Business lessons from chess grand masters

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People who hold to a single idea, or a fixed design, generally lose in chess, as they lose in battle, in business and in economics.

Bobby Fischer, who died two weeks ago, may have been the greatest chess player in history. The 1972 match in which he won the world championship from the Russian Boris Spassky is certainly the best known chess match in history.

That game has often been treated as a metaphor for the cold war; not just a contest between an American and a Russian, but a contest between freedom and totalitarianism, between individualism and order. This metaphor has recently been developed, to the point of caricature, by the neo-conservative Daniel Johnson.

There is something in it. The match was in Iceland, which is so literally on the faultline between eastern and western hemispheres that the tensions will one day pull the island apart. While Spassky was a – rather ill-fitting – cog in the Soviet chess machine, Fischer was incapable of normal co-operative human relations with anyone. Spassky was accompanied to Reykjavik by other Soviet grand masters and KGB agents, while Fischer was flanked by his attorneys.

Yet the metaphor has a central flaw. America won the cold war, but Russia won the chess war. Fischer never defended his title and was succeeded by Anatoly Karpov. The years from 1972 to 1975 were the only period from Mikhail Botvinnik’s victory in 1948 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in which the world champion was not a Soviet citizen.

There are lessons about economics from this story, but they are more subtle than those who divide the world into heroes of freedom and villains of totalitarianism perceive.

Planned regimes have often succeeded when they have ploughed resources into the achievement of narrowly defined objectives. We smile when we read of the All Union Chess Section, under the Supreme Council for Physical Education. Its director, filled with bile and Marxist rhetoric, proposed shock brigades to spearhead five-year plans for chess. But it worked. Most of the world’s best chess players became so as a result of the endeavours of the Supreme Council. If chess was the battleground between free enterprise and state planning, state planning won.

But the real battlefield was not chess but consumer goods and military hardware. Although the Soviet Union produced great chess players by directing resources to the game, the cars and computers it produced were inferior and few. Planned economies were unable to cope with the diversity of consumer needs and the constantly changing requirements of modern technology. Chess lies on the boundary between the tasks best accomplished by careful co-ordination and design – the strengths of planning – and those best accomplished by experiment and adaptation – the strengths of markets.

When modern computers were first developed, it was assumed they would dominate chess. But not until 1997 was a computer good enough to score a victory against world champion Garry Kasparov. IBM was relieved that a publicity stunt, which had proved more costly than anyone had imagined, had achieved its goal, and retired from the game.

Yet the rules of chess are well-defined and uncomplicated, there is a single opponent and rarely more than a handful of legal moves. Compared with fighting the war in Iraq, mapping the future of the telecommunications industry, or planning the economic development of China, chess is simple and predictable. But chess is still too subtle to be defined by a single narrative and too complex for models to be more than illustrative. People who hold to a single idea, or a fixed design, generally lose in chess, as they lose in battle, in business and in economics. Great chess players apply a variety of principles, they sense patterns, they hold a formidable range of models and analyses in their mind without being a slave to any of them.

As in chess, so it is in business and finance. We cope with an uncertain world through incremental and mostly unsuccessful innovation, not through extensive visions of the future. That is both why computer chess is not very interesting and why market systems outperformed planned economies. And why people who seek to remodel politics or business with grand designs are as mad as Bobby Fischer and far more dangerous.

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