Book Summary: How Life Immitates Chess-Part I

How life Imitates Chess By Gary Kasparov

Kasparov became the youngest Chess champion at 22. Today after quitting Chess, he is a politician. He presents what he calls the lessons he has learnt from the world’s ‘greatest game’.

Chess is ideal for decision making as it involves quick decisions amid pressure from your opponent. It requires calculation, creativity and a desire to win. There is also memorization, precise calculation and logic.

Success comes from a synthesis of all of the above where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A CEO must combine analysis and creativity to come up with solutions to her problems. Unlike the real world, your moves on a chessboard are limited, but it still provides a model for decision making.

The key is to seek out and find your path. As a child, Gary listened to tales of voyages. In chess, Gary decided to seek out territories no one had seen before. To traverse our path, we need a map. A map informs us about the known and the uncharted territories of our minds, our strengths and weaknesses and the unknown. We must find our own.

Anyone can learn the rules of chess. We must dig deeper learning to recognize patterns and their inherent logic. With time, knowledge, talent and experience all come together. This triumvirate becomes our ever improving intuition and blends with our psychology and then becomes our style. Our style is our individuality
What are our strengths? Weaknesses and what challenges do we seek and why? These are questions that we must ask ourselves.

“Better decision making cannot be taught, but they can be self-taught” .
Be conscious of your decision making methodology. This is vital for us to correct our maladies and improve what we do well.

We must see the big picture and deal with crisis in our lives. We must be able to make effective choices when we meet a fork in the road. The way to do this is to seek out challenges, and exploit our gifts.

For this we need to develop our blue prints and have the ability to trust our instincts and realize that we are stronger despite any external results.

The Lesson
Kasperov was faced with elimination in 1984 when he was up against a champion, Karpov. He decided to prepare for a long war, rather than giving in to desperation. Switching to Guerilla warfare, he took fewer risks.

Karpov changed his strategy to make a clean sweep, a plan that went south. Kasperov learnt of Karpov’s thinking strategy and his own. However, he lost the next game and was one game away from elimination.
Kasperov won the next and kept going. In the fifth month of the series, Kasperov won game 47. He won the next game and in 1985, the match was postponed for 5 months. Kasperov said that the world champion had been his personal coach. He also understood his own play. When the match resumed, Kasperov won his first game and was now a veteran and went on to become the champion for the next 15 years.

The marathon with Karpov taught Kasperov valuable lessons. Talent and hard work are inadequate. One must develop self-awareness to operate at your peak. Life like chess is neither a trivial pursuit nor an exercise left only to geniuses. At the heart of the game is strategy


If you knew all the rule of chess without knowing a checkmate, you would know tactics but will not have a strategy. Strategy is based on long term goals. Tactics are more concrete and based on immediacy.

Sun Tsu said that strategy without tactics is the slowest rout to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Playing without long term goals makes your play reactive and soon you’ll be playing your opponent’s game. The 1992 election saw Clinton attacked with a series of scandals. His strategists responded to each of them but also had a message of their own. The strategist looks to a favorable outcome in the distant future and makes effective moves for them now. Asking ‘Why’ turns’ tactics into strategy. It separates visionaries from functionaries. Every move has a consequence.

Tactics involve speed, but are almost trivial compared to strategy. They are forced responses, if then statements. They can become complex and error prone if they are many. For every move you need to see you opponent’s response. At any great opportunity, you must be able to throw tactics away and seize the given opportunity.

Play your own game

Know your strengths and weaknesses, but use your own style. This strategy helps one adapt. Different individuals have their own style. Even when Kasparov is on the defensive, he looks for an opening to attack, his real strength and while on the offensive, looks for a better way to attack.

You cannot always predict your battlefield. This is where your adaptability comes in. It does not pay to be a laager or a leader in planning your tactics. Britannica Encyclopedia made a tactical error in delaying their move to CD Rom media. The dotcom era is an example of many who tried to go on hunches about unpredictable markets.

Sometimes loosing can force you to change a good strategy while small victories could make you blind to potential disasters. Only a major shift in the landscape should force one to reevaluate her fundamentals. We must walk the fine line between flexibility and consistency.
Sometimes your personal style may be at odds to the strategy needed to win. This is when you must change your strategy. This is where the power of why comes in. Avoid change for the sake of change.

Do not watch the competition more than you watch yourself. The competition can trick you away from a working strategy with diversionary tactic. Chess between two people can be a zero sum game but in a tournament, happenings in other tables could affect you.

There is a balance between knowing what your competition is up to and to be aware of things within your control.

