Making the Right Moves

Garry Kasparov didn’t become a world chess champion by chance. Besides natural talent, relentless work for developing decision-making abilities and strategical thinking was always a critical part of his success.

Hidden in a chessboard’s 64 squares, there is a mind-boggling amount of logically possible chess positions. Garry Kasparov, the now 52-year old Russian, is widely considered to know more about those positions than any other human on the planet. Having won the chess world title as the youngest person ever, defending the title successfully several times in a row, and being ranked the world’s number one player for 20 years until his retirement in 2005, Kasparov’s merits speak for themselves.

Kasparov sits on a chair in a beautiful setting on the upper west side of Manhattan. He’s here to talk about strategy, a topic that every professional chess player knows a thing or two about. Kasparov is by any standards a master chess strategist and sure has made some bold moves in his personal life as well. Still, even for someone who has time and time again out-thought anybody sitting across a chessboard from him, the topic is by no means simple. That is why he want’s to highlight something important.

”I have to emphasize that my advice comes from my own experience, from the Garry Kasparov perspective. It is as unique as yours or anybody else’s. You should always be very cautious when trying to copy-paste. The formula that worked for someone else, might not work for you. Every decision is unique. Every person has their formula for decision making, it is like a fingerprint. You can’t rely 100% on the successes of others,” he explains.

It’s no wonder why many have tried to get Kasparov to form simple lists of advice on how to think, decide and win. Kasparov’s decision-making fingerprint is arguably as good as it gets, at least in the context of chess. Even if chess offers rich metaphors for business and life, they are not exactly the same thing. That is something that Kasparov himself remembers to point out. The conditions on the chessboard are fixed, and so are the rules. That being said, some things do apply. Whether in chess or business, making moves of any kind requires one to be knowledgeable about the basic rules and common practices of the game, but becoming a masterful strategist requires more than that. Being reactive is not enough, an initiative must be taken. These situations are the ones that separate tacticians from strategists. According to Kasparov, even if taking initiative might feel uncomfortable for many, in a fast-paced world ‘wait and see’ can be a recipe for failure.

”The pace of events has changed quite dramatically. It creates a different environment. If the environment changes, we have to adjust as well. Something that worked ten years ago can be totally counterproductive today just because of the speed. The cycle goes faster. You will have to make sure that your knowledge will be always adjusted. I believe that more aggressive options work better in the modern environment. The benefits can be huge. Yes, there’s more risk involved but when you start looking at statistics, you have to remember that you just might be on the wrong side of the statistics.”

Focus, patience, and risk

Kasparov is quick to respond to any question thrown at him, and everything in his demeanor shows that he has a constant sense of urgency, a common trait of highly productive people. Advancing through incremental improvements requires patience. Although Kasparov is by no means known to be patient and doesn’t consider himself as patient either, there’s no question that patience is a must if true mastery is the ultimate goal. In chess, patience is fairly often mentioned when talking about the so-called positional play, a situation where instead of trying to directly remove the opponent’s pieces or put their king in check, moves are made with the intent to increase the power of one’s pieces and create fruitful conditions for tactical strikes on later moves. Besides patience, crystal clear focus is something that Garry emphasizes as a factor when trying to achieve decision-making mastery.

”Both patience and focus are important. They might be very useful in different situations. I was always focused when I played chess, but it doesn’t mean that I was always patient. That was not exactly part of my character, but I knew that patience is important while you learn. Patience is your ability to accept failures. We are often emphasizing failure too much. Failure is nothing but failure. It is inevitable when going towards success,” Kasparov says.

In some studies, individuals with higher cognitive ability are shown to be significantly more patient, but also more willing to take risks. Though the word ”risk” might have some negative connotations, it’s good to keep in mind that besides ”danger” the word also has ”opportunity” embedded in it.

”If you don’t take risks, how can you expect rewards? Especially if you are looking for breakthrough innovations, like the moon project, it means you have to enter uncharted waters. For me, patience is the willingness to accept failure and to try again, the willingness to learn. Learning without patience doesn’t work. Focus should be with you all the time because the moment you lose focus, your energy goes in a wrong direction. I would put ‘focus’ on the driver’s seat and have ‘patience’ sitting right next to it,” Kasparov concludes with a laugh.

Train your intuition

Even though many would think that a man with a high IQ and decades of experience in reflecting his thoughts in high-pressure situations would be extremely cautious about cognitive bias, Kasparov conversely highlights the importance of intuition.

”You have to learn to trust your intuition, which means you have to use it. Think your intuition as a muscle. Do pushups and run. You have to strengthen it.”

Even if it feels counterintuitive that a man who is known for his exceptional reasoning abilities would be emphasizing the importance of a process that gives people the ability to acquire knowledge without analytic reasoning, that is exactly what Kasparov does. In the world of ever more data and data-driven decision-making, people have, in Kasparov’s opinion, become overly skeptical about their intuition.

“When everybody else is looking at the statistics and trying to crunch the numbers, you can do the same, but also have the gut feeling on when to stop looking at the numbers, cut it short, and make the decision. Developing your intuition can give you a significant competitive edge,” he clarifies, and I somehow feel quite convinced.

Maximizing the advantages

Identifying and analyzing one’s competitive advantages are the first steps in creating a strategy. As competitive advantage stems from differences, developing a unique style is crucial. That is why assessing one’s strengths is considered as the cornerstone of any strategy, whether by management researchers or chess players. After that, it’s all about leveraging the strengths while simultaneously keeping the weaknesses in mind. As Richard Rumelt, the author of the book Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters, puts it: “a good strategy works by harnessing power and applying it where it will have the greatest effect.” Kasparov’s thoughts on strengths and leverage don’t seem to differ much.

”Find a way to maximize your advantages. The last thing you want to do is to change your style. There is no good or bad style. Being aggressive or being defensive doesn’t mean that you win or lose. The important thing is how you use your competitive advantage. Brazilians and Germans have won the Football World Cup many times with very different styles,” he explains.

Stay true to yourself

According to the critics, Kasparov is an overconfident wrangler who defends his opinion to the very end. Being true to oneself is not always an easy task, especially when the matter is about your weaknesses. However, even if Kasparov’s views might sound overly aggravated for some, at least in his case, the confidence stems from countless hours of critically viewing his own thoughts first – a trait that made it possible for him to be on top of the chess world abnormally long. What is especially striking in Kasparov’s way of looking at his decision-making is how rigorously he evaluates every event. He emphasizes looking critically back at even the kind of events where you succeeded, and where others would have probably just tapped themselves on the back and thought that they are just so damn good. As Kasparov frames it:

”You have to also understand your weaknesses. We might easily believe that a victory was a result of our greatness. What we often don’t understand is that even if we win, there were mistakes made. Analyzing what you did wrong, even if you won, is vital. Because everybody else will be working really hard, trying to find out what went wrong, and next time they will be prepared. You have to be ready to challenge your success.”

As our time is coming to its end, Kasparov aptly brings up the keys to performing well under pressure.

”No matter how much time is used to prepare, you have to understand what kind of decisions you make under pressure. That’s where it goes to your instincts. You have to try to create situations where your strengths are the most applicable. Master the conditions on the field and you’ll do fine.”


Photo credit: Paula Ojansuu



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