In Chess, Carlsen keeps mum. In Cricket, Cook tells all?

November 14, 2013

In the build-up to the chess world championships Magnus Carlsen refuses to reveal who his support staff are. In Cricket, Australian captain Clarke says England’s captain kindly revealed his Cricket team to him. What’s all that about?

Two little stories about leadership, one from Chess, one from Cricket.

In India there are two sports stories this week about all-time greats. Sachin Tendulkar is playing his last international cricket match; and Viswanathan [‘Vishy’] Anand is defending his chess crown against the new chess prodigy and Norwegian ‘pawn star’ Magnus Carlsen.

Chess trends on Twitter

Yesterday, the official website of FIDE, the international chess organization, announced that chess had become the number one news item of all stories trending on Twitter. The rise of Indian chess owes much to Anand, who has help five world championships (if you include rapid play ones). Carlsen is being hailed as a mega-star who is bringing attention to chess globally .

Magnus keeps mum

At a pre-match press conference, the players were asked out their support teams. Vishy spoke glowingly of his back-up team who help in preparing openings and in studying the play of his opponent. The twenty two year old Magnus thanked him for the information but politely declined the invitation to respond.

Cook tells all

Half way around the world, Australia is hosting their fiercest cricket rivals England. In a remarkable press conference Australia captain Michael Clarke says England’s captain Alistair Cook has revealed the England team to him a week in advance of the test.

What’s all that about?

Vishy says that the players ‘exchanged information’ only after playing the first game. The rest could be no more than mis-information. The same might be true of whatever Cook did or did not say to Clarke.

Was Cook [or Clarke] being a silly billy?

We seem to be entering the region of mind games. Chess is the more obvious mind game, but more many athletes and sporting coaches have gone in for psychological warfare. I have trouble believing the headline that Cook told Clarke the names of the team for the forthcoming test.

Maybe Clarke is trying to make Cook look like a silly billy.


Chess provides excellent leadership lessons in the 2013 Candidates Tournament

April 6, 2013

The qualifying battles to become world chess champion in London this year showed why chess is considered an excellent metaphor for the processes of strategic decision-making

Magnus CarlsenI have often blogged about the merits of chess as a metaphor for strategic thinking. The last three weeks [March 14th – April 1st 2013] reinforced my beliefs.

The Candidates Tourney

London hosted the qualifying competition, with the winner going to a one-on-one shootout with current world champion Vishy Anand of India. In the UK, news coverage prior to the tournament was extremely limited. In contrast, chess enthusiasts had excellent live streaming of all games on specialized sites.

Watching live

For those with time to spend, you could watch the battles live in the afternoons (starting time 2pm local time). The format was our matches each day played simultaneously, with all eight contenders in action. This made it easy for the expert commentators (mostly grand-masters) to chat happily about moves played and about to be played, working their way from match to match. The technology did not quite work, but the commentators coped with the gliches well, particularly in the last hour of the last day, when the result still depended on the remaining two games. It seems an estimated million chess players world- wide had seized up the servers.

The Chess Federation [FIDE} website captured the tension of the last round of matches:

Magnus Carlsen [image above from wikipedia: Ed] won the FIDE Candidates’ Tournament in London on Monday after a bizarre finish of what has become a historic event for chess. Both the Norwegian and the other leader, Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, unexpectedly lost their game in the final round, and so they remained tied for first place and Carlsen won on the second tie-break rule: higher number of wins. This means that in the next title match, World Champion Viswanathan Anand will face Carlsen.

Marketability

The few popular news stories concentrated on Carlsen’s extreme youth, and marketability for himself and the game of Chess. “No problem with finding a sponsor for the World Championship” one commentator chortled.

Bizarre end

When the technology was restored, the rest of the chess world learned that Carlson had lost a game in which he had played weakly his standards as the highest rated player in the World. He could still be overtaken by former World Champion Kramnik who also seemed to be losing. After a nervous wait, Kramnik resigned, and Carlsen was declared winner.

