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The Unthinkable...and the Mundane

Guts in chess and life.

Chess and courage are not ordinarily linked together, and rightly so. After all, chess is a game; it's not a matter of life or death. Watching any match suggests as much: Nothing appears to be happening — just two people looking, thinking, and occasionally leaning forward to make a move. The most physically demanding act in the game may be punching the button that starts your opponent's clock.

Still, when I think about the pastime that has become my life's work and passion, I understand that it is, of course, more than a game. It demands if not moral or physical courage then at least boldness and daring. Without those qualities, in fact, a player — even a great player — cannot hope to advance to the top ranks.

Ultimately, what separates a winner from a loser at the grand-master level is the willingness to do the unthinkable. A brilliant strategy is, certainly, a matter of intelligence, but intelligence without audaciousness is not enough. Given the opportunity, I must have the guts to explode the game, to upend my opponent's thinking and, in so doing, unnerve him.

So it is in business: One does not succeed by sticking to convention. When your opponent can easily anticipate every move you make, your strategy deteriorates and becomes commoditized. So, yes, a sort of courage is paramount. But that courage must be tempered by other less-glamorous qualities.

For one thing, the game requires the discipline to think beyond the present — and beyond yourself. You must consider not just your side of the board but also your opponent's. For every move you ponder, you must mentally calculate your opponent's response — not just the immediate one, but those 10 or 15 moves ahead.

At the highest levels of chess, before you touch a piece, you are playing out an entire game of moves and countermoves in your head. In effect, you are thinking for two people. In business, too, successful strategists think not just about their own new products, pricing, and marketing but also about how their rivals will respond — and how to respond to them. Can you imagine not doing so?

Smart executives, correspondingly, must understand that their competitors are at least as smart as they are. Only the most arrogant fail to acknowledge that they do not have a monopoly on brainpower, ideas, or will. In chess, I know that my rival sees everything I see. Even if I do the unthinkable — a bold, unprecedented move calculated to leave him gasping — I must assume he has anticipated it and will have an equally daring answer. Call it the courage to accept humility.

And for all my talk of boldness and daring, great chess players cannot lose sight of the mundane details. In business, you might call this blocking and tackling — the everyday operations that, if left untended, will undermine your organization. One ill-considered move, or nonmove, seemingly inconsequential at the time, can leave you hopelessly behind.

A few years ago, at a tournament in Linares, Spain, I fell from certain victory to eventual defeat, all because I didn't take a pawn. It would have been a simple pro forma move, requiring little thought, more like stalling. I thought I could take the pawn anytime, so I focused my energies on other parts of the board. But then the board became messy and complicated, and suddenly it was too late. I realized that I was losing because I didn't have the daring to make a rudimentary move.

This is the beautiful tension that defines chess — that distinguishes between the unthinkable and the mundane. In either case, though, the outcome of the match hangs in the balance. Each move has game-changing consequences, which is why each requires patience, elegant thinking, and respect for your opponent. To me, that's an environment that, after all, breeds courageous thinking. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Garry Kasparov has been the number-one-ranked chess player in the world since he won the world championship from Anatoly Karpov in 1985. He lives in Moscow.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.