Karpov: Chess and the Art of Negotiation

1/25/2007 – This book by twelfth world champion Anatoly Karpov originally appeared in French and sees Karpov, Jean-Francois Phelizon (CEO of Saint-Gobain Corporation) and GM Bachar Kouatly discuss the similarities and differences between chess play and business negotiation. In-depth review by Howard Goldowsky.

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Chess and the Art of Negotiation

Review by Howard Goldowsky

A sports headline in The Rocky Mountain News from September 24, 2006, read, “Belichick Blinks First in Chess Match between Masterminds.” The article covered the previous night’s Denver Bronco’s defeat of the New England Patriots. In the article, we learn how Belichick, the head coach for the Patriots, implemented their no-huddle offense too early in the football game: “In a chess match between the two top coaches in the NFL, Belichick took out his queen too early and paid the price… Belichick’s boys lost the element of surprise.”

Say what? Any serious chess player can tell you that moving your queen too early will often result in the loss of flexibility, not the element of surprise. All too often the media flippantly compare chess players to football coaches, baseball managers, politicians, lawyers, business men – you name it; and these metaphors work not because of their accuracy but merely because of their utility. The equally naïve public doesn’t understand chess well enough to notice the inconsistencies. Chess players do, however, and from a chess player’s perspective it would be refreshing to see chess as a metaphor discussed with more accuracy and sophistication than it normally receives from the media.

In the book, Chess and the Art of Negotiation (Praeger; $34.95), which is an English translation of the French Psychologie de la Bataille (Economica, 2004), Anatoly Karpov and Jean-Francois Phelizon (President and CEO of Saint-Gobain Corporation) do just that. The book is a compelling question and answer session moderated by Bachar Kouatly, editor of the French chess magazine Europe Echecs. In it, the three authors discuss the similarities and differences between chess play and business negotiation. Along the way, they digress to such topics as sports, philosophy, psychology, politics, and war – each tangent a clinic on the correct way to handle chess as a metaphor. Despite the book’s short length (a mere 125 pages), and Karpov’s attempt to misrepresent certain historic facts in his favor, its uncommon dialogue format as well as its bold attempt to tackle a difficult subject make it a unique item.


The twelfth world champion Anatoly Karpov

The book is loosely organized around what is considered to be three fundamental types of engagement: direct, indirect, and lateral. According to the authors, direct engagement is equivalent to an attack without discretion, a traditional offensive maneuver; indirect engagement is more subtle, one that forces an opponent to use his own strength against himself (like in Judo or Sumo wrestling); lateral engagement is even more aberrant – leading your opponent astray so that he loses morale or loses faith in his ability to win (usually done through psychological means). Karpov and Phelizon discuss, in detail, how each type of engagement relates to their areas of expertise. Often they compare and contrast their views, and this is where the book truly excels. Phelizon even liberally quotes Sun Tzu and texts on Eastern philosophy – all in an effort to, as the dust-jacket describes, “illuminate the dynamics of competition, strategy, and negotiation.”

Why do these authors succeed at describing chess as a metaphor while other, less expert chess players, businessmen, and journalists fail? The answer lies, possibly, in the difference between expressive and receptive language. Having receptive language means that you can see a word or concept being used and understand its meaning, but you can not express thoughts using that word or concept. Having expressive language means that you can actually express ideas using that word or concept. (Here’s an example courtesy of the movie Reality Bites: Define “irony.” Most people can’t. At best they can easily give examples of ironic events, but they cannot provide an accurate definition of the word without heading for the dictionary. The correct definition from the movie is, “When the actual meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning.”)

Anatoly Karpov can communicate through an expressive language of chess. The poor fellow who writes for The Rocky Mountain News can’t. He can only recognize a relationship between the football game he watched and his incomplete notion of chess strategy; he doesn’t understand the relationship well enough to elaborate on it. This, unfortunately, to the experienced chess fan, makes the journalist’s metaphor flop on the page.

One way Karpov and Phelizon demonstrate their expressive language skill is by explaining not only the intricate ways chess can be compared to life, but also why it can not. From Phelizon we learn:

…the universe of negotiation is closer to the world of chess than of war. Both adversaries must follow a certain number of rules. This is not the case in war where most normal rules are abolished and where an imperative need to kill is involved.

This is why the term ‘economic warfare’ seems to me to be totally inappropriate. In the business world, naturally there is fighting, but there is no war. Consequently, you should never consider your adversary your enemy.

