Chess Lessons for Business Planning

Here’s how you can use chess moves to beat the competition. Chess is about knowledge, critical thinking and pattern recognition. It’s just traveling along a tree and evaluating different positions.  Chess helps to think through things methodically.  Chess also teaches how to handle failure, even when you do your best, sometimes it’s just not enough…your performance is on you.  The wrong opening move or other small error can doom your game, or it might be recoverable. Learning to see the difference is a key part of real ideas like fault tolerance and building grit.

Netflix’s miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit, features Kentucky-native chess prodigy learning the game from the janitor at her orphanage and evolving until she can take on the world’s best. The show has become something of a phenomenon since October 2020, as viewers rediscover the beauty of chess and strategy all over again.

We often say the best leaders in any industry “are playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers”, but what does that mean, exactly? How can we apply the fictional Harmon’s rise to our own lives and make sure we come out on top? You can start with these four thoughts:

  1. Presentation is important

Before we get to the chess itself, it’s important to note that you could mute The Queen’s Gambit and still understand its success. Nearly every shot offers a beautiful depiction of the style and fashion of the 1950s and ’60s. Not only does the prodigy travel to destinations like Mexico City and Paris, staying in high-class hotels and enjoying the finer things in life, but she also takes on an interest in fashion, intentionally turning herself from the high school outcast into someone proudly featured on the covers of magazines. There’s something about the costume design, the cinematography, the cohesion of the images on-screen that make you believe this show knows exactly what it is and where it’s going. It builds enough trust in the viewer for them to want to dive into seven hours of chess.

Especially during these times, when most business can be conducted at home, it’s probably tempting to wear sweats and work on your couch. But, when you’re meeting with clients or taking a Zoom call, make sure to instill that same sort of confidence — you don’t have to wear a suit and tie, but try to make sure that Star Wars poster is out of view, that the lighting is good, etc. Be intentional about what others see, and they’ll be inclined to believe you are intentional about your work, too.

  1. Success isn’t final, failure isn’t fatal

That’s a line from Winston Churchill that applies to our protagonist. The prodigy is drawn to the chessboard the first time she sees the janitor at Methuen Home for Girls playing alone in the basement. She says it’s like a little world, contained within the 64 squares, and asks the janitor if he will teach her. He says no, and she leaves disappointed. She doesn’t give up, though; she comes back another day and watches him, learning how the pieces move in mere minutes. Eventually, she impresses him with her tenacity and her incredible eye for detail, and he relents, grudgingly teaching her the rules of the game. He never takes it easy on her, never lets her win and often refuses to even show her how she lost. But she replays the matches in her mind, sees the moves played out on the smooth ceiling of the orphanage, and learns from every experience. Within a short time, she’s not only better at the game than the janitor but better than everyone in town. She proves that being told “no” or losing doesn’t mean forever. Sometimes, the timing’s just not right.

When starting a business, you’re going to be told “no” hundreds of times, but to use another Churchill quote, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Learn from your failures, but continue to believe in yourself, and you might just make believers of your doubters when the dust has settled.

  1. Have a plan, but give yourself room to improvise

One of the prodigy’s biggest chess-related difficulties is the push-and-pull between improvising and studying the history of other great players. As a prodigy, she feels more comfortable reading and reacting to the game in real time, trusting herself to make the best possible move in any scenario. This is more than enough for her to win the local tournaments and gain notoriety as one of the game’s best. However, at the top, there are other prodigies, too, with more experience and more discipline who use that style against her, surprising her or trapping her in ways she hadn’t thought. The primary focus for her chess coaches within the show, from the janitor to an American champion, is to study the past games of her opponents and past grandmasters, to understand how they see the game and what they might be inclined to do in certain scenarios. None of them are as good at chess as the prodigy, but their more formalized way of looking at the game adds a new element to hers. Her game is strongest when she can flow between styles, understanding the formal elements while giving herself room to improvise or try something new.

In the same way, it’s important for entrepreneurs to be flexible historians. Just because you’re starting a new business doesn’t mean every element will be new, and finding mentors who can walk you through the steps they took can help get you off the ground. You shouldn’t try to just wing it. Have a formalized plan and list of goals you want to achieve. At the same time, it’s essential that you know when to improvise, and the current climate provides an excellent example of why. Whiskey distillers pivoted to making hand sanitizer, while clothing companies started making masks, helping both their customers and their businesses.

  1. Play your line

“In your game with the World Champion, you should play the Sicilian,” says the American champion while training the prodigy for her matchup against World Champion Champion. Despite the title of the show, the Sicilian Defense is her signature style of play. However, there’s just one problem: It’s also what the World Champion is known for, which she points out. Wouldn’t it be dangerous to try to beat the best in the world at his own game? “It’s also what you’re most comfortable with,” the American champion answers. “You should always play your line, never his. You play what’s best for you.”

One of the most common questions investors ask is, “What is it about your company or idea that a competitor couldn’t simply copy?” When you play your line, your insights and experience can provide you an inside track that no one else has. This can make all the difference in the world when it comes to creating a product, service or experience that no one else can quite match. Don’t twist yourself in knots trying to offer gimmicks that can be easily copied. Master what makes you unique, and trust that will be enough.

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Copyright ©John Trenary 2021

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