Should business managers learn chess?

4/25/2005 – Can chess provide special abilities that would be useful to our business leaders? A senior business editor of the prestigious Harvard Business Review discussed this question with Garry Kasparov, and the two produced a very thoughtful article on the subject.

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Strategic Intensity

A few weeks ago Harvard Business Review senior editor Diane L. Coutu conducted a discussion with the world's leading chess player Garry Kasparov in New York. If chess is such a powerful form of competition, Coutu wanted to know, is there anything that strategists can learn from chess players about what it takes to win? In the course of a wide-ranging discussion with HBR, Kasparov explored the power of chess as a model for business competition; the balance that chess players have to strike between intuition and analysis; the significance of his loss to IBM’s chess-playing computer, Deep Blue; and how his legendary rivalry with Anatoly Karpov affected his own success. The following are a few extracts from the interview which appeared in the April issue of the Harvard Business Review.

  • When businesspeople use chess as a metaphor, they may sometimes unintentionally sentimentalize what’s involved in winning, because they see chess as a kind of clean, intellectual engagement. That’s not the case at all. There is nothing cute or charming about chess; it is a violent sport, and when you confront your opponent you set out to crush his ego. Chess is a battleground on which the enemy has to be vanquished. This is what it means to be a chess player, and I cannot imagine that it is very different from what it takes to be a top-ranked CEO.
  • If you can convince your enemy that you’re comfortable on their ground, then you can often trick them into moving into your own territory. That’s just what happened with Korchnoi and me. I put myself in his shoes long enough to lure him into fighting the game on my territory, and so I won.

  • Anatoly Karpov would be very good as a manager because he excels at operating with small problems on the board; he would certainly maximize your resources. But Karpov dislikes taking risks, which might make him less effective in situations where the CEO has to take a gamble. Then you might want someone like me, who loves risk.

  • Nothing made chess more popular than the match I won against Deep Blue in 1996 and the match I lost in 1997. The official Web site got 72 million hits during the six games of the second match in New York, which was a higher daily rate than the Atlanta Olympic Games Web site got in 1996.

  • To my mind, IBM actually committed a crime against science. By claiming victory so quickly in the man-versus-machine contest, the company dissuaded other companies from funding such a complicated and valuable project again, and that’s the real tragedy.

  • Playing against a computer means facing something that doesn’t have any nerves; it’s like sitting across the table from an IRS agent during a tax audit.

  • My mother was really the driving force behind me. She devoted her entire life to helping me, she was always convinced that I had the potential to become a powerful man. At the same time, she never felt that the chess world championship should be my only goal. She insisted that I study humanities in high school. To this day when I play chess I’m always trying to find something unconventional, even poetic—something more than just analytics.

  • Here's a more extensive version of the conversation in HBR Online.

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