It’s not chess

With the popularity of The Queen’s Gambit, chess has had a revival. I’ve even been watching the Garry Kasparov MasterClass on chess, despite the fact that I barely know the names of each different chess piece.

Chess is a fascinating and intricate game. We celebrate the acumen of people who are good at chess in part because it signals a kind of peerless insight, an ability to think several moves ahead. So it’s tempting to think that being good at chess means that someone would make good strategic choices in other realms of life. But that’s not always the case because chess is a game of complete information.

To illustrate this I’m going to share a story from one of my friends (who will receive this email! sorry for stealing it…). The story is a favorite of mine and it makes the point perfectly:

My friend, who was fairly young at the time, was riding an empty subway late at night and carrying home an expensive gift he had just purchased when four other young, tough looking guys got on the same train car. My friend noticed that two of these guys were exchanging looks and glancing over at him, like they might be planning to steal the gift he was holding.

Four to one is not very good odds in a fight, and it’s difficult to get off a Subway between stops. So my friend decided to lean in and stare at the guy who looked in charge. He locked eyes with this stranger, and gave his best “Oh yeah? I love this. Come get me!”, crazy look.

After a minute, the lead tough guy looked away. Then he looked back at the others in his group, and shook his head “no.” All four of them got off at the next stop.

My friend usually ends this story with: “Life isn’t chess. It’s poker.”

Poker pro Annie Duke popularizes this phrase in her book “Thinking in Bets,” and it’s a great way to remind yourself that life does not generally present you with chess problems: there will be no objective “best move,” because you can always bluff, and the outcomes are based not only on other people’s moves but on their own bluffs, should they choose to make them.

So the next time you’re negotiating something, or making a decision about how you compete in a market, or even just trying to get your family to agree to the vacation you’d like to take, remember: it’s not chess.