How Chess Taught Me Everything I Know About Growth in Entrepreneurship
Lessons from my 18-year chess career
A new World Chess Champion was crowned last week. Ding Liren, a 30-year old Grandmaster from China, now succeeds Magnus Carlsen who held the title for the last 10 years.
When Magnus withdrew from this year’s championship, Ding was the next in line to qualify for the match. He beat the Russian challenger, Ian Nepomniatchi, in a tense 18 game series with a final score of 9.5 - 8.5.
Ding was the first to lose a game and trailed Ian for most of the match. The only time he led the match was when he won the last game to clinch the title.
I’m happy that Ding won. I’ve followed him for many years and live my chess career vicariously through him. Since we’re both Chinese and our birthdays are 1 day apart, he’s living proof of what I could be if I had more discipline and talent.
I want to use the recent World Chess Championship as an opportunity to discuss what I’ve learned from chess. I’ve played chess for over 18 years now, spent tens of thousands of hours staring at the chessboard, and competed in over 100 tournaments.
I have played more chess in my life than anything else I’ve done.
Even though I’ve stopped playing competitively now, the impact that chess has had on me lingers. Nothing has had a greater influence on my thinking than chess.
But it all started by accident when my parents banned me from playing video games.
How I Got Started Playing Chess
In 6th grade, I was addicted to this game called Runescape. It’s an open world browser-based video game where you complete quests, level up your character, and fight monsters.
My parents never liked it when I played video games. Runescape was no exception. When my parents saw me spending too much time mining for coal to level up my character, they banned me from playing.
However on the homepage of Runescape was a link to a portal where you could play other games. One of them was chess.
When my parents banned me from Runescape, I started going to the Runescape homepage to play chess instead. And that’s when my love for the game began.
The game came to me naturally from the beginning, and I improved rapidly. Nine years after I played my first tournament, I achieved a National Master title in Chess and attained a peak US Chess Federation rating of 2212. This represents the top 1% of all competitive chess players.
My blitz rating on chess.com now sits at 2403, which is in the 99.9th percentile of all players on the website.
So when Ding won the championship recently, it reminded me of how much chess has influenced my life and even affected the way I approach business as well.
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What Chess Taught Me About Business Growth
Chess has prepared me for entrepreneurship more than my engineering career because it gave me early insight into how growth happens.
When I started playing chess, I thought that learning one new opening or one new endgame was all I needed to jump my rating another 100 points.
However, the difference between a 2200 rated master and a 2000 rated expert isn’t any one trick that the 2200 player knows over the 2000 player.
The 2200 player is slightly better than the 2000 player in almost all areas of the game. And it’s this accumulation of small advantages that leads to the 200 rating point difference.
For example, the master might only be slightly better at openings, or middlegames, or endgames, or calculation, or positional play.
And the master’s slightly better understanding of a single area is not noticeable when compared with an expert’s understanding of that same area. So it’s possible for the expert to hold their own against the master in a single part of the game, like in just the opening or middlegame for example.
However, as the game progresses, more areas of both players' understanding get tested as the game transitions to different phases.
They might not outplay the expert in the opening, or the middlegame for example, but it’s their slightly better endgame understanding that leads to victory.
How Small Improvements Make a Big Difference in Consulting
Business growth also happens through the accumulation of small improvements. Just as there is no one quick trick to chess improvement, there is no one quick trick to business growth either.
Recently, for example, I reached a peak of eight consulting lead calls in a single week. The clients who reach out to me are higher quality with bigger budgets and more urgent needs. This was the result of many small improvements over the last few months that are collectively paying-off.
I remember taking my first call using my Gmail account, and a client made some snarky remark about whether “the numbers after my email were my birthday.” So I started taking calls under the All-In Consulting domain instead.
Then I took another call and realized I didn’t understand the domain the client was talking about. So I started preparing more for each call to better answer their questions and convey more authority.
Then I took another client meeting and got outnumbered by 6 to 1. I realized then that I can’t go to meetings by myself if the client is bringing many people because that leads to a power imbalance. That’s when I started bringing partners with me to calls and also having them sign-in under the All-In Consulting domain.
All of these improvements are small individually, but summed up, they make a big difference in client perception. Just last week, I took 3 client calls and managed to close all 3. This would’ve been unimaginable just a few months ago when I had 0 calls and trouble closing any clients.
Like a chess rating, I improved my opening, my middlegame, and my endgame in handling client calls, and collectively, that has helped me break through my business plateau.
The main lesson from my chess career for you to takeaway is to pay attention to the details. Just as reaching a new peak chess rating means improving all facets of your game slightly, breaking out of a career plateau means making slight improvements in all areas of your work as well.
It could start with small things, like doing that extra pass through emails to make sure you don’t misspell anyone’s name, to making sure the background of your video calls looks clean, to coming to meetings prepared with questions and analysis.
Each of these things alone won’t be the difference maker in helping you advance, but collectively is the equivalent of a 200 rating point “career” jump. Every little detail matters.
The final lesson for you is that growth is an exercise in patience. It took me almost 10 years of play to get to master level. So even a year or two of your life dedicated to something is quite short in the greater scheme of things.
We often overestimate what we can do in a day, but we underestimate what we can do in a year. So even if results don’t come immediately from these changes, have faith because good things take time - in business and in chess.
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