Chess lesson

I am still reflecting on the lessons for strategic leaders offered by the players and their commentators. Carlsen, utterly fatigued at the press conference immediately after he had learned of Kramnik’s loss added one new lesson [for me, anyway]. “We were all tiring in the last rounds. My sense of danger weakened.” Worth remembering by business leaders needing to deal with their dilemmas…


Don’t Miss “The Queen of Katwe”

February 13, 2013

The Queen of Katwe jacket image

Book alert: The Queen of Katwe is a must-read for chess players and all who wonder at human triumph against adversity

Top of my reading list this week is a story of a little girl who wants to become a chess champion. As sports writer and author Tim Crother puts it bluntly and contentiously in his book:

“Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog… to be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. To be a girl is to be an underdog in Katwe.”

More to follow

Review comments welcomed from any LWD subscriber


Andy Murray: Advice from a chess trainer

March 4, 2012

After his change of coach and some evidence of strengthening his mental game, Andy Murray may be may be interested in advice from Stewart Reuben, a chess trainer who used to play odds games with Bobby Fischer

This week [March 2012], Andy Murray avoided a slump in form after a good performance in the opening grand slam of the season. His play in the tournament has been consistently strong. Even his serve percentage held up well until the final. LWD has commented for some while on his potential, and on recurring patterns in his play. Our observations are not backed up with any direct experience of competitive play. For this I draw on a shared platform of understanding of more experienced commentators which seemed pretty well summed up in the Guardian’s analysis of his Dubai performances:

Murray ought to be able to lose a final without forensic examination of his disappointments in big matches …[although] he is getting closer with a sound, improving game and an on-court demeanour that is noticeably calmer since he took on Ivan Lendl as his coach in January. He beat [world No 1] Djokovic on Friday with as good a service game as he has produced in a long time but it let him down against Federer, even though the winner’s 50% first-serve rate was only two points better. It is tough for Murray to overcome the ingrained instinct that he has a better chance of winning from the back of the court, even on his own serve. These fine calculations are often split-second ones and it is more comfortable for him to rely on trusted strategies.

Leaning from a Chess master

Stuart Reuben is a distinguished English chess administrator and teacher. One of his valued pieces of advice to young chess players is that weaker players tend to choose the cautious move against stronger players. This is a strategy which favours the stronger player. I can confirm from personal experience of playing as one of a hoard of amateurs against a visiting grandmaster taking us all on simultaneously. Too often, the chess bunnies play passively as their games drift away.

Reuben (a world-class poker player, by the way) encourages us bunnies to seek dynamic positions, avoiding trying to keep it simple as a primary factor in selecting each move. Not quite simple. The weaker player has also to avoid recklessness. In my case, this often shows itself as a futile attempt to break out of the passivity trap by being foolishly aggressive, a dilemma facing the chess player.

Over to you Andy

So there you go, Andy. If snooker players like Steve Davis and boxers like Lennox Lewis have found the value of chess as a metaphor for strategy in another sport, why not add it to your training regime. You may find ways of adding these vital percentage points to your play at crucial moments of important matches.

Acknowledgement

Image of Stewart Reuben from the Atticus website


Rugby is more like chess than you might think

January 22, 2012

Chess and Rugby games both start with two sets of eight ‘forwards’. In chess the forwards are called pawns and most of them get taken out of the battle as each game is played

The beautiful parallel came to my attention through the remarks of a commentator on one of the Heineken cup games yesterday [Jan 21st 2012]. Rugby is like a game of chess, he said. I began to look more carefully at the structure of the game I had been watching.

The dynamic structure

You may find what follows easier to understand if you already have some knowledge of both games, but the main point is easier to grasp. I am looking at the dynamic structure of two systems, chess and rugby. Some of the surface characteristics are similar. There is a deeper structure that has even more system similarities.

The forwards are like two sets of eight pawns …

The point was deeper than I first thought. First, consider the configuration of the forces involved. Each game begins with two sets of eight forwards. In chess, the pawns (forwards) advance towards each other, clash, and many are often are taken out of the game. Most rugby games start and end with two sets of eight forwards (pawns). The scrums and line-outs are mini-battles as the two sets struggle for advantage. Chess players are taught that the pawns are the soul of chess. Most forwards say the same.

