Monday, October 24, 2011

From "How Life imitates Chess" By Garry Kasparov

It has been a thought-provoking and pleasurable three weeks with "How Life imitates Chess", by Garry Kasparov. Well-written, in the sense that it does not feel like a self-help book at all (and it is not anyway). But it introduces the elements of success : approach, attitude, strategy, tactics, habits and thinking style. The famous world chess champion starts by an anecdote of his own chess encounters and then projects the concept into a real-life situation. Points to note are -

1/ Become more self-aware. Be constantly questioning the self on all decisions. Avoid being on an autopilot and relying on plain instincts to take any decisions.

2/ Play your own game. Everyone has his own style. Play a game that suits the style and in that way, make detailed notes on one self much more than focusing on any opponent.

3/ Add an element of surprise. Introduce some imagination and fantasy in the game. Break the routine every once in a while. Let the mind wander and bring in any radical ideas.

4/ Become a strategist as well as a good tactician. Pay attention to the bigger picture in addition to the detailed and sometimes routine calculations.

5/ MTQ ( Material, Time, Quality) is a crucial triad that tells the governing factors important for evaluating a situation. Material could be money, and physical resources. Time is universal. Quality is often understated in importance. Quality could mean having some strategic, knowledge, energy, ideas or skills advantage. Although quality is desirable as an end by itself, it can be utilized later for material or time. Somewhere, more than adequate importance is showered on material. Time is certainly sacrificed routinely for it. Quality is rarely in the picture when deciding what long-term strategy needs to be followed.

6/ Being able to evaluate a situation is quite different from just listing possibilities. Better decision making requires better evaluation and better evaluation relies on a proper blend of the MTQ factors. In particular, the MTQ blend must fit with temperament, strategy and willingness to take risks. MTQ factorization should provide at least a systematic way of beginning an evaluation. It should help take some weight off the instinctive and reactionary tendency.

7/ There can be a deadlock in some circumstances when I cannot see a good course of action. It is then a good time to introduce a radically different idea just to break the routine. Such a step can surprise others and bide some time for me. Importantly, it wins some Quality component of MTQ because it improves position, going from stagnant to dynamic, in such a way that I can take advantage later.

8/ Understand the rationale behind some decisions and events. Merely following a precedent does not go a long way because every situation is distinct from others and there is no sure recipe for all.

9/ SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) analysis is the real life counterpart of MTQ. Only if I know the current position (or state of material, time and quality) can I really decide how to plan ahead. In chess, the opening game is the time for creativity but primarily for following certain tried-and-tested methods. Similarly, life's early years are spent in a grind on a beaten path of growing-up, schooling, college and career. Rarely does it vary by much. The middle game in chess is greatly dynamic, where there are not only various ways of doing things but also each move can potentially dispatch us either on a road to victory or total disaster. I am well into the middle game. The end game is where cold calculation and predictability rise to prominence. Everyone can get complacent and bored by the routine and predictability which makes one vulnerable to mistakes. Each day and each moment is therefore a challenge - to be constantly critical and questioning about ones decisions, searching for better alternatives, not become complacent or go on an auto-pilot.

10/ Seize the attacker's advantage, which means taking the initiative, having courage, taking calculated risks and innovation. The attacker gets a positive momentum going in the favour. The attacker seems to have a positive pressure to take action and before that, to take a decision, whereas the defender simply needs to wait and watch. The attacker always wants to disrupt the status quo and in that way, is naturally complacency-proof. According to Kasparov, attack is better not because it is the only way, but that it works best, and certainly did for him.

11/ Question success, and failure too. We should try to understand why things succeed or fail. We love to find agreement and consensus because it saves us from taking hard decisions and confrontation. Which is why we are surrounded by like-minded people and those with similar habits. But it is important not to be.

12/ Intuition is not about some amateur coming up with the right answer without much thinking. That is more like luck. Intuition is all about someone with experience and skill hitting on an unconventional approach or a novel idea.

13/ Have a multidimensional personality. It is better to be good at something other than the profession as well. Being a good public speaker will instill confidence in all other areas of occupation as well. Richard Feynman is said to have improved as a physicist by being a better drummer as well.

14/ When there is a crisis, it essentially means that there is a clear and present danger as well as an opportunity. Its very difficult to stir up opportunities in a still, static and silent environment. Only a crisis provides a window to create a break.

15/ In real life as in chess, there is never much doubt on what to do when a problem is seen at hand. Our minds begin to take it up and solve it in whatever manner appropriate. But the grander question is when there is no apparent problem, what should be done then ? Should a plain old routine be followed, or should there be some kind of improvisation ? Too often, such situations lead to complacency. How to detect a crisis before it forms, and particularly when there is nothing really visibly wrong with anything ? I feel the key to a great strategy is thinking of such questions and then tackling them. Ordinary thinking only leads us to answer questions that we see. The better minds come up with the right questions, worthy enough to be solved. This last one is my favorite...

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