If You Want To Kill It In Your Career, Learn To Think Like A Chess Master

Most of us are familiar with the game of chess–it’s been around since medieval times, is one of the most popular games worldwide today, and has long been played competitively. But did you know that chess also intersects with the business world?

The game of chess is a mental one, and the results aren’t decided through luck. Because of the elements of deeper strategy to the game, chess has been used for more serious research on psychological processes, and this research reveals why the skills that make someone a chess master aren’t just a matter of basic intelligence.

Chess and Psychological Processes

In research into psychological processes, chess has been a surprisingly useful tool. Due to the nature of the game, it has often been used to simulate a model task environment. 

A task environment is defined as the collection of factors that affect a business’ ability to complete its goals. This can include things like the available customer base, industry-specific factors, as well as competing businesses. The task environment of a specific business will have a strong effect on how the business handles its day-to-day decisions in a number of areas. 

Navigating a task environment successfully requires interaction between multiple skills such as problem solving, recognizing patterns in the market, and predicting the moves of the competition. These skills also have important uses in the game of chess. Because of that, chess is ideal for modeling a task environment and a surprising number of skills from the game carry over into business uses.

There’s more similarities than just that. Business and chess are both types of dynamic environments where the situation changes with the passage of time. They’re also both multi-agent and sequential environments. To put it simply, they both involve multiple actors and actions taken in the short term can have greater effects down the line. 

Because of the sequential nature of both chess and business, thinking ahead and planning out the effects of moves ahead of time is a major skill.

You might assume at this point that succeeding in chess, and also business, requires high intelligence or “book smarts.” It’s an easy assumption to make, but research has given rise to very different ideas about the skills involved with chess.

Memory and Chunking

The theory of chunking has a special importance for the game of chess. The theory has been around in some form since the 1950s and has been researched in cognitive experiments by Adriaan de Groot and others. At its core, the theory has to do with memory. But to get the idea of chunking, you need to know what a “chunk” is in the first place.

Chunking has to do with breaking down complex pieces of information into smaller ones, to make them more manageable. For example, someone trying to memorize a nine-digit series of numbers may choose to break it down and memorize three different three-digit sets of numbers instead. 

These smaller bits of information are referred to as “chunks,” and breaking something down into chunks followed by tying those chunks to a memorable context is often a very efficient way of learning.

This skill has many uses in the context of business. For example, you may be tasked with writing a report about a product. 

Since you aren’t familiar with the product, you might choose to read an overview of the product to establish some context before moving on to memorizing specific details about the product’s features one by one. You don’t move on to the next feature until you’ve memorized the last one, and in the end you use the sum of your memorized information to successfully write the report.

In the context of chess, a chunk is a piece of information that contains a grouping of specific chess pieces in certain positions on the board. Many of the best chess players use chunking to memorize the many different situations that can play out on the chess board—and their speed at identifying these situations helps them in choosing the correct responses.

Pattern Recognition in Chess

Much of the time, the best move in a game of chess isn’t obvious. There are a massive number of possible moves, and not all of them are good ones. There is evidence to suggest that high level chess players don’t filter through each possible move before coming to a decision. Instead, they rely on pattern recognition.

Through memorization and the use of the accumulated base of knowledge that has been built up around the game throughout the decades, it’s possible to remember specific groupings of pieces and the best plays to respond to them with.

When chess masters were faced with random groupings of pieces, they proved to be less effective and closer to their novice counterparts compared to when shown “normal” groupings. This suggests that pattern recognition is more important in chess than being able to rapidly read the situation and come up with an on-the-fly response.

Acquired Patterns vs Innate Abilities

We know now that pattern recognition is important in chess, but what does that have to do with the larger picture? Well, it shows that the best chess players don’t necessarily excel in traditional measures of intelligence. They aren’t geniuses as some might expect, and mastering chess isn’t going to make you smarter in the typical sense.

Elite chess players are able to do what they do because they’ve seen and memorized thousands of patterns, and being able to recall those patterns and the move sequences associated with them allows them to calculate moves faster and better than a less skilled player.

A chess master doesn’t have to calculate every possible move in his head to realize that he’s in an advantageous or disadvantageous position. He can recognize the situation and the positive or negative context attached to it because of his practice and memorization. 

This isn’t a matter of innate skill or even having a faster mental processing speed than his opponent. Rather, it’s the result of practice over time and committing information to long-term memory.

Chess and Business

What does this research about chess skills say about business? For one, it dismisses the idea that some innate intelligence is needed to make good decisions and succeed. Being smart may help with memorizing chess positions faster, but smarts don’t make someone a chess master. Similarly, a smart person doesn’t always make a good business leader.

Pattern recognition is an important but often underrated skill in the business world. One of the first steps to dealing with many situations in business is recognizing them. For example, some of the most successful traders on the stock market turn a profit more than their competitors because they can quickly recognize specific movements in the market and they know how to respond when one of these movements happens.

These are not skills that you have to be born with either. Through studying business history, economics, and specific trends in your industry, you can commit specific situations to your long-term memory and make the right decisions dealing with them when they come up in the future.

You may not be a genius, who is able to mentally calculate the best plan of action in any scenario that comes up.

But even if you aren’t, you can still take advantage of the strategies used by world-champion chess players to win over their opponents. After all, there have been world class chess players from a wide range of ages and walks of life. 

The underlying strategies behind some of the game’s most successful players have proven that they are, if anything, adaptable to a wide range of people. And they may just fit your career or business, too.