The lineouts

I played rugby as far away from the forward skirmishes as possible. Their black arts are lost on me. Yesterday the wonderful replay-graphics revealed the deep structure of the lineout battle. It was far from the unitary structure I had imagined. I had ‘read’ lineouts as taking place with the two sets of very tall players rigidly assembled and arranged one against like two sets of chess pawns (only in two files, rather than in two ranks). Lineouts (and scrums) are after all called set-pieces.

The basic idea is that the ball is thrown into the lines of players. Elite jumpers compete to catch the ball, aided by support players who lift the jumper. Yes it is a bit like ballet although few rugby players will see it like that.

The three clusters

The lines of forwards moved more dynamically that I had imagined. Instead of obedient sets of eight, the system morphed itself into three clusters. Each cluster was a sub-system with players from each team. The three clusters are still arranged in a sequence at the front, middle and back of the line-out.

The chess nature of the contest was picked out in the video. Each cluster or sub-system has one of those elite jumpers plus an undefined number of support players. There is wonderful scope for feints and ploys to confuse the opposition. Some are obvious. A jumper will run back or forward, perhaps from one cluster to another, triggering responses in the opposing line.

A game of threes

Rugby players might want to think of the similarity in the structure of forwards in the scrums: the front row, then in the middle, and the back row. Then there are clusters of players across the entire team: the forwards, the half backs and the backs. Rugby is a game of threes.

In principle, in the line-out…

In principle, the team with the advantage of the throw-in should win the line-out ball. Increasingly complex moves of the kind makes the lineouts more interesting and competitive. The game also has rules and structures which permit intense and balanced competition. Systems theorists call that ‘requisite variety’.

Then there are the scrums

I have even less understanding of the dark arts of the scrums. But I now see again the rule of three, and the chess-like nature of the grunting and groaning. Who said that the backs play the music and the forwards are bred for carrying the piano?


Bobby Fischer takes on the world. This is personal

July 31, 2011

A new film explores the psyche of Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time. This not a film review, but explores his chess genius to see what it tells us about the processes of creativity and leadership

The movie [released in July 2011] was Bobby Fischer takes on the World. The title makes play with an English expression which implies that here we have someone who was at odds with the whole of humanity.

Genius is a loosely used term

In Bobby Fischer´s case it refers to the exceptional talent he revealed at very early age. The attention he received even as a child bears comparisons with the fame heaped on youthful prodigies such as Mozart in music, and Gauss in mathematics.

Nature versus nurture again

There is still a lively debate around whether extreme talent is mostly innate, or whether it can be induced in a wide range of people by intensive effort under the influence of a mentor or parental figure. The recent advocates of this view include the father of the chess-playing Polgar twins each of whom attained status of grandmaster. Richard Williams has been quoted as selecting a tennis career and developing the great talents of his tennis playing daughters Serena and Venus.

The Cuban prodigy

Long before the arrival of Bobby Fischer, Chess had its earliest child prodigy in the Cuban Jose Capablanca who was to become World champion highly regarded for the clarity of his thinking in his play. Legend holds that Capa learned chess at the age of three, through watching his father play friendly games at home.

Heir to Capablanca?

In one respect Fischer could be seen as heir to the great Capablanca. At its best, his play is also marked by moves of an unexpected and beautiful nature. They could be said to be acts of creativity. The logic is obvious, but to others only after the event, when the moves of a game are re-analyzed by grandmasters and published in the leading chess magazines.

Bobby´s coming of age

His early promise was fulfilled in astonishing fashion as he moved from schoolboy talent to win the US chess championships at the age of twenty. It was the manner of his winning which produced headlines far beyond chess. He won with eleven straight wins. The 11:0 score line has never been equaled, before or since. The statistics are enriched by the style with which he demolished his opponents, including the strongest American chess players of the day.

Game of the century

One of his victims was the strong master Robert Byrne. Their match has been called the game of the century for the brilliance of Fischer’s play. His creativity is shown in moves which later were to appear as puzzles to be solved as training exercises for young chess-players. The first unexpected move must have come as a great shock to his opponent. Two or three other similarly brilliant moves took the result completely away from Byrne.

