March 30, 2020 7 min read
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I’ve been playing chess casually for about 10 years. I learned to play alongside my kids, now ages 16, 14 and 11, when they were young. Before I knew it, they were outplaying me. So while I was proud of them as a mom, as a fierce competitor I decided I needed to improve my game. And recently, I realized that the skills I developed playing chess were skills I could apply to my business.
I run a manufacturing company. Over the past five years, I have invented a product, built a brand and become a supplier to several national retailers. These obligations require planning and analytical skills, and although I am naturally a planner (I still use a Day Runner, gasp!), I knew that my long-term planning skills needed significant development.
So I joined a local chess club. Our club is run by Scott Hunt, a USCF National Tournament Director. The atmosphere at the club is pretty textbook: smart guys with limited social skills. I am the only woman, though surprisingly, a significant number of children also attend. Every week we have tournaments, and I am assigned to play two games. I have not yet played against another woman.
Being the only female at the chess club feels similar to being a woman in an industry dominated by men. I have to constantly fight to assert my position. More times than I can count, I’ve been presumed to be the hired salesgirl, not the president of my own company. It’s a humbling experience, and at the club, it’s a similar story. Most of the men assume I am “just a mom” and not a club member. They ask, with eyebrows raised, “You play?”
Related: How Chess Prepared Me to Be a CEO
Assess the marketplace and protect your assets
Every chess game has an opening, middle and end game. The opening is when you develop your pieces. You are not planning an attack but preparing for it. Positioning your pieces is like positioning your business for success: Command those four center squares, get your bishops and knights off the back rank, and castle the moment you have the opportunity. That’s a company’s infancy stages. You’re developing a business plan, lining up investors, assessing the marketplace and protecting your assets.
The mid-game is often the most exciting part, and makes up the bulk of the game. The battle has begun. Your business is in full swing. Now you must think ahead all the time and look twice at every move. Constantly ask yourself: Why did my competitor do that? What is their plan? When you can answer those questions, you can better plan your own next move.
In the mid-game, you are constantly being attacked, and you have to learn to defend yourself (your business) while simultaneously attacking your competitor. But as long as my king (my brand) is protected, I can attack (the marketplace) from multiple angles. It’s ruthless, intense and stressful.
When most of the pieces have been cleared off the board, you have reached the end game. It’s easy to see the final path when most of the obstacles have been removed. With no hidden surprises, you (hopefully) put your opponent in checkmate. Or conversely, you recognize your own imminent death.
Unlike other games that involve chance, with chess, there is no luck. Both players are armed with identical sets of tools. I’ve learned that controlling the four center squares of the board is critical because it gives you access to every other part of the board. Applying that philosophy to my business, I think about how I must position my company so it has access to as many distribution channels as possible.
Related: Why Growing a Business is like Learning to Play Four-dimensional …
Think three moves ahead
For example: At my company, I recently retired two products, but I still have a considerable amount of inventory on hand. Did I remove the items too early? Should I have waited until I sold through more units? If I had waited, that would have generated cash flow in the short term, but in the long term it might damage the health of the brand. On the chess board, it may seem smart to capture your opponent’s bishop, but not at the risk of exposing a rook. Chess trains my brain to looks at short-term objectives and weigh them against long-term goals.
So how do I fire-sale thousands of units while protecting the brand?
First, I practice patience. I know it will take time to unload the inventory, and if I hurry, I may make poor decisions and careless errors that can damage my brand. Instead, I work slowly and carefully to develop a relationship with a reputable distribution channel.
Now I start thinking three steps ahead. I recognize that this new distribution channel I’ve identified for my “retired” product has the ability to move a substantial amount of inventory, so I consider how else I can use this channel to strengthen my marketshare. Although margins are low, volume is high. So I commit to continuing to produce “retired” product for this channel.
One surprising aspect to joining a club is the post-game analysis. At home, I never talked to my kids about e4 d5 exd5 Qxd5 Nc3 Qe5. But at the club, that kind of language is pervasive. To follow a conversation, I need to mentally play the game as it’s being described. It’s like doing squats with a barbell on your shoulders. It’s hard! But this mental workout is why I am here.
However, the other night I played a game in which my opponent opened d4. I responded Kc6. He was perplexed by my response and (probably) thought it was a foolish move. While it may have seemed I was attacking his pawn with no defense (which would have not been smart), that was not my plan at all. Instead, I had a long-term strategy, and I was executing that strategy from my very first move.
Now I run my business in a parallel fashion. I’ve determined what my end goal is (market saturation) and created a plan to get there. I’m executing that plan patiently, while planning several moves ahead so I am prepared for however the market responds.
At the club, my goal is to think five moves ahead during a chess game. Right now I am stuck at three. But like with any muscle, I will keep working out my brain until I get there. It takes time to develop, but fortunately, I’ve already seen my patience has improved. I’m on my way.
Related: Go for Chess Not Checkers When Running a Business