All the Right Moves

Think fast. Think under pressure. That’s how you win in business — and in chess. Here is a master class from Bruce Pandolfini, one of the world’s great chess teachers, on how to think like a champion.

Has there ever been a more confusing time to think about business strategy? Your most important customer can also be one of your chief competitors — and one of your key suppliers as well. The fastest-growing markets (especially those driven by the Net) might be the least-profitable markets today — but they are the markets that will shape the future. The news pages bring word of mergers and strategic alliances that shift the competitive playing field overnight. The name of the game in business strategy today: Think fast. Think under pressure. Think several moves ahead.


It sounds a lot like chess. Bruce Pandolfini doesn’t know much about business plans or Internet deals. But he knows more than almost anyone else about thinking strategically. Pandolfini, 51, is one of the most sought-after chess teachers — and one of the most widely read chess writers — of the 20th century. He is to chess what Peter Drucker is to management or what Carl Sagan was to science: an instructor, a chronicler, a commentator, a celebrity.

The popular spotlight shone brightest on Pandolfini back in 1993, when Hollywood released “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” a film based on the life of one of Pandolfini’s students: whiz kid Josh Waitzkin. (Ben Kingsley portrayed Pandolfini.) But Pandolfini’s history as a chess master goes back long before his 15 minutes of fame. His role as an analyst for PBS’s coverage of the 1972 match between chess superstars Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky launched him into the limelight. He is the author of 25 books, including “The ABCs of Chess: Invaluable, Detailed Lessons for Players at All Levels” (Fireside, 1986) and “Chess Target Practice: Battle Tactics for Every Square on the Board” (Fireside, 1994). He’s also a columnist for “Chess Life,” the bible of the chess world.

Today Pandolfini is so well known among chess enthusiasts that he has to be careful about giving out his telephone number or his address. Frantic players, stumped by a problem, have been known to track him down at all hours of the night. Pandolfini no longer frequents chess clubs in New York City, where he lives, because members bombard him with questions about chess problems. He rarely attends his students’ tournaments: Other students’ parents invariably want him to be their children’s teacher too. When he plays online, he usually plays under a pseudonym.


Pandolfini carries an average of 15 private students at a time. But he makes it clear to them (and to their parents) that he is not teaching them how to become great chess players. He is teaching them how to think. “My goal,” he says, “is to help them develop what I consider to be two of the most important forms of intelligence: the ability to read other people, and the ability to understand oneself. Those are the two kinds of intelligence that you need to succeed at chess — and in life.”

Pandolfini recently offered Fast Company a master class in the theory and practice of chess — and in how to think like a champion.

If You See a Good Idea, Look for a Better One

There are lots of misperceptions that influence how people think about — and play — chess. Most people believe that great players strategize by thinking far into the future, by thinking 10 or 15 moves ahead. That’s just not true. Chess players look only as far into the future as they need to, and that usually means thinking just a few moves ahead. Thinking too far ahead is a waste of time: The information is uncertain. The situation is ambiguous. Chess is about controlling the situation at hand. You want to determine your own future. You certainly don’t want your opponent to determine it for you. For that, you need clarity, not clairvoyance.


So the real issue isn’t how far ahead great players think, but how they think in the moment. Great players consider their next move without playing it — and then consider their opponent’s response to that move. And they ask questions. The most revealing question is also the simplest question: What would I like to do if I could count on my opponent doing nothing? It’s that simple.

But the majority of players don’t think that way. Most players look for a “bit”: They see a good move, and they make it. That’s an error. You should never play the first good move that comes into your head. Put that move on your list, and then ask yourself if there is an even better move. I have seen Gary Kasparov practically sit on his hands to keep himself from making a move. “If you see a good idea, look for a better one” — that’s my motto. Good thinking is a matter of making comparisons.

