Chess as a thinking strategic metaphor

Raymond Keene OBE,  Chairman,  World Brain Academy

Chess Grandmaster

In mid 17th century Japan Miyamoto Musashi, the invincible Samurai warrior, wrote Go Rin No Sho, A Book of Five Rings, a penetrating analysis of victorious Samurai strategy. For over three centuries this martial arts masterpiece remained a Japanese secret, but in 1974 it was discovered by the West. Almost overnight, the new translation sold more than 120,000 copies in hardback, catapulted to best-seller status in paperback and drew lavish praise from leading newspapers around the world. Musashi’s central message is one of ‘wider application’, of ‘transferability’. Achieving mastery in one-discipline arms you with the weapon to transfer those skills to all other areas of life.

Strategy – Decision – Action

Although on the surface Musashi’s book is specifically a guide to Samurai swordsmanship, at deeper levels it provides a blueprint for strategy, decision and action in the home, on the battlefield, in the corporate boardroom – in fact, wherever you choose to apply it. Musashi summarized its essence thus, stating and re-stating his theme throughout the book: ‘From one thing, know ten thousand things. When you attain the Way of strategy there will not be one thing you cannot see … If you know the Way Time Magazine wrote: ‘On Wall Street, when Musashi talk, people listen.’ The New York Times added that Musashi’s strategy was ‘suddenly a hot issue on Wall Street’.

Musashi’s central message is one of ‘wider application’, of ‘transferability’. Achieving mastery in one-discipline arms you with the weapon to transfer those skills to all other areas of life. Although on the surface Musashi’s book is specifically a guide to Samurai swordsmanship, at deeper levels it provides a blueprint for strategy, decision and action in the home, on the battlefield, in the corporate boardroom – in fact, wherever you choose to apply it. Musashi summarized its essence thus, stating and re-stating his theme throughout the book: ‘From one thing, know ten thousand things. When you attain the Way of strategy there will not be one thing you cannot see … If you know the Way broadly you will see it in everything.’

The Chess Pieces.
Photograph by Martin  Ivan den Heuvel Unsplash

The mind sports metaphor

Despite its undoubted brilliance, Musashi’s book has two draw backs for a modern audience. First, Musashi frequently expresses himself in a sometimes obscure and often impenetrable Zen terminology. Secondly, the 21st century reader will find it difficult, if not impossible, to participate at any meaningful level in Musashi’s prime metaphor, that of Samurai swordsmanship, when with a real blade you face an opponent whom you must kill before he kills you. We are not likely to wield a Samurai sword in a life or death situation. Samurai swordsmanship will always remain beyond our personal experience. Accordingly, this presentation turns to the easy-to-learn game of chess, already well established as an important thinking and business metaphor. It re-interprets and updates Musashi’s martial arts message, and extends it through a new dimension, a martial art of the mind. In its various manifestations (Western, Japanese and Chinese) chess is the world’s most popular mind sport, with Time Magazine wrote: ”On Wall Street, when Musashi talk, people listen”. well over 400 million devotees. Chess is also at the cutting edge of the quest for artificial intelligence. Six times World Champion Garry Kasparov regularly faced off in matches against IBM’s Deep Blue super-computer in which million dollar prize funds were at stake.

Victory without killing

Most importantly though, chess offers the experience of real victory, without killing, and the parallel experience of real defeat, without having to die. Playing chess, you face pressure of time, you must assess risk accurately, and you must think globally and locally: in other words, it is all down to you. You truly win or you truly lose.

“From one thing know ten thousand”

No accidental results

There are no accidental or chance results in chess. The ethos of entitlement and the syndrome of blaming others for setbacks are both alien to the game. Indeed, it is the qualities of personal enterprise and self-reliance that distinguish chess. The chessplayer should not blindly accept the pronouncements of authority. Thinking for yourself is what counts. At the chessboard, real situations beckon and, as Musashi would have put it, in mastering chess, you master in microcosm all forms of combat and strategy, for any application you may choose. After absorbing this message, you will learn an approach to winning based on martial arts’ principles. And whether you are a novice or an experienced player, you will come to enjoy a unique metaphor for success in business and life. As you learn the objectives, basic strategy and tactics you will also be guided to begin thinking like the greatest strategists of all time – the Samurai.

Lessons and benefits

We remind serious students of the old Japanese saying, ‘When you have completed 95 per cent of your journey, you are half way there.’ As you climb the mountain of chess the air gets thinner and progress can seem elusive. This disquisition offers an insight into mental fitness to liberate your full potential as a mental warrior. If chess were a game only, chess would never have survived the serious trials to which it has, during the long time of its existence, been often subjected. By some ardent enthusiasts chess has been elevated into a science or an art. It is neither; but its principal characteristic seems to be – what human nature mostly delights in – a fight. Not a fight, indeed, such as would tickle the nerves of coarser natures, where blood flows and the blows delivered leave their visible traces on the bodies of the combatants, but a fight in which the scientific, the artistic, the purely intellectual element holds undivided sway. ‘ Emanuel Lasker, World Chess Champion 1894 to 1921.

