15 Life and Business Lesson to Learn From Chess

6 February 2021

Chess Is Known as the Game of Kings and Queens. It Has Many Similarities With Life and Can Teach Valuable Lessons.

A board with 64 squares, 32 pieces on it, and a set of rules about how each piece can move. Can there really be that much to it? We definitely think so. And we’re about to explain how chess imitates life. 

It’s often used as a metaphor for planning your next move in business, war or life. And like in any of those things, if you want to come out on top, you have to think rationally and out-maneuver your opponent. Little wonder that famous fans of the game include great military strategists like Napoleon and Winston Churchill — and business leaders like Bill Gates and Peter Thiel. So let’s see what exactly we can learn from chess.

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With that done, let’s move on to the first lesson.


It Teaches You to Have a Strategy

Learning the rules of chess is simple. But that alone won’t help you win matches. So for that, you need strategy. And life is pretty much the same. In life, you can just take it day by day, get a job, earn money, spend it on whatever everybody else is spending it on, repeat. You’ll get by, just about.

Much better — put together a financial plan. Have ambitions, things you want to achieve professionally and personally, a bucket list of places to travel to, and experiences to enjoy. Now we’re talking. That’s a plan — a strategy. And you’ll get a lot more out of life.

And in business, it’s a no-brainer that you need a business plan. Like in chess — have a strategy. 


It Teaches You to Have a Plan B and a Plan C

In chess you can have a brilliant strategy to beat their opponent. But if they make moves you don’t want them to, it can all come to nothing. That’s why you need back-up plans, B and even C, for when A doesn’t work out. 

In life, too, we all know things often don’t go according to plan. People who are successful have a number of alternatives they can count on. 

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You Have to See the Big Picture

In chess, it’s called seeing the whole board. In life, seeing the big picture. When you’re inexperienced, you can be fixated on that one set of moves you’re making to win the game. But you’re so focused on them that you’ve missed something that’s staring you in the face, but you only see it once your opponent moves in and turns the tables on you. Rookie chess players often make that mistake. To get good, you start to see the whole board. This is a way how chess imitates life on the board.

Same in life. There are times when you can’t see the wood for the trees. Like when you’re so fixated on doing you’re the same job day in day out, that opportunities pass you by. Or you’re so zoned in on your business plan that you can’t see its fatal flaws. Like a good chess player, avoid these mistakes, and learn to see the whole picture.  


It Teaches You to Think Well Ahead

In life, the most successful people are two steps ahead, or well ahead of the game. They’re organized, anticipate problems and have an idea of how to deal with them well before they occur. 

That’s exactly what chess teaches you to do. Bad players just think about their next move. Great players, like Garry Kasparov, are known for their ability to think many moves ahead. And playing chess can give you that mindset of forward thinking, and help you apply it to all aspects of life. 


It Teaches You to Get Creative

When you’re playing a beginner at chess, it probably won’t be hard to find a way to attack. But if they’re good, and don’t make mistakes, there won’t be obvious ways of doing that. So that’s why you need to get creative in your game plan. 

Of the many benefits chess has, one of the less expected ones is that it can actually make you more creative.  In fact, it’s been shown to improve your thinking in both hemispheres of the brain, and help you with logical and creative thinking at the same time. In chess, getting creative means finding chances where obvious ones don’t exist, thinking outside the box to get where you want to be. And we think that’s another great reason to play chess. 


It Teaches You to Think Like Your Opponent

Good chess players will watch what their opponent’s doing, how they react to attacks, and how their moves fit into a bigger plan. And they get inside their opponent’s head. 

In the history of strategy, a lot of thinkers have advocated the same approach, from Sun Tzu to Don Corleone — think like your enemy. As Sun Tzu put it ‘to know your enemy, you must become your enemy’. 

For those of us who aren’t soldiers or mafia bosses we don’t necessarily have out-and-out enemies. But when we’re negotiating, asking for a pay rise, or trying to outsmart a business competitor, it becomes how chess imitates life at a bargaining table. So know what their goals are, what makes them tick, and what their weak points are. Doing that will help you take the advantage on the chess board, and at the negotiating table.


It Teaches You How to Bluff

It’s the same as in poker, in boxing, in martial arts, or in war. You make it look as if you’re about to make one move, and your opponent prepares to defend for. That’s when you move in to make your real attack — a totally different one that your opponent was blind to. The art of making a bluff, or a feint, is something chess can teach you. 

Again, even when we don’t think of people as real enemies, when we’re negotiating, being able to do the unexpected and catch our partner off-guard is something that can put us in a position of power. 


It Teaches You to Spot Patterns

We just talked about watching your opponent’s moves, using them to guess what move they’ll make next, or what they’ll do in a given situation. When you’re doing this, essentially you’re spotting patterns. 

There are so many things in life this can help us with. Like doing the detective work and finding the source of that problem that’s been bugging us. Spotting the signs that a business plan is about to run into trouble. Realizing when something’s about to become the next big thing, or a stock is about to go up or down. Being able to recognize patterns is a great skill to have in many aspects of life and business. 


