In 1972, chess became political, and the world took notice. It was USA vs. Soviet Union.
At the height of the cold war, the prodigious Bobby Fischer went to Iceland to play the defending World Chess Champion, Boris Spassky. The Soviets had dominated the game for decades, but because of Fischer’s reputation and the escalating tension between the two nations, this was hailed as an intellectual battleground for the superpowers.
Fischer began slow, but after a few twists and turns, he handed Spassky the defeat. The meet is remembered as the “Match of the Century.” It was a pivotal point in the history of the game.
Chess is thought to have first originated in its early form more than 1,500 years ago in India or China. The modern variant has been around since at least the 15th century.1
The chess played by the average hobbyist, however, is far different from the chess played by the professionals. In fact, beyond moving pieces on the surface, it’s almost an entirely different game. The word strategy means something different to you than it did to Fischer.
Even so, although Fischer had the most significant influence on the growth of the game, when it comes to the title of the greatest to ever play, he faces fierce opposition from a different Soviet prodigy who would storm onto the scene a decade after he quit.
Garry Kasparov became the youngest World Chess Champion at age 22, and by the time he retired, he had been ranked first for 225 months out of a possible 228.
In 2007, he published a book called How Life Imitates Chess. It’s an insight into the mind of a master strategist, and it shows us the application of deeper chess principles beyond the board.
There are quite a few things that his work can teach us about:
• Asking the right questions to narrow focus
• Balancing calculation with imagination
• Leveraging strengths to maximize advantage
A good strategy increases the odds of getting from A to B to Z. It’s about shaping outcome.
Ask the Right Questions to Narrow Focus
Kasparov is big on asking the right questions when strategizing. In his own words:
“Questions are what matters. Questions, and discovering the right ones, are the key to staying on course.”
When novice players play chess, their primary focus is on what to do with the pieces in front of them. When professionals play chess, their main focus is on how their opponents think.
Novice players might try and visualize a few steps ahead, but they mostly just react to the board. There isn’t enough depth in their style of play to realize how a move in the opening parts of a game might influence the dynamics in the later stages.
In the professional’s world, this simple fact – that any move, at any point, can determine the advantages or disadvantages at a far later stage – makes the game infinitely more complex.
There are so many potential moves that make sense that it becomes less about calculating the seemingly optimal play in the short-term than does about understanding the intentions of your opponent in the long-term.
A novice looks for answers about which piece to move based on the structure of the board without thinking about the reasons behind that structure. A professional seeks to ask the right questions to understand their opponent’s process so that they can figure out what to look for.
It’s important to note that, whether in chess or life, in a dynamic world, answers to general questions change over time. General questions are layered and ambiguous, and they have more than one answer. It can be easy to be fooled by what’s on the surface. The line between irrelevant noise and relevant information is blurred, and often, we don’t realize it.
The best approach, then, isn’t to start by looking for an answer in a sea of fluff, but it’s about having a framework in place to trim the fat so that we can zone in on what matters.
“What are you really trying to accomplish and how does what you’re doing accomplish that?”
Start there. Eventually, if you ask enough pointed questions, you can go from a big noisy world where there’s either no clear solution or an illusion of a solution to a smaller, more narrowed circle of localization where you only have the relevant decision-making tools left to use.
The most important part of any strategy is an understanding of what the mission actually is. It isn’t enough to make a profit as a small business or to get that A grade as a student. It’s about digging deeper to understand the core “why” and the right questions help do exactly that.
Balance Calculation with Imagination
The secret to humanity’s success lies in that we’ve built on the collective intelligence of our entire species. Each generation doesn’t have to start from scratch because we can pass on knowledge through the use of our complex language system. No other animal has this ability.
As a result, our default mode of reasoning is to build on what we know. We calculate based on what we understand about the past, and we tweak it to make incremental changes that guide us into an uncertain future. Most of the time, this works just fine.
That said, this method has its shortcomings, too. When we rely solely on reasoning from existing parallels, we contribute to the bias towards existing patterns, and we instinctively eliminate the possibility of new ones. The future isn’t predetermined, but when we calculate it based on what we know, we make it so. Imagination expands this narrowed possibility.
Chess is traditionally broken into three parts: opening, middlegame, and endgame. Any real student of the game reads books, analyzes past examples, and gets instructed on the famous patterns and tactics during each part. In fact, there are step-by-step plays where it’s almost expected that if an opponent does one thing, you react with another.
Good players study these things, and in a game, they’re able to recognize the appropriate cues and take advantage of their opponent by employing the tactics they have learned.