There’s one other misperception about chess: People believe that the better you are, the faster you should win. Chess doesn’t work that way. When people tell me that they just won a game in three or four moves, I usually conclude that they’re not a very good player — and that their opponent is a terrible player. Great players want to build their position and to increase their power — so that, when they strike, there is no defense. You can’t do that in only a few moves. Trying to win a game in the fewest number of moves means hoping that your opponent is incompetent. I don’t teach students to base their play on hope. I teach them to play for control.


To Win Big, Think Different

People have been playing chess as we know it since the 15th century. Chess strategies have been analyzed, refined, and reanalyzed. That’s why so many players learn one set of principles and then follow those principles mechanically. They begin each game the same way. They respond to a certain attack the same way. They are “playing by the rules” — but they are also setting themselves up to lose to someone who has rethought those rules.

From the beginning, Bobby Fischer operated at the cutting edge of ideas. He would develop new moves to introduce early in a game, or he would discover and reinvigorate old moves that people had forgotten. I used to see him early in the morning at the Marshall Chess Club, in New York City. The club had a cupboard filled with index cards — records of games from the 19th century — and Fischer would be poring over those records. I asked myself, “Why is the world’s best player reading about games from 150 years ago?” Sure enough, during the U.S. Championship one year, he played an opening that was inspired by one of those old games. And he didn’t just play the same opening — he put his signature on it. That was one of his great gifts: finding unusual moves and revitalizing them.

Small Advantages Produce Big Results

Chess is a game of small advantages. It all goes back to Wilhelm Steinitz, the first great modern chess teacher. Steinitz developed the theory of positional chess, which assumes that, to get an advantage, you have to give up something in return. The question then becomes “How can anyone win? Why isn’t the game always held in dynamic balance?” The answer is that you play for seemingly insignificant advantages — advantages that your opponent doesn’t notice or that he dismisses, thinking, “Big deal, you can have that.” It could be a slightly better development, or a slightly safer king’s position. Slightly, slightly, slightly. None of those “slightlys” mean anything on their own, but add up seven or eight of them, and you have control. Now the only way that your opponent can possibly break your control is by giving up something else. Positional chess teaches that we are responsible for our actions. Every move must have a purpose.


There’s one last point to keep in mind. Players often give their opponents too much credit. If a move doesn’t make sense, if your opponent has put you in a position to take a piece and you don’t understand why, keep looking for a reason. But if you can’t find a reason, if it seems that your opponent has made a mistake, then take the piece! The only way you can punish your opponent is by taking that piece. If you do, one of two good things will happen: You just might be right, and you’ll win. Or you’ll be wrong, and you’ll learn something. But don’t be afraid to stand by your analysis.

Mind Games Are Part of the Game

There’s an expression in chess: “Play the board, not the man.” That’s not quite right. You want the bulk of your moves to be objective and analytical. But being good at chess also requires being good at reading people. And being good at reading people starts with being able to read their eyes.

People often ask me, “How can you tell if a kid has talent?” By observing how a child looks at the board, I can tell if the child has a sensitivity to the game. When most children look at the board, they stare at a single point. But chess is a game of spatial relations. If I see a lot of eye movement, that’s usually a reflection of real thinking. The thinking may be incorrect — kids are kids — but that eye movement tells me that the child may have something.


Few people think of chess as an intimate, personal game. But that’s what it is. Players learn a lot about their opponent, and exceptional chess players learn to interpret every gesture that their opponent makes. And sometimes it comes down to psychological warfare. Kasparov breaks people down. He’ll use grimaces, or he’ll chuckle in a very humiliating way whenever someone makes a bad move. That can be debilitating to an opponent. When Kasparov played Deep Blue, he lost that advantage. He was playing a machine. All of his body language, which can break down other human beings, had no value.

I remember a match between two Russians, Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi. Korchnoi was a defector from the Soviet Union, which made the match all the more intense. Karpov had a “psychologist” named Vladimir Zukhar on his team. But Zukhar was really nothing more than a specialist in staring. His role throughout the entire match was to stare down Korchnoi — which unnerved Korchnoi tremendously. Karpov ended up winning by a very small margin.

