How Life Imitates Chess

Garry Kasparov (2007)

Chess is an old and complex game, so much so that Kasparov claims that styles of play, over the centuries, have mirrored the thinking of each age. But can chess itself act as a mirror for daily life? Just because something works on the chessboard, does that mean it will work in business or our personal relationships? Yes and no. It’s a bit of a stretch to equate the two, but in this book Kasparov does come up with a few interesting points along the way.

The concept of the book is so promising: surely the world chess champion must be both highly intelligent and an excellent strategist, therefore what better person to write something akin to a modern day ‘art of war’. 


Yet the main weakness of the book is that by realising that there is not one decision-making style that will work for everyone, it too often just gives somewhat bland highly generalised advise.


Overall the lessons of the book could be summarised as:


Become conscious of your own decision-making style, avoid your comfort zone (don’t get complacent) and always be looking to improve yourself.


Chapter Summaries  

Chapter 1: The Lesson

Kasparov describes how the challenge of taking part in the 1984 World Chess championships against Anatoly Karpov made him examine his own decision making processes. (This is called ‘meta-cognition: thinking about thinking).


“Self-awareness is essential to being able to combine your knowledge, experience and talent to reach your peak performance. Few people ever take the opportunity to perform this sort of analysis.” (P.11).

Chapter 2: Life Imitates Chess

“The technique of recording chess games with symbols (‘chess notation’) gives chess a detailed history, enabling millions of chess players through the ages to enjoy and learn from the games of the legendary players of the past.” (P.17)


Kasparov later goes on to call chess a kind of ‘cognitive laboratory’. The interesting, and almost unique, aspect of chess means we are able to use it as a kind of historical record of decision-making. We don’t just see who won matches in the past, but we can examine the exact move-by-move process that the players went through.


Given that computers are far superior at calculating that humans are, why are humans as good at chess as they are? (it took a while for a computer to beat humans at chess). Kasparov puts this down to the ability of the human brain to think creatively and to synthesise it with logical thinking.


“There is little evidence that chess masters possess talents beyond the obvious one of playing chess.” (P.17)

Chapter 3: Strategy

Its important to have a strategy, otherwise you are just reacting at what others throw at you. The exact optimal strategy depends on your own strengths, which you must find out for yourself. For some people, an attacking strategy works best, for others a defensive one.


In a competitive situation like a game of chess, its not a good idea to get thrown off-guard by a surprising challenge from your opponent that forces you into reacting to their way of playing, not yours. However, if you are forced on to your opponent’s terrain, be conscious of it and be adaptable.


“A frequently changed strategy is the same as no strategy.” (p.33)


Constantly asking ‘why?’ is something that separates the strategist from the mere tactician.


A goal need to be analysed and broken down into its underlying reasons (why you want it), otherwise its just a vague wish.

Chapter 4: Strategy and Tactics

Strategy is what you should be working on even when there is apparently nothing to do, and apparently no threats or challenges facing you. Tactics are the day-to-day ways that you advance the strategy.


“If strategy represents the ends, tactics are the means.” (p.45)

Chapter 5: Calculation

Chess isn’t always about raw calculation. The best players aren’t necessarily looking further ahead than mediocre players. Kasparov himself only tends to look about five moves ahead.


“Chess software excels in the area of calculation, precisely the area that Humans find most difficult.” (p.58)

Chapter 6: Talent

“Extraordinary talents require the opportunity to display them. The nature versus nurture debate cannot be so easily resolved.” (p.64)


Many areas require a combination of talents, so its not always immediately obvious that a person might have a talent in that area. It’s important to push yourself to explore where you might be talented.


The two most important talents to have in chess are memory and fantasy (imagination).


Looking at things in new ways, and recognising and then breaking your routines are key to solving problems.  Often we have misleading ideas about what we are good or bad at. Its better to be a little over-confident about your abilities than to create a negative, self-fulfilling believe about them and thus doom yourself to under-perform.


