Kasparov on how to win

Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov has often been asked to offer insights from chess to be applied to life in general, including business.

by Morice Mendoza, World Business editor
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

However, until he retired in his forties after an impressively long stint as the world's number one, he did not have the time to really investigate the lessons. Luckily for the rest of us he now has, and has produced this impressive new book.

Seekers of management wisdom will be able to find some useful nuggets to help them, all of which comes from someone who mastered the art of chess and learnt how to stay at the top of his game for years, later playing people much younger than him.

One lesson, admittedly not an original one, is that you can learn more from defeat than from victory. By losing to an opponent in a painful game early in his career, Kasparov was able to see where some of his personal weaknesses lay. He then made sure he worked on the gaps in his game and did not fall into the same trap ever again.

A constant lesson from the book is that working hard is not enough, although it is an essential basis for success. The real stars do something different, something unexpected or (as the management jargon goes) 'out of the box'. You won't be able to do that unless you are fully prepared and mentally fit for whatever contest you face.

But just going into a competitive field thinking that being 100% prepared is enough will also not do. Some star chess players learnt how to play off against the weaknesses of their opponents. For instance, if your opponent was someone like Kasparov, who liked to play a fast, attacking game, then you could win by forcing him into a slow and defensive play that was not to his liking.

This book is packed full with wisdom like this. Chess is a very useful metaphor for business life. But, as Kasparov points out, CEOs have a tougher time than chess masters because their 'board' is not restricted to 64 squares and a number of finite moves (though the variables run into the thousands). But the basics of mental concentration, understanding the environment and the competition and making the right decisions are all there.

There are 19 chapters broken into three sections. Some of it becomes repetitive and sometimes the wisdom is lost in the text. I would have preferred an 80-page trenchantly written treatise by Kasparov and I suspect the busy manager might have as well. Kasparov is a good writer, who would have been talented enough to produce a punchy and memorable short book. As it is, it takes a lot of effort to wade through the pages to extract the best pieces of wisdom (though worth doing).

The boxed out profiles of chess masters are distracting and don't add much to the main text. Kasparov's use of general historical examples to support his points seem unnecessary too. Other writers might need to refer to Winston Churchill or other historical figures to lend credibility to their assertions. But I did not think that Kasparov needed to. And rarely did it help, as the references seemed too sweeping to be convincing.

Kasparov is qualified to tell business leaders how to win because he mastered one of the hardest games in the world. This is a book for people who want to improve their decision making skills and to perform better under pressure.

He raises a very interesting paradox that all good contenders must manage: 'We have to push ourselves, create our own criteria and raise them all the time. It can be a bit of a paradox to have the confidence that we are the best and still compete as if we were the outsiders, the underdogs.'

Finally, Kasparov's whole approach is refreshingly no-nonsense. We may not all be born geniuses. But there is a lot, he suggests, that can be done by sheer hard work, throwing oneself into tough competition, being open to outside view points, constant self-evaluation and a willingness to learn from all this to sharpen one's skills every single day.

In this way, success, this book suggests, is achievable at all stages of life, provided we have enough energy and willpower pulsating through our veins.

How Life Imitates Chess
Garry Kasparov,
William Heinemann, March 2007

Review by Morice Mendoza

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