Developing memory power

International Grandmasters can play many opponents simultaneously and remember all the moves from each game. They were not born with this skill—they developed it through intense practice and concentration. Memory is the cornerstone of intelligence and the database for creative thinking. All creative thinking is the result of new combinations of recalled ideas. As you learn chess openings and basic patterns of play, you begin to flex and strengthen your memory muscles. I have, for example, challenged 107 opponents placed in a giant square around me, at Oxford 1973, and in three hours lost just one game, winning 101 and drawing 5. After the display, I could remember all the moves of every single game.

“Chess is open to everyone, regardless of age, gender, physical or economic status, and offers many specific and profound benefits”

Slow the aging process

According to Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Iron rusts from disuse, water that does not flow becomes stagnant, so it is with the human mind.’ Much of what passes for mental decline with age results from ‘disuse’. Research has shown that individuals who regularly play mental sports are less susceptible to Alzheimer’s and other diseases associated with advancing years. Chess keeps your mind agile, strong and clear as you get older.


Chess is beautiful. The artist Marce Duchamp believed that: ‘Every chess player experiences a mixture of two aesthetic pleasures: firstly, the abstract image, linked with aesthetic ideas; secondly the rational pleasure of ideographically implementing this image on the chessboard. Not all artists may be chess players, but all chess players are artists.’ Chess is a sensual as well as a ‘purely mental’ delight.’ A good chess set is a work of art. As you play and learn in this vibrant universe of black and white squares, you come to love the feel of the pieces in your hand, and to revel in the dramatic diagonal sweep of the bishop, the delightful leap of the knight, and the powerful thrust of the rook.

Self-knowledge and insight into others

For those given to reflection, chess offers a mirror to self-understanding. Can you follow through when you have made a plan? How do you hold up under pressure? Are you impatient? Are you mentally lazy? Can you manage time? Do you play to win or to draw? Does fear of making mistakes prevent you trying something creative? Do you attend to details? Are you a gracious winner, a sore loser? As well as teaching you about your own strengths and weaknesses, chess can develop your ability to understand others. To succeed at chess, you must learn to. Think like your opponent, even if your opponent’s style of thinking is very different from your own. ‘Life is like a game of chess: we draw up a plan; this plan, however, is conditional on what—in ichess, our opponent, in life, our fate—will choose to do. ‘ Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, 1851.

Stronger decision-making and accountability

In many areas of life, one can get by with waffling, finger pointing and obfuscation, but not on the chessboard. Chess is a game of decision-making. The root of the word ‘decide’ means ‘to kill the alternatives’. In chess, you must decide on a move in a given time, make it, and be prepared to live with the consequences. As World Champion Emanuel Lasker commented, ‘On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long.’

Sharpening analytical and strategic thinking

Asked what use chess was, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz replied that it provided ‘practice in the ability to think and innovate. Wherever we must make use of reason, we need an elaborate method to reach our goals. And moreover: a person’s resourcefulness is most apparent when playing.’

Innovation and ‘resourcefulness’ are even more important today. The ability to analyse a problem, plan its solution, and then carry out that plan is life’s most important skill. Chess hones this ability in a unique and dramatically effective fashion. ‘Improvement of … endeavour, the prevention of idleness, and the training of far-sighted, logical mental enjoyment. ‘ Jacobus de Cessolis writing in about 1300 about the invention of chess. De Cessolis was a Dominican monk who employed chess allegories in his sermons.

And one more thing, join the mental elite: 600,000,000 people around the world play chess. ‘Arabian writings of the 10th century AD not only praised the beauty of chess, the authors of the period also recommended chess as an educational aid in the development of logical thinking. They also held the opinion that chess could lead to an insight into things to come, could enhance friendships, and protect against loneliness. The Arabs became enthusiastic players and all classes of society were enchanted by the game. Even the Caliphs played and were very generous to the masters, the best of whom was As-Suli, showering them with gold and gifts. As-Suli’s fame was so great that he was later credited with having invented the game. Almost 300 years later it was still considered a great honour for a master to be likened to As-Suli.‘ Finkenzeller, Ziehr and Buhrer, Chess: a Celebration of 2000 Years.

“On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long”

Applying chess-based skills

Ask any top headhunter what kind of person they seek to hire for senior management positions. They will tell you that, besides the basics of strong analytical and decision-making skills, they need people with superior strategic-thinking abilities who are willing to be accountable for their actions: people with insight into others, who can plan and act under pressure, especially in the face of uncertainty. There is no better way to develop these abilities than through chess and other mind sports.

