Play It, Don’t Say It: Chess as a Metaphor for Strategy
Have you ever heard a business thought leader use a chess analogy?
Sure you have.
And I bet you’ve seen blog posts (like this one) using the chessboard as a graphic to support some concept about strategy. If it’s got chess pieces on it, it must be strategic.
People in business meetings, conferences, and marketing blogs call on the chess gods, declaring that, “In business, you’ve got to be like a chess master and see three (or five, or seven) moves ahead of your opponent.”
And why do they use the chess analogy? To make themselves seem intelligent. Brainiacs play chess, therefore referencing chess indicates higher mental capability.
More than once, I’ve asked people using this or any similar chess analogy if they actually play chess.
And I don’t ask them to be rude. Far from it; in fact, I ask because I do play chess and would love to meet more people in my daily life who are chess-playing maniacs like me.
I’ll let you in on a little secret so you won’t be one of these hapless ‘thought leaders’: there isn’t a chess ability to see moves ahead.
For example, did you know that within the first six moves of a chess game, there are more than nine million potential variations? There are too many potential outcomes in the early and into the middle game to predict precisely the next moves your opponent will make.
Yes, “chess masters” have clear objectives, usually in regard to achieving the best position in the least amount of time while sacrificing the least amount of material. But envisioning the opponent checkmated or cornering a bishop or opening a column for a rook attack isn’t the same as seeing moves ahead.
What chess masters really excel at is pattern recognition.
Playing hundreds and thousands of games, a chess player recalls patterns. They remember likely combinations of moves, and their opponents’ likely responses. Their ability to recall past mistakes and past outcomes informs their play. If they do it quickly, they look like savants, but they merely have trained their minds to recognize patterns and to adapt their responses. In other words, they aren’t necromancers divining the future.
Stop worrying about seeing moves ahead. Start paying attention to what you do. Experiment. Learn from mistakes. Over time, you’ll better be able to apply your pattern recognition to the proverbial chess board of business and marketing strategy.
Remember: every loss today is an opportunity for a series of victories down the road.
In the meantime, why not learn how to play chess for real? Unlike checkers, it has the element of physical danger, because the pieces are more likely to be a choking hazard.