From Karpov we learn:

It is clear that chess is not a model for the military world, the business world, or the political world. Why? Because in chess, the pieces always start from the same positions…In the real world, however, it is extremely rare to find a balanced starting situation where the chances of winning for both parties are about equal.

That being said, the study of the psychology of chess can offer useful parallels in general to someone in the business of politics. First, the number of possible combinations in chess is immense…that is how things are in real life. The combinations are infinite, and situations can not be reduced to equations.

A second similarity between chess and the business world relates to the uncertainty that the protagonists face with the future…anything can happen until the scoresheet is signed.

This last point – advice to always keep an eye on the fat lady – is stressed over and over by Karpov throughout the book. He dispenses a lot of advice, actually. Some of it is profound, but a lot of it – too much, in fact – is centered on match preparation and opening preparation, topics not exactly relevant to class and club players.

Unfortunately there are other, more severe, problems. All too often, Karpov’s choice of examples are questionable, and the victims of his always-superior engagement strategy (we never see him, nor Phelizon for that matter, reflect on a mistake) are usually none other than his old rivals, Korchnoi or Kasparov. This bias makes Karpov appear, more or less, like an unreliable narrator. Are his examples really the best, or does he still hold a grudge after all these years, and do we find him picking second-rate examples solely to make his enemies look bad?


Karpov (walking) against Korchnoi during the Candidates Match in Moscow 1974

At one point, the narrator asks Karpov to describe the lateral approach in chess. Karpov then goes on to give a rather involved story that describes how he seemingly maneuvered Korchnoi into playing their 1974 Candidates match in Moscow rather than in Leningrad.

Koutly: Anatoly, how do you see the lateral approach in chess?

Karpov: To answer your question, I will tell you a personal story. I happened to be pretty close to Korchnoi and his family, because for four years we both lived in Leningrad. I even had a chance to secretly help him prepare for the qualifying match for the world championships… A short time later, in 1974, I had to play an official match against Korchnoi. We disagreed on where the match should take place. I really didn’t care, but I knew it was an important issue to him. Korchnoi wanted to play in Leningrad, or in a Baltic region city, Riga or Talinn. I wasn’t too keen on Leningrad, since that’s where Korchnoi was born, had a lot of friends, and was much better known than I…

Koutly: So what were the cities that you finally chose?

Karpov: I offered Moscow or any city in the south of the Soviet Union. The authorities realized that this match was important because the winner would play Fischer. Moscow was interested…but Korchnoi was immovable. After conceding a few points in my favor, he told me, ‘In exchange for all my concessions, go to Moscow and tell the minister [of Sports] you are okay with playing in Leningrad.’” And that’s what I did…The minister replied that he accepted all the proposals except for the location…

Korchnoi, in his biography Chess is my Life, writes about how he defended himself from these lateral attacks:

Exploiting his privileged position, Karpov insisted on all the points that he considered necessary for him… In this situation, where I was being kicked by everyone, I had to remain myself – otherwise I would have lost the match psychologically even before it started!

This being the Soviet Union, the authorities – not the players – made the final decision to hold the match in Moscow and, in the end, Karpov and Korchnoi’s negotiation amounted to very little. (Karpov won the match. Fischer resigned his title in 1975, and Karpov went on to become the 12th World Champion.) Karpov likely picked this example to show the severe impact the final outcome had on his nemesis rather than to demonstrate its cogent instructional value. In a sense, Karpov didn’t answer the question.

Karpov’s ego has biased the book in other ways, too. Edward Winter, the razor-tongued British critic, first pointed out serious factual errors in the French edition when he briefly reviewed it on his website (in Chess Note #4448). Winter writes about one of these errors: “An editorial footnote…gives the false impression that Kasparov lost a world championship match to Karpov in 1993.” This error, as well as the others, was not corrected in this English edition, and these blatant misrepresentations are completely uncalled for. Karpov should really know better. How ironic, that in a book filled with such mature thought by this former World Champion, we are disappointed so much by his callow calumny.

Skeptics might even speculate that Karpov’s whole impetus for participating in this project was that he felt compelled to keep pace with Kasparov, who was originally scheduled to come out with a business book of his own around this time. (Kasparov’s book, The Attacker’s Advantage: How Life Imitates Chess [Penguin], was originally scheduled for publication in the autumn of 2006, but it is now due out some time in 2007).

While Chess and the Art of Negotiation is no substitute for a more formal work on chess instruction, chess psychology, or even business negotiation, it is fine companion reading. Just don’t let Karpov’s sly political agenda fool you.



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