Never Let ‘Em See You Sweat

Making a mistake in the middle of a game can be a shattering experience. But exceptional players become skilled at maintaining an absolute sense of calm and confidence — at least outwardly. Great players may question one of their moves, but they never question themselves. They may admit that they made a mistake, but they never reveal that to their opponent. One of the worst things that you can do at the championship level is to let your opponent see that you’ve made a mistake. Even when you know that you’ve screwed up terribly, you simply must hide that reality. Now, there’s a big difference between a mistake and a retreat. Retreating is not necessarily a bad thing. Often, to get an advantage in chess, you need to give something up. In fact, a retreat can be a brilliant attack maneuver. There was a classic example of this tactic in one of the greatest, most competitive games between children that I’ve ever seen. It was a 1985 match between two third-graders: Josh Waitzkin (the prodigy featured in “Searching for Bobby Fischer”) and Jeff Sarwer. I don’t want to portray a game played by two Mozart-like children as a game played by two masters, because it wasn’t. It was fraught with errors. But these were very interesting mistakes, dynamic mistakes.


Jeff was a fiercely aggressive player. He got the white pieces, and, right from the start, he went straight for Josh’s jugular. He quickly gained the advantage and hammered away. But then came a key moment. Jeff, convinced that he had won, played a somewhat indifferent move. It looked fine on the surface, but Josh saw through it. Everything stopped. You could see Josh calculating, looking deep into the board. And then he made an unusual play: He moved his knight out of action and into the corner. It was a subtle retreat — so subtle that Jeff kept playing as if he were winning, and he made another pedestrian move. After a few more moves, Josh brought his knight back into action, placing it in the forking position that he had been aiming for — which simultaneously put Jeff’s king into check and threatened Jeff’s bishop.

The maneuver took 12 moves. Now Josh controlled Jeff’s game. Jeff ended up saving his king but losing his bishop. And from that point on, the game was a trade-off: The two kings were the only pieces left standing, and the game was a draw. But it also provided a great lesson. Josh was not going to accept defeat. He never gave up, not even when the game looked hopeless. He advanced by retreating first.

Mental Toughness Requires Physical Stamina

Chess can be incredibly demanding. A single game can last for hours. A match can extend over several days. If your concentration wavers for even a second, you’re dead. That kind of mental discipline has a physical component. There’s a certain physical thing that happens to you when you’re really concentrating, when you can really feel the game. I knew a player who would lose 10 or 15 pounds during the course of a tournament — that’s how extreme the tension can be.


Sometimes you can win through sheer force of stamina. I remember a photograph from the 1927 World Championship match between José Raúl Capablanca and his challenger, Alexander Alekhine. Capablanca was considered invincible: He was one of the greatest chess geniuses of all time. But he wasn’t a tremendously hearty fellow. He had such natural talent that he tended to overwhelm his opponents, and he rarely faced stiff resistance.

This photo shows the two players right before the match. Capablanca is sitting at the board, looking incredibly relaxed. Alekhine, who had survived the Russian Revolution, is leaning across the board, with his arms crossed and propped up on the table. That was a sign of things to come. Capablanca lost a game early on and never recovered. The match lasted 34 games, and each game took at least five hours. Those games were grueling. Over time, Alekhine’s physical force just wore Capablanca down. Nothing was going to stop Alekhine. It’s hard to muster mental energy if your body isn’t there behind you.

In fact, many of the most poignant moments in chess history are about mental and physical toughness rather than pure brilliance. Back in 1987, Kasparov was playing Anatoly Karpov in the World Championship. Karpov was ahead, 12 games to 11, with 1 game left. All that Karpov had to do was play to a draw — and he was the world’s great master at drawing. But Kasparov just played his heart out. He would not give in. They were playing and playing and playing, and Kasparov just ground Karpov down. Anyone else would have collapsed under all that pressure. But Kasparov drew on all of his reserves and just kept fighting. Amazingly, he won the game and retained his title. It was a truly inspiring performance — even to people who are not Kasparov fans.