Chapter 7: Preparation

Some people never find their talents, some find them but don’t manage to use them fully, whilst others don’t have much talent but succeed due to very hard work and practice. The highest performers have some natural talent but then work very hard to hone it. Yet the ability to work very hard, and consistently push yourself can also be thought of as a talent.


Everyone has talents that they haven’t fully developed.


Kasparov’s own hard work in preparing for competitions seemed to correlate with him doing well, even though, strangely, most of the tactics he planned he ended up not using! Many people throughout history who are thought of as geniuses had this approach to endless preparation, tinkering and hard work.


The ability to work hard for long hours and remain effective varies from person to person.


“It is critical to know what motivates you, to find out how to push yourself that extra mile.” (p.82)

Chapter 8: Material, time, quality

“This isn’t a cookbook; we all need to create our own successful combinations with the ingredients we have. There are guidelines for what works, but each person has to discover what works for him through practice and observation. This cannot happen rapidly, if at all, of its own accord. We must take an active role in our education.” (p.87)


“Improving our decision-making process is like studying our native language. It requires conscious thought about something we do unconsciously in order to improve something we’ve been doing all our lives.” (p.87)

Chapter 9: Exchanges and Imbalances

Advantages or surpluses in one area can often be exchanged for something you are lacking in another area.


“There are imbalances in our daily lives and we constantly struggle to transform them positively.” (p.117)

Chapter 10: Innovation

Some creative ideas make the news (i.e. they result in quick applications/ inventions), whilst others make history (their impact is larger, but it cascades into multiple new ideas and ways of thinking over time).


The value of innovations can often be judged by asking what are their implications. Some innovations are just fads, others have wider implications.


“Just about every great discovery was the product of prior knowledge, hard work, and systematic thinking.” (p.121)


Thorough knowledge of what has come before is the foundation of new thinking.


“The only way to survive is to keep moving up the pyramid. You can’t stay at the bottom, the competition there is too fierce.” (p. 128)


At the dawn of computer chess, some predicted that eventually computers would become so good at chess that people would loose interest, and that they would eventually ‘prove’ a “mathematically conclusive way to win from the start” but neither of these predictions have happened. 


Some ideas can be too far ahead of their time, or be deficient in just one area so that they don’t get adopted en masse. You need to be aware of trends, as these show a series of ideas moving together, and are pointers at what is currently being adopted.


Chapter 11: Phases of the game

In order to make it more accessible to newbies, chess is often broken down into three phases: the opening, middlegame, and endgame. The opening sets up the possibilities of the game, and is a creative phase. The middlegame is a time for assertiveness and initiative and favours action, the endgame is the result of cool calculation rather than imagination, and thus favours the prudent, logical and detail-oriented. Does this have a parallel with life?


Its better to study whole games of chess – or real life case studies – rather than just the opening (or theory) because this shows you more about the messy nature of how the real world operates.


Chapter 12: The Decision-Making Process

Our personal decision-making style may work better in some areas of our lives than others.


When beginning decision-making its important to start out by exploring at least two options. There are risks in only exploring one option in depth.


We need to reign-in our own biases towards being too impulsive in picking an option, or too conservative in taking too long, or insisting on exploring every possible option.


There are – in chess and life – often many possible options to choose from, each of which will lead to many more possible options. We must learn to limit these choices down to a smaller array of ‘candidate moves’.


Our intuition (recognising patterns based on past experience) is vital to most of our daily decisions where we don’t have enough time to logically, step-by-step analyse all the options.


“If there is no benefit to making the decision at the moment, and no penalty in delaying it, use the time to improve your evaluation, to gather more information and examine other options.” (p.162)

Chapter 13: The Attacker’s Advantage

“Aggression… means dynamism, innovation, improvement, courage, risk, and a willingness to take action. We have to learn the value of unbalancing the situation and taking the initiative.” (p.168)

Aggressive initiative-taking puts an opponent into a defensive, and hence more constrained and predictable, mode of operation, giving the attacker the natural advantage.