Risk and reward

A background in chess may prove better preparation for business success than even an MBA or a PhD. In 1990 Bankers Trust, a leading US financial institution, ran advertisements in Chess Life, the world’s widest-read chess magazine, seeking talent for its trading division. The advertisements generated over 1,000 resumes; the bank interviewed 100 respondents and hired five, two of them Grand masters, the other three International Masters.

During World War Two the British Government code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park hired all the strongest UK chess masters. One of them, two times British Chess Champion, Hugh Alexander, was portrayed prominently in the recent smash hit film about the breaking of the Nazi codes – The Imitation Game.

One of the gurus behind the Bankers Trust programme was international chess master Norman Weinstein, who became the bank’s top foreign exchange trader, before moving on to Odyssey Partners. Weinstein attributes his success to his chess background. In an interview in 1994 with Forbes, Weinstein emphasized: In chess, you learn to plan variations of play, to make a decision tree. One thing I find myself better in than most people is developing a strategy and implementing it. I’ll say, ‘If he does this, we’ll do that,’ whereas many very, very bright people will talk in generalities. As an example, Weinstein discussed his approach to analysing the possible break-up of the European monetary system. To make a play on this involved shorting several currencies, which is very expensive to do. So I … did a poll of traders and economists, asked them to guess the probabilities of a break-up, and ran these through the risk-return analysis. The results made it clear that it would be profitable to keep on shorting the market, despite the day-to-day losses. It paid off in about one month. He added that chess develops talent for rapidly calculating probabilities – spotting opportunities and balancing risks against rewards. At the same time, it also cultivates willingness to stick to a strategy, even when it produces losing streaks in the short run, an essential trait for investment managers and business leaders.

SKANDIA, the international finance giant, used a powerful chess theme throughout its 1995 report on value creating processes and intellectual capital. Michael Becker, a champion mental athlete and trader on the American Stock Exchange, told Forbes that chess is the ideal way to develop analytical ability. He recruits and trains traders and always looks for accomplished chess players. One of his most successful trainees is Ronald Henley, a Grandmaster who now runs his own firm. Becker says that traders with a background in mental sports consistently out-perform their colleagues.

As part of an intensive three-week leadership training course, the top 250 managers of LGT, the international banking and Investment Company, all receive daily tuition in chess and other mental sports. Gerard Quirke, European Operations Director for LGT’s asset management business, told Raymond Keene: We now have a thriving LGT International Chess Group, with people playing every day, even on electronic mail, with colleagues from all over the world. Learning to play chess as part of the course acted like aerobic exercise, but on the mind. It was like a personal fitness regime for the brain.

Notable chess players

Alexius Comnenus, the 11th-century Byzantine Emperor, was allegedly playing chess when he was surprised by a murderous conspiracy. Being a good chess player, he managed to escape! In real life, the Aladdin of the fairy tale was a chess player, a lawyer from Samarkand in the court of Tamburlaine, the 14thcentury conqueror of much of Asia. Tamburlaine himself loved to play chess; he named his son Shah Rukh, for he was moving a rook when the birth was announced. Goethe was an avid chess player and believed that the game was essential to the cultivation of the intellect. Benjamin Franklin, another genius, was also an enthusiast – his Morals of Chess, was the first ever book on chess published in the USA. Other notable chess enthusiasts were Queen Elizabeth I, Russian Czar and founder of the Russian Navy, Peter the Great, and the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, as documented at length in Napoleon the Great, published this year by noted historian Andrew Roberts.

The rage of New York

It is a grave mistake to think that chess, the intellectual game of profound concentration and Trappist silence, is an anti-social game, or that its players are all drawn from social elites. Throughout the world its appeal is deep-rooted, and it shows that intelligence—like a cultured foot or fist—is no respecter of conditioning or class. In New York’s parks, games are played at lightning speed (only wimps need time to think), with resident hustlers pocketing an endless flow of bets. To chess traditionalists, this is startling enough. Even more significant, chess has proved itself a game, like football or boxing, that can lift poor kids out of the ghetto.

In London and Berlin, for example, the amazing new sport of Chess boxing (combining the two activities in alternate bouts) has begun to flourish. The Raging Rooks, a team from Adam Clayton Powell Junior School in Harlem, are an example. In April 1991, four students from this school in one of the most deprived areas in the whole of New York, wiped the board with teams from 60 other schools – some private and elite, and just about all of them better off than themselves – to win the US Chess Federation’s National Junior Championships. They had hardly been out of Harlem before. One of them had never even ridden in an elevator. Yet suddenly they had to get used to the full and questioning glare of the public and the media.

World BrainAcademy

You have successfully become a member of the World Brain Academy. We will contact you with your membership details.