A pattern of excellence

For me, the pattern of excellence is of someone able to see beyond the conventions of the day. Chess players operate with sets of principles which guide them to find strong moves, and protect them from making weak ones. Most players operate by finding moves which conform the those principles such as ‘concentrate your forces towards the centre of the board'; ‘coordinate your pieces so that they support each other’. Fischer’s brilliance was in knowing when the principles did not quite apply because of specific circumstances in the game.

Byrne, playing white and had the first-mover’s advantage. He must have thought at first that his young opponent had blundered. Too late, he would then have seen that the shift to what looked like a weaker position had mysteriously revealed structural flaws in the disposition of his own pieces.

As the game drifted out of Byrnes’ control, Fischer uncorked another brilliant move. Not as radically original as the first, but still startling to all but the strongest players studying the game afterwards. The contest was as good as finished.

Creativity and leadership

The pattern of creative brilliance was to be repeated regularly throughout his brief but spectacular career. He went on to defeat Boris Spassky for the world championship. By then, he was showing signs of the mental illness which dogged Fischer for the rest of his life.

For me his creativity has something in common with that which marks the actions of great leaders who transform the way others act and think.

Acknowledgement

To Boylston Chess Club’s blog which has a wonderful set of images of chess players, including the one above, my all-time favourite for its echoes of Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi.


The release of Aung San Suu Kyi is Burma’s Mandela Moment

November 15, 2010


The release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma inevitably brings to mind the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa. Should we see this as Burma’s ‘Mandela Moment’ and a step on its long road to political freedom?

The overwhelming similarity found in examining the cases of Aung San and Nelson Mandela is the sense of how non-violent opposition may successfully threaten a powerful and oppressive regime. But as Mandela presciently noted, the road to freedom is a long and hard one.

Idealised influence

Students of leadership will recognise the power of charisma at work. Both leaders project an overpowering sense of destiny and service to a higher ideal than that their own aspirations. They become icons and their influence is said to be idealized. For followers, they can do no wrong, a powerful responsibility to place on any human’s shoulders.

Political realities and chess playing

I have noted how political strategy has some things in common with a complex game of chess. The release of Aung San may be seen as a chess move by the military rulers in Burma. If we continue the chess-playing metaphor it follows their move a few weeks ago to hold elections. That move was widely dismissed as dubious gambit, offering a spurious promise of freedom. Tthe Generals will have assessed the situation subsequently. The gambit presumably was considered not to be working calling for another move.

The Telegraph analysed the situation:

The military regime which released Ms Suu Kyi is nonetheless confident it has control of the levers of power after the recent elections. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won and was founded by Thein Sein, who resigned as a general to become prime minister. The only credible opposition, Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was split by the poll. Elements of the party disagreed with her call to boycott the election and split off to form the National Democratic Force (NDF). But NDF leaders have said they would join forces with the NLD if Ms Suu Kyi was released. Her stated willingness to work with all democrats seems likely to heal any rift.

One of the greatest obstacles to Ms Suu Kyi – an ethnic Burman – building an effective opposition, inside or outside the system, could be the ethnic minorities that make up 40 per cent of Burma’s population. There is a widespread assumption across Burma that the military will take the opportunity, now that the elections are out of the way, to crackdown on the troublesome ethnic minorities. That might leave Ms Suu Kyi in an uncomfortable position as she tries to build bridges with the military regime yet not anger groups already antagonistic towards her.

Power Plays

Too direct a confrontation may produce yet another return to house arrest and her removal from direct political influence. Yet the power is not completely with the ruling Generals. To continue the chess metaphor, the release move was made not because the Generals wanted to do it at this moment in time. Rather it was a forced move, made because it had become the least-worse next step. It may well also be the first move towards an endgame promising a more democratic system in the country.


BA backs the Bus and the Dreamliner

September 29, 2007

willie-walsh.jpg

British Airways splits its future plane purchases between Boeing and Airbus. Although earlier statements suggested that the company was not interested in a Superjumbo sized carrier such as the new generation A380, Willie Walsh and his team show a chess-like grasp of strategy

Speculation in Seattle was pretty much right. A week before any official announcement, Industry insider James Wallace noted

The campaign is a key showdown between the A380 and 747-8 Intercontinental and the 787 and A350 . So far, only Lufthansa has ordered the passenger version of the 747-8. But Airbus also needs another major international customer to back the A380. It has repeat orders from Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, but Airbus has long sought to bring BA into the A380 fold.

