is so popular & effective – 80% of the results come from 20% of your work.

9. Analysis, analysis & some more analysis

Analyzing your games is one of the fastest ways one can improve in chess. It has helped me gain rating points faster than I could think of. In fact, everyone in my chess circle I know regularly analyzes their own chess games to find out their weaknesses. Analysis will help you be more objective about your game & correct any flaws in your play.

More than adding knowledge to your existing knowledge base, it is better to subtract things which you aren’t doing right. That’s how true progress happens. Self-introspection (or analysis) will help you in this. Ask questions, like which task your team could do better that would boost productivity. Are there any improvements we can make rather than adding something to the repertoire of our knowledge? I’m not discouraging you from learning new stuff. That is important as well. But you’ve to introspect & ask yourself if it’s really worth watching the new TED talk, if aren’t implementing the ideas you learn from it?

That’s all for today.

After reading the article, it’s up to you to decide what changes you want to incorporate in your life. If you wish to explore this topic further, do read Garry Kasparov’s “How life imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves from the Board to the Boardroom.”

Kasparov is a former world chess champion who is considered to be the greatest chess player of all time along with Magnus Carlsen & Bobby Fischer.

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