Great players, however, recognize these same patterns but they know that they are playing against others who have spent their lives studying similar plays, and they don’t always employ those old tactics. Sometimes, they look towards the future and fill the gaps in a new way.
None of this is illogical. It’s just a method of reasoning backward from where we want to end up rather than using the past to move us in a predictable direction. Kasparov calls this the power of fantasy, and when this occurs, the result is a new way of doing the old, and that’s how the game evolves. Calculation guides progress, but imagination catalyzes innovation.
We’re familiar with existing methods, and we have a tendency to presume that they’re the only way forward. If it’s done this way or that way, we intuitively think that it’s for an unquestionable reason, so that’s the path we take. That’s not, however, the optimal route to making big leaps.
The world is always changing, and to change with it, we have to challenge the status-quo and even our own long-held beliefs. We have to be willing to imagine the future and reason our way backward. That’s how we bypass inefficiencies and discover hidden opportunities.
Leverage Strengths to Maximize Advantage
It’s common for us when we’re inexperienced in a field to begin by looking for the secrets.
We search through past narratives, and we hope to mimic a similar strategy. It’s another way of reasoning from existing parallels, but it’s an act of copying rather than building on the past.
Understanding the history of something or learning from someone else’s experience is an incredibly efficient way to bypass the needless mistakes that come with practical learning. There’s often required general knowledge that can make anyone better off.
The problem occurs when we try to duplicate the whole blueprint. Instead of using the wisdom to learn how to better think about our own situation, sometimes, we take the easy way out. We try to use the information to rigidly guide what we do as if that’s the only way.
No two people or circumstances are the same. What worked for someone else will likely not work for you in the same way. There’s an abundance of ways to reach an end. We all have our own personal strengths, and the key is to recognize them and use them to our advantage.
Kasparov was known for his aggressive style of play. Contrary to popular belief, in many ways, chess is as much a game of psychology as it is about strategy, and Kasparov was as formidable in his ability to beat opponents in psychological warfare as he was in his skill as a tactician.
In contrast, Anatoly Karpov, Kasparov’s archrival, who’s also considered one of the greatest to ever play the game, was far more risk-averse. He focused on the board and let his strategy play out by capturing as many resources as he could without any major gambles.
What worked for Kasparov would have been counterproductive for Karpov, and vice versa. Beyond general rules of thumb and a basic education, it’s more effective for each person to recognize and leverage their own strengths to maximize their advantage.
Another example is Deep Blue, the IBM computer that beat Kasparov in 1997. As a machine, it was completely detached from the psychological aspects of the game, but with brute calculating power, it displayed a new method of winning.
A strategy should never be a model of what’s worked in the past. It should be educated, yes, but more importantly, it should have a personal element of awareness designed into it.
All You Need to Know
We often define a strategy as a solid plan to achieve a goal under uncertain circumstances. The problem is with the word solid. In a rapidly changing world, a better way think about a strategy is as a detailed, but flexible, vision towards a mission. It should be designed to adapt.
Chess is one of the most popular games of any kind, and at its core, it’s a game of war. It’s you against a single opponent, and for you to win, they have to lose. With these dynamics and the infinite number of ways that the game can be played, naturally, it’s taxing on the mind.
Garry Kasparov is a legend of the game, and beyond just his moves on the board, he tried to show us how the ideas used in chess can help us succeed in other aspects of life, too. Not everyone thinks like him, but almost everyone would be better off if they did.
This is what his story can teach us:
I. Ask the right questions to narrow your focus. The world is noisy, and most information that we absorb is unimportant. It doesn’t make sense to dive right in looking for answers. It’s far more important to ask the right questions to zone in on what matters. This limits the decision-making to information that’s relevant, and it allows us to dig a little deeper and understand what the mission of the strategy actually is.
II. Balance calculation with imagination. We intuitively reason by building on existing processes and systems, and it limits creativity and innovation. It favors the old, and it overlooks hidden opportunities. The future isn’t predetermined, but we make it so. A better way to think is by imagining where you want to go and reasoning backward. It’s the most effective way to make big leaps because it bypasses accepted inefficiencies.
III. Leverage strengths to maximize your advantage. Most who want to achieve something start off by looking for shortcuts. The tips and the tricks. This can be an efficient way to speed up learning, but following someone else’s blueprint is often counterproductive. No two people are the same, and as a result, it makes more sense to use general rules of thumb and then recognize and cultivate personal strengths to gain an advantage.
More is needed than just a useful strategy to achieve something. Elements like execution, chance, and flexibility all play their part. These insights aren’t a map for how to create and follow through on a good plan. They’re just some basic ideas that are easily overlooked.
Chess isn’t business or politics or sports. But that doesn’t mean the models aren’t transferable.
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