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Pawn Sacrifice

Chess and Business Planning – Not Quite What You Think…

We posted a quick piece about the World Chess Championship now being played in New York City. The website FiveThiryEight has a running commentary on the matches, we shared one of them with a note about chess and planning  … you know the deal, it’s a metaphor made fairly often.

But, upon some deeper reflection, it’s not really a perfect metaphor.  It’s easy one to use (too easy?) – you know, ‘business planning is like chess, every time you move the board changes and you have to re-plan and re-think, move again and then go through it all over again until at last …. That part, ‘at last’ is the problem, I think. Because, no matter how you look at it, people play chess to win.

This simple yet vitally important fact is too often overlooked.
Chess is a great intellectual exercise but the minute two people are sitting across from one another make no mistake, it’s about winning. The two men playing by the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the defending world champion and Sergey Karjakin of Russia, currently the seventh ranked player in the world, are certainly only thinking of winning.

Any thoughts you might have that chess isn’t every bit as competitive as football or hockey or … anything, will be instantly dispelled watching last year’s Pawn Sacrifice, the story of the Bobby Fisher – Boris Spassky chess championship in the early ’70s. Toby McGuire did an amazing job portraying Fisher and his mental deterioration. The movie takes the position, clearly, that the stresses of high-level chess played a big part in that deterioration. Winning is everything.

I’m struck by this – it’s from the film but it’s also directly from Fisher’s life: In an interview with a magazine, Fischer’s coach explains to an uninitiated reporter, “after the first four moves of any chess game there are 300 billion possible move combinations.”

Sure, that’s a staggering amount of combinations and, on a lesser scale, it does conjure images of working through a a business plan. Or sale. Or purchase. It’s Fischer’s response to his coach’s assertion that blows the metaphor apart: “People think there are all these options, but there is only one right move.”

“Only one right move.” It’s true for chess. A million, million possible combinations after every move, but only one right one if you want to win. Need to win.

That’s not remotely true with business planning – in any of it’s variations. There are many right moves, it’s just that the order of them can sometimes be vital. It’s never about winning – even business sales and purchases- it’s about doing it right and continuing to be successful.  Chess players have to win to be successful, business owners just have to plan, be smart, and think ahead – like a great chess player.