The threat of attack can be more powerful than the attack itself.


“As the pace of the world accelerates, the advantage is moving steadily towards the attacking side.” (p. 172)

Chapter 14: Question Success

Success breeds complacency, and can be the enemy of future success. When Kasparov achieved his ‘life goal’ of winning the world chess championship at only 22, he was taken aback by something said to him by the wife of a former champion: “I feel sorry for you. The greatest day of your life is over!”


He calls this the ‘gravity of past success’.


The cure for this is to ‘question the status quo at all times’. We have to search and find flaws before they lead to weakness.


“Winning creates the illusion that everything is fine.” (P.180)

Chapter 15: The Inner Game

Psychology and mindset are important in chess.


Highly successful chess players almost seem to hypnotise their opponents with their intimidating stare. This was the case with Pal Benko, who was so psych’ed out when playing Mikhail Tal that he wore eye shades while playing!


If a problem dominates our thinking too much, and stops us focusing on other things, it can be worth trying to resolve it as quickly as possible. Even if the resolution isn’t completely favourable, it’s like dropping a stock before it falls in value further.


Having a sense of control is enormously valuable, psychologically.


Pushing ourselves, psychologically, is also important to building our mental strength.


“Creative and competitive energy is a tangible thing, and if we can feel it, so can our opponents. Our confidence level is reflected not how we move and talk, not just by what we say, but how we say it.”


“There are few things as psychologically brutal as serious chess. It involves spending five or six hours in total concentration in direct competition with another mind, with a ticking clock and nowhere to hide. There are no teammates to share the load, no referees to blame no unlucky dice or cards to turn over.” (P.189)

Chapter 16: Man, Woman, Machine

Its important to expose ourselves to people who will offer a contradictory viewpoint, even though the natural tendency is to surround ourselves with people who think the same way as us.


There is something about the single-minded combat nature of chess that seems to either make more men than women more suited or more attracted to it, even though there have been some top class female players.


He talks about something called ‘advanced chess’, which is a combination of a human player + a computer chess program with a large database. What he found is that important to making this work is for the human player to have a really good understanding of how to use the computer program and have a good process for doing so. He says that a weak player using a strong process to use a computer program will trump a stronger computer program on its own, and definitely trump a strong human player using a computer program with a weak process. Understanding the tool is more important than just possessing it.


Practising and developing the creative part of our brain can be useful in problem solving. Even though problem solving seems like a logical activity.


“Grandmasters play chess by combining experience with intuition backed up with calculation and study. Computers play chess by brute calculation with study simulated by access to a gigantic database of opening moves.” (p. 216)


“Engaging the weakest points in our game is…the best and fastest way to improve.” (P. 219)

Chapter 17: The Big Picture

‘To do’ lists can be useful, but people rarely put big, strategic decisions or ‘big picture’ tasks on them. Like a camera we need to be able to zoom in and out, depending on whether we need to focus on the big picture or the details.

Chapter 18: Intuition

Learning does not just magically happen with experience, we must take an active role to make it happen.


All intuition, even vague hunches, is based on some level of practical experience.


Before the age of computer chess–analysis (around pre-1995) post game analysis was often full of a greater number of mistakes than actual games. Even though there is more time to analyse after the game, and there is the benefit of hindsight, the pressure of the game itself seems to better activate a player’s intuition.


Most people don’t trust their intuition enough.


“Despite the best efforts of psychologists and neurologists, human thought is still best described by metaphor, poetry and the other devices we use to express what we do not fully understand.” (P. 237)

Chapter 19: Crisis Point

Recognising that there is a problem is often more daunting than solving a problem. We often feel the development of a crisis instinctively, even if we fail to rationally face up to it.


Often we have to decide between choices in which none are perfect, and how we weigh up the risks and drawbacks is more a matter of our own personality.