Jefferies & Co. analyst Howard Rubel told the AP he believes investors are expecting British Airways to split its order between the two aerospace rivals.
“I think B.A. wants to bring a little competition into the mix,” he said.
BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh has visited Boeing and Airbus for briefings on their planes.
The airline recently ordered more 777s.
Even though British Airways early on said the A380 was too big for its needs, Walsh has said the airline is now interested in the big Airbus jet, which will enter airline service next month with Singapore Airlines after a two-year delay.

Wallace’s blog also attracted a remarkable set of speculations about the prospective decision. Most seemed to be based on ‘sources close to Boeing or BA’. The following was typical

Posted by unregistered user at 9/20/07 9:21 a.m.
I’ve heard 10 A380’s + options on 10 more , 20 787’s + 10 options and 10 A350’s + 10 options

When the news of the decision was formally announced it was widely replicated from news agency sources. I took this from The BBC, but found it on all the main news feeds.

BA will buy 12 Airbus A380 superjumbos and 24 Boeing 787s, to be delivered between 2010 and 2014, for a reported $8.2bn (£4.1bn). The group also has options to buy seven more A380s as well as a further 18 Dreamliners from Boeing.
Further negotiations will occur so that BA can replace its remaining 747-400s. This appears to be between the 787-10 and the 777-300 ER from Boeing, and the Airbus A350

The Boeing reaction was between gritted teeth:

The Boeing Company [NYSE: BA] is honored that British Airways has selected the 787 Dreamliner as a key element of its long-haul fleet renewal

What’s going on?

Leadership geeks may be tempted to see unfolding a story of strategic leadership. If so, it is a story which has to place leadership with a wide cast of strategic players. We may start by thinking of Willie Walsh as the dominant decision-maker in the story, with some billion pounds/dollars to invest in the future of his company.

The evidence of Mr Walsh’s leadership style suggests that he will have been very active in the processes building up to the decision, internal to British Airways. At present we can only speculate. However, the decision has enormous significance. It will impact on the travelling lives of millions of people some more directly than others. Arguably it will impact on the future of employees of Boeing, EADS, and a myriad of suppliers and sub-contractors including Rolls Royce who will supply the engines. At another level, the debate on political influence and subsidies to Airbus and Boeing continues to bubble away.

However charismatic and autocratic his leadership style, Walsh will have been flying in tricky conditions and with a chief pilot’s usual near-overload of advice and chatter. Advisors, and advisors of advisors will have examined assorted risk assessments from in and outside BA into which data will have been fed from numerous sources. Somewhere in these the influence of various governments and global institutions will have been factored in, as well as the much-publicised production delays at Airbus and more recently at Boeing for the A380 and B787 projects. Willie Walsh keeps sane by following what the great Herbert Simon called satisficing, or simplifying the decision through a set of personal mental filters.

In an avalanche of articles and books since the 1950s, Simon ..focused much of his attention on the issue of decision-making – and [developed his theory of ] “bounded rationality”. Agents, he claims, face uncertainty about the future and costs in acquiring information in the present. Thus .. they have only “bounded rationality” and are forced to make decisions not by “maximization” by “satisficing”, i.e. setting an aspiration level which, if achieved, they will be happy enough with, and if they don’t, try to change either their aspiration level or their decision.

I have taken the view that such processes are those which chess-players also have to make. In this chess-game, BA wants to avoid fixing the position, when there is much to be said for keeping options open. So the overall decision on replacing the fleet of aging 747 400s may or may not have been made. It makes sense to keep options open, even to the extent of splitting up the decision between the two giant contenders for the business. That is partly why decisions also involve options as well as firm commitments.

Those with a liking for logistics theory can debate the merits of smaller planes and P2P (point to point) strategy, and larger ones with a Hub-based strategy. Whatever.

A judicious mix of planes of differing size keeps both strategic options open. A judicious mix of ‘top-down’ leadership actions, and ‘data driven’ analysis may also be appropriate.


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