It Teaches You to Be Decisive and Take Action

In chess, you do need to carefully analyze your position before you make your move. But you don’t want to spend forever thinking about it. You’ve got to be decisive. Make that move, formulate that strategy and commit to it. Isn’t this how chess imitates life? Even in real life we have the clock ticking on us.

This is especially true in tournaments, when players have a time limit for their first twenty moves. If they’re too slow with their earlier moves, they’ll have to rush with their later ones. And if the clock goes down to zero, they’ve lost the game. 

As well as teaching you to make calculated moves, chess teaches you to be decisive making them. 


It Teaches You to Make the Right Move From the Start

In some games, like soccer, the first few minutes often don’t have much bearing on the final result. But in chess, everything counts from move one. So that first move has consequences that shape how the board is going to look, and how the rest of the game will go. That’s why chess teaches you to get things right from the very start. 

And it’s got all kinds of similarities to life. Research shows that when you meet somebody for the first time, their impression of you is going to be influenced by the first seven seconds. When you’re setting up a company, you’ll probably be struggling for cash in the early days, which is why you need to make all the right moves from the get-go. Just like a good chess player, understand that the first move counts in life too.


It Teaches You Not to Let Your Emotions Guide Your Actions

In chess, there’s that moment when you’re so excited that you’re about to win, or take an important piece off your opponent, that you’ve failed to notice there’s a trap set for you. That excitement has got in the way of your judgement. So good chess players know how not to let emotion get the better of them.

The legendary film director, Stanley Kubrick, was a big fan of chess, and talked about how it helped him become the great director he was. One lesson he singles out was how it taught him not to be impulsive, how to be disciplined with movie-making decisions.

As he puts it, “If chess has any relationship to film-making, it is how it helps you develop patience and discipline in choosing between alternatives at a time when an impulsive decision seems very attractive.”


It Teaches You to Make Sacrifices

First-time chess players tend to see losing a piece as a bad thing, they are OK losing a pawn, but losing a bishop or knight, let alone a queen is a big no-no. Experienced players have a much more nuanced attitude. They know that you have to lose battles to win the war. 

If you’ve been watching the Queen’s Gambit, but aren’t sure exactly what the word ‘gambit’ means, it’s a move in which you sacrifice a piece to gain an advantage. 

In life, people who don’t have a strategic mindset often complain about losing a weekend or evening to work or study, or that something’s going to cost them too much, and don’t realize it will bring them long-term gains. But successful people will  invest because they realize how chess imitates life here, and make sacrifices, because they know it fits into a bigger plan, and it’s worth the sacrifice. 


It Teaches You to Take Action and Attack

A novice chess player might put all their effort into defending. But to get ahead, you need to attack too. Nobody’s going to win a game of chess just keeping your players safe, while doing nothing to trap your opponent’s king. 

Just like in life. Often you need to be a go-getter, even be a little aggressive getting what you want. So go for that job interview that you’re not quite qualified for. Ask that person out on a date who you feel is a bit out of your league. Approach that investor about your business idea. Get out of your comfort zone. Act like an attacking chess player, not a defending one.


It Teaches You to Know the System

Coming back to the Queen’s Gambit — because we know a lot of people have been watching it — you’ll know that the show’s main character, Beth didn’t have many opportunities to play chess when she’s small.

Instead, she masters the game by visualizing the chess board on the ceiling of her room at night, envisaging every conceivable configuration with imaginary pieces above her. That’s how she becomes an expert player — by analyzing everything that could happen. She studies the system until she knows it inside out.

Whatever you’re doing in life — it involves a system. A system of rules, possibilities for action, and likely outcomes.  So if you’re setting up a business, there’s going to be the legal system for how the company operates, the system of economics, based on supply and demand, the system of marketing, or how you’re going to make people hear about you. If you deal with people a lot, you’ll be working with the system of human psychology.  

Like Beth, whatever systems you’re working within, know them in minute detail, like a pro chess player. Do that, and you’re hugely improving your chances of success.

Since we have been talking a lot about chess and The Queen’s Gambit, don’t forget to check out our article on the Most Expensive Chess Set in the World.


It Teaches You to Never Get Too Comfortable

In chess, it’s all too common for a player to have the advantage, then get all comfortable, and lose that advantage, and then the game. It’s how chess imitates life when it comes to doors shrinking till they’re no more. So remember, the game’s in constant motion, with the configuration of pieces shifting all the time. Experienced players know this, and know that if they’re not on the lookout, they can easily get behind.

In life too, everything’s in perpetual motion — the economic environment, trends, our financial situation, our relationships, the planet. Things can be going great for us, but as soon as we get complacent, soon we might not be on top anymore. Like a good chess player, be aware of what’s going on, be vigilant, and keep your advantage.  


What do you think, have you noticed how chess imitates life?