Once you have your strategy on paper, we stay on track with rigorous questions of our results. With each success, changing becomes even harder. Sometimes, the teacher must learn from the students. Believe in your plans but ensure your plans are worthy of your beliefs. This takes constant practice. Strong tactics need strong strategy and great calculation. Both need a look into the future.

Strategy and Tactics together

“Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do. Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do” There are times to wait. These are called positional plays in chess. It is important that one takes small steps in such cases but never stops thinking. Many times this may be at many points. In life, there is no real urgency in such situations and one is likely to develop unhealthy habits like TV or business as usual.

Element of Surprise
Sometimes your opponent may read your moves. In such cases, change your game. This will lay to waste your opponent’s planning.

A genius for Development: -You must have a well developed position before going for attack. Morphi, the first American Chess hero used this strategy.

Sticking with a plan:
With the growth of modern technology, chess moves can be dissected and analyzed almost instantaneously. This makes it hard to have the element of surprise. In a game of rapid chess, many are likely to abandon their guiding strategy. Experience has showed Kasparov that the most successful players stick to a plan. Trusting yourself means sticking to your plan and trusting your instinct.

Confidence and the Time Factor
When we postpone decisions because of uncertainty we often give into the vicious cycle of anxiety and time pressure. The enemy of the strategist is the clock. It forces us to make emotional moves. Intuition can fail one in such cases. The best plans devious tactics can fail in the absence of confidence.
Churchill said that courage was the most important of the human qualities, as it guarantees all others.

Your next Move

It is impossible to predict how many moves ahead one sees in advance. The possibilities are too numerous to reduce chess to arithmetic. As one looks at counter moves, the branches of the decision tree grow exponentially.

The further ahead one looks, the more likely he is to miscalculate. An elite player does not see much further ahead than most good players. A computer sees much further ahead, but cannot judge the best move possible. This is where computers falter.

When Kasparov starts off, he does not see a decision tree but all the objectives like king safety and material strategy. This lets him plan intermediate steps and only when the smaller objectives are met can he focus on the larger goal. Switching moves abruptly can cause confusion and is an undue risk. You must also know when to stop.

Imagination, Calculation and His First game
You must be aware of trends and patterns in your analysis. Sometimes imagination can help compensate for a lack of deduction. One can foresee many moves in advance in her imagination.

Talent is the least understood of human advantages. Even the most extraordinary talents need the opportunities to develop. Kasparov’s father recognized his son’s talents for chess. Chess came to Kasparov easily.

Patterns in our lives
Talents are attributes not switches. To excel in chess, one needs innate talent and acquired knowledge Memory and Fantasy.). Some have great memories, but it is a myth that chess players have great memories. They have what Kasparov calls ‘Chess memory’. A chess player does not recall all calculations from scratch. They find parallels and apply their knowledge of analogous positions.

To solve a problem they do not start from scratch. They look to a past pattern. Traders see trends in stock movement. Parents see behavior in their children’s behavior. Experience and memory blend this together. Review your performance at the end of each day. What lessons can you take away into tomorrow? Push the boundaries and widen the angles of your lens of the world. Dream big!

It is hard for a human to be objective. Fantasy can cut through fog. Sometimes calculation alone cannot sort problems.

The habit of Imagination

Imagination helps being innovative all the time. Thinking outside the box can come as a surprise to your opponent.

“Fantasy must be backed up by sober evaluation and calculation. Otherwise you end up making beautiful blunders.”

“Too often we often brush off outlandish ideas and solutions.
Failing to think creatively is as much self-imposed as it is imposed by the parameters of our jobs and our lives… What if often leads to why not.”

The more you experiment, the more chances you will have for success.”

“Talent undiscovered may as well not exist.”
“Why is the capacity for hard work not considered an innate gift?” Michael Jordan was the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave.

Results are what matter.
In addition to preparation, Kasparov credits the discipline instilled on him by his parents and coaches. Kasparov admits that he was one of the premier users of machine analysis and databases to improve his game. He focused on results and claims his methods may not work for everyone.

While others criticize your winning ways, you must be careful to see if you are getting your just dues.

Preparation pays. It is the quality of your study, consistency and self awareness. Kasparov goes on to say that though he did not use most of his prepared tactics, there was always a positive correlation between his hard work and his results. “Work leads to knowledge and knowledge never is wasted.”

Look for ways to experiment and push the boundaries in your endeavor

The game and the science
Kasparov had a strict regimen of diet, study and rest, thanks to one of his teachers and his mother. He stays conscious of how his time is spent. He loves his afternoon nap. Know what motivates you and figure out how to push yourself.
Use competition, goals and the like to motivate you. “There are guidelines for what works, but each person must discover what works for him.”

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