To Learn How to Win, Learn How to Lose

There’s a problem with learning chess when you’re young: You’re going to lose a lot. And, of course, ego gratifi-cation is probably the main reason why a child does anything. But if, as a young person, you can learn how to handle defeat, you can eventually learn how to win. That’s one of the primary functions of a good chess teacher — to get students through the pain of losing.

My lessons consist of a lot of silence. I listen to other teachers, and they’re always talking: “Why are you making that move?” “What other options are you considering?” I let my students think. If I do ask a question and I don’t get the right answer, I’ll rephrase the question — and wait. I never give the answer. Most of us don’t really appreciate the power of silence. Some of the most effective communication — between student and teacher, between master players — takes place during silent periods.

When I do talk with students, my goal is to help them develop what I consider to be two of the most important forms of intelligence: the ability to read other people, and the ability to understand oneself. Those are the two kinds of intelligence that you need to succeed at chess — and in life.


In my classroom, I have what I call a “hot corner.” One or two students will sit with me at a board and talk chess. They are not allowed to move the pieces physically. They can’t “show” me their moves. They have to tell me their moves. I make them play the game in their head. They deeply fear that moment in the hot corner — because they don’t know if they can do it. My job is to show them that, yes, they can do this impossible thing. We all can do it. We all have amazing capabilities. At first, playing the game in your head feels like work. Eventually it becomes intuition.

Sidebar: The Masters

Bobby Fischer

Record: World Champion, 1972 to 1975. Won his first U.S. Championship in 1958, at age 14. Became the World Champion after winning a match against Boris Spassky in 1972.

Review: “Fischer was a master of clarity and a king of artful positioning. His opponents would see where he was going but were powerless to stop him. I like to say that Bobby Fischer was the greatest Russian player ever. All of his great opening moves came from the Russians. He studied all of their methods. But what made Fischer a genius was his ability to blend an American freshness and pragmatism with Russian ideas about strategy.”


Viktor Korchnoi

Record: Never became a world champion but was one of the world’s greatest players. Also known as Viktor the Terrible.

Review: “A master of the counterattack, Korchnoi would take great risks at the board. He played to make his opponents impatient and to lure them into issuing aggressive but unsound threats. He would then exploit those threats in a ruthless counterattack — by thrusting out, cutting off his opponent’s line of support, and trapping his opponent’s piece. Although this style sometimes backfired, it made for exciting chess at a very high level.”

Anatoly Karpov

Record: World Champion, 1975 to 1985. One of the most successful tournament players in history. Became one of Russia’s youngest masters at age 15 and an international master at age 18.


Review: “Known as a negative player, Karpov sets up deep traps and creates moves that seem to allow his opponent possibilities — but that really don’t. He takes no chances, and he gives his opponents nothing. He’s a trench-warfare fighter who keeps the game moving just an inch at a time.”

Boris Spassky

Record: World Champion, 1969 to 1972.

Review: “One of the soundest attacking players ever, Spassky nonetheless took very few chances. Totally dominant until he lost to the irresistible juggernaut known as Bobby Fischer. After that loss, he was never the same.”

Gary Kasparov

Record: World Champion, 1985 to the present.

Review: “An aggressively inscrutable player, Kasparov strives to gain deep positional sacrifices: Even when he can’t calculate the end result conclusively, he can make sophisticated generalizations. He does anything to get the initiative and to force the play. Inevitably, he emerges from a forest of complications — in which his intentions aren’t all that clear — with the advantage. He’s not as artful or as clear as Fischer, but his play coincides with the realities of the day, which are all about defense. Clarity of style no longer makes sense. Great players hide their intentions.”

Anna Muoio ( is an associate editor at Fast Company. Contact Bruce Pandolfini by email ( The “Ten Commandments of Chess” are taken from Pandolfini’s book “The ABCs of Chess.”