The 9th Rank

The Goal

As only about the top 20 Grandmasters in the world are able to make a living by playing professionally (according to one such player), lesser players, must seek out other work. Many critics are even predicting an end to competitive chess at some point when computers make the game obsolete.

Like many chess players who have established themselves as Masters, I have dedicated several years into improving my skills, and
continue to work just to maintain my playing ability. Another common experience I have with other masters is that we have come to the
realization that chess playing ability does not often transfer easily to professional or social aspects of life.

Does this mean the benefit of becoming a strong player is limited to the chessboard?

The purpose of this section is to provide and seek help in applying strong chess-playing skills in other arenas.

Disclosure: admittedly, I have modest success at best in doing so, and therefore, any useful insights are welcomed.

Chess vs. Sports

What is the Best Comparison?

As a garage league athlete and fan of professional sports, I have heard countless chess vs. sport comparisons. However, only a few of these insights have impressed me.

  • With an athlete having such a complex combination of physical attributes (strength, speed, coordination, reflexes, etc.), it seems quite unreasonable to compare directly to a chess player’s skill set. This would be about on the same level as comparing Shaquille O’Neal to Wayne Gretzky.
  • Possibly the closest comparison I have come across though would be tennis, but only because of how the rules are set up–a one-on-one game, where serving and receiving can be equated to playing white or black (with similar statistical advantages).
  • If you consider poker to be a sport (which I don’t for the record), there does seem to be a great number of people who appear to be delusional about their abilities. How many active poker players do you know consider themselves to be “good”, while never consistently placing well in tournaments?
  • As an NFL fan, I have been intrigued by watching different play calls and defensive formations, and seeing which plays could (or should) work accordingly. As much as I would like to compare my understanding of chess openings to football formations, it’s a loose analogy at best.

The ONLY direct comparison I could honestly see is the competitive dedication to prepare and train to defeat the competition.

More importantly, in which field can chess practice be considered as cross-training?

Chess in the Business World

Positional Play and Tactics

After taking some business courses at university and reading Gary Kasparov’s How Life Imitates Chess, it appears the interpretation of “strategic” and “tactical” goals are similar in the business and political world as they are on the chess board. Loosely, this means that strategic goals relate to general objectives, and tactics are the more detailed means of achieving them.

Stronger chess players have a better understanding of what their strategic (or “positional”) goals should be, while also making fewer tactical mistakes. In the business world, it appears as though tactical mistakes can be corrected over the chessboard, while strategic goals can consist of “sub-goals”, and can similarly be a moving target.

So how would a chess master use such this knowledge to thrive in the business world?

The best answer I can find is to ask for help.

  • By seeking the advice of industry experts (regardless of the industry), their strategic ideas will invariably be better than a chess player’s (unless the master is ALSO an industry expert in his own right)
  • An experienced and trusted management would also be less likely to make poor tactical decisions

I was once told by a stronger chess player–“There are higher-rated players than you who aren’t any stronger than you tactically. They do a better job of hiding their weaknesses, so you need to either do the same, or correct your weaknesses.”

It appears that this could be a prime reason to ask for help or get some good training in the business world.

Chess and Academics

Chess in the School System

Several studies argue the benefits of chess for school-aged children. My understanding of this argument is that developing certain chess skills can translate to more developed learning in math and possibly other academic subjects. Another point of view may be that the same aptitudes are needed to learn both chess and math, but success in one does not cause success in the other. Either way, if chess is fun, it cannot be detrimental.

One strong player (IM titled), mentioned to me that he found chess to be a rare “fun” avenue he found for children to develop certain academic learning skills at a young age. When I suggested that certain other hobbies like music and puzzles could be alternatives, he agreed–but pointed out that chess was more unique in the sense that it was a game, which could be treated with varying degrees of competitiveness at such a young age.

Academic Giants as Chess Masters, and Vice Versa

As an adult, I have met several brilliant PhDs, graduate students, and other proven academics who had taken an interest in playing in chess tournaments with varying degrees of success. Although only a very small percentage have achieved a master’s rating, it’s clear that the lack of success is not for lack of intelligence. A similarly small percentage of chess masters have established themselves as accomplished academics. The fact is that skills just do not translate directly. But does academic success help at all in chess?

There are studies for and against whether “spatial” intelligence is important in becoming a good chess player, but here is a quote from Wikipedia:

Spatial Intelligence is an area in the theory of multiple intelligences that deals with spatial judgment and the ability to visualize with the mind’s eye. It is defined by Howard Gardner as a human computational capacity that provides the ability or mental skill to solve spatial problems of navigation, visualization of objects from different angles and space, faces or scenes recognition or to notice fine details. Gardner further explains that Spatial Intelligence could be more effective to solve problems in areas related to realistic, thing-oriented, and investigative occupations.

So how would a chess master fare in developing expertise in another field? And which field would be most suited to his or her abilities?

If spatial intelligence is indeed necessary to become a chess player, perhaps finding a “realistic, thing-oriented and investigative” occupation would be ideal. The same Wikipedia page on Spatial Intelligence suggests such occupations would be designers, architects, or taxi drivers.

Chess Players in Social Settings?

Admittedly, this is the most ridiculous of all the sections listed on this page.

Some chess players do fit the stereotype of the socially awkward nerd, but for anyone who has been around chess tournaments long enough, it’s pretty clear to that chess players are a pretty diverse crowd.

One funny episode that demonstrated this was during a Canadian Championship tournament. A couple TV reporters came to do a story on the event, and naturally they wanted to interview the top contenders. But since chess players aren’t exactly famous in Canada, they didn’t know how to pick them out of the crowd at the hotel. I watched them perform their search from the hotel bar, and saw them start with…guess who? The most obvious stereotypes. To their credit, they found the top contenders before too long.

The point behind this story is that, because chess players are such a diverse group in both age and personality, I found it interesting to learn about certain people that I’m sure I would not have otherwise met.

Perhaps THIS was the most valuable thing I’ve learned in the chess world?