Life lessons from the world of chess

A Munich academy has been using the game for 15 years in management training and educational programs for children

The usefulness of chess in decision-making.
The usefulness of chess in decision-making.Nuthawut Somsuk (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Leontxo García

People who have to make difficult decisions every day often do so under enormous pressure and time constraints, like expert chess players who use a reasoning process that can be applied in everyday life. The Munich Chess Academy in Germany has developed a methodology for using chess strategies in business called Der Königsplan (The King’s Plan). After successfully using Der Königsplan to train top business executives, the Munich Chess Academy recently developed a version for children and has used chess in childhood education programs for 15 years.

Stefan Kindermann, a co-founder of the Munich Chess Academy and a chess grandmaster, summarized various ways of making decisions. “When faced with a highly stressful situation and very little time, many executives immediately pick up the phone to relieve the pressure. A chess player is conscious of the time limit rule for making a move but realizes that making decisions without forethought can be fatal. Even if a player only has one minute left, he will spend the first 10 seconds looking at the overall board and identifying the factors to consider in the decision.”

Der Königsplan training, offered in German and English, emphasizes the importance of intuition. In chess, this could be defined as the memory of the unconscious. A player is often unaware of making decisions based on a game studied many years before. The player does not consciously remember seeing or studying the game but learned something from that past experience that remained buried somewhere in the brain. “This is very important,” said Kindermann. “When we make decisions by intuition or a gut feeling, we use everything we have learned. The more experience and knowledge a person has in any field, the more reliable his or her intuition will be.”

To understand the importance of intuition in playing chess well, consider that the first pair of moves (one white and one black) can result in 400 different positions and that the number of game variations is one followed by 123 zeros, greater than the number of atoms in the known universe. “In a way,” said Kindermann, “the latest chess computer programs, which are based on neural networks, also employ something akin to human intuition because no computer is powerful enough yet to play perfect chess.”

Kindermann cited an example from Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, regarded as Germany’s foremost expert on the decision-making process. “A man in love with two women simultaneously did not know to whom he should propose marriage. He was advised to write down the virtues of both women and decide which aspects of the women he thought might bother him after 10 years of marriage. The man concluded that woman A scored much higher than woman B. But he decided to marry B and was very happy with her for a long time.” Kindermann concluded, “Emotions and intuition, balanced with reasoning, help us make the best decisions.”

Stefan Kindermann speaks at a 'Der Königsplan' workshop.
Stefan Kindermann speaks at a 'Der Königsplan' workshop.Academia de Ajedrez de Múnich

One of the principles of Der Königsplan is to learn from defeat. In chess, defeat can cause “days of pain” because you cannot blame the arbiter or the weather. “A good chess player is self-critical and analyzes defeats and victories because both can be improved,” said Kindermann. “Entrepreneurs frequently fail in their second projects by applying the same method that led to success in the first. They did not analyze the success self-critically.” Kindermann developed Der Königsplan with Robert von Weizsäcker, an economics professor at the Technical University of Munich, with essential contributions from Dijana Dengler, an expert in educational chess. The recently developed version for children is based on 15 years of experience applying chess as an educational tool with more than 10,000 children in 25 schools in Munich and disadvantaged children in diverse environments. The project was sponsored by a foundation chaired by Roman Krulich, a chess player and real estate entrepreneur.

Preparing for the black swan – the unexpected event – is another essential aspect of making good decisions. Kindermann says such planning requires exceptional creativity and unconventional thinking. “You could develop a very well-structured plan, but suddenly your opponent does something that breaks everything. It doesn’t make sense to keep doing what you were doing – you have to adapt quickly to the new situation.” Kindermann explained using a tennis example. “Roland Garros Stadium [the French Open], 1989. Facing Ivan Lendl, Michael Chang was tired and overmatched. Suddenly, he began to serve underhand. This desperate move unnerved Lendl, who ended up losing.”

Kindermann’s final nugget of wisdom for chess and for life is to combine forward-looking and retrospective thinking. “It’s typical for a chess player to imagine all the possible moves from the current board positions. But sometimes, thinking about the ultimate goal can be beneficial and effective. Let your imagination run free and see what you must do to reach that goal.” Some of the most brilliant games in chess history have been won that way.

Napoleon’s 'zugzwang'


Zugzwang is a German word that describes a confounding situation in chess (and in life) in which a player must make a move, but every option will lead to defeat. Der Königsplan training incorporates this concept using the example of Napoleon Bonaparte’s catastrophe in 1812 when he invaded Russia with a fully equipped army of 600,000. The day before the Battle of Borodino (western Russia), the French emperor, who was fond of chess, reportedly said, “The chessboard is set. Tomorrow, the game will begin.” Napoleon won the battle but suffered enormous casualties. 
Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov proved a much more adept chess player and ordered a retreat, allowing the French to advance toward Moscow. But Kutuzov knew the severe Russian winter was an ally. Napoleon suddenly found himself in a situation with no good moves. Advancing and remaining stationary would both be suicide – his army would freeze to death – and retreat meant failure. In the end, Napoleon returned to Paris with only 10,000 soldiers after one of the most resounding failures in military history. 
Kindermann’s lesson from Napoleon’s zugzwang? “Like Kutuzov, plan deliberately and consider all the factors that can affect your opponent.” 

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