CEO of Pinta, a multicultural marketing firm with clients such as Coca-Cola, Comcast, Heineken, Microsoft, NFL, T-Mobile, Western Union.
In an era of video games, streaming services and social media, one of the world’s oldest games is having a moment. Chess has enjoyed an enduring role in global culture since its creation centuries ago and is experiencing a recent surge in popularity.
The limited series The Queen’s Gambit was one of the most-watched scripted programs in Netflix history, and eBay reported that sales of chess sets increased by 60% during the pandemic. Digitally, according to the New York Times, an estimated 16 million to 17 million chess games were played per day.
The game has always been popular with battlefield generals and business titans alike, who seek advantage against their competition. As a moderately skilled player (I admire the game more than it admires me), I’ve been fascinated by the metaphorical links to the business world and the lessons we can extract to improve marketing strategies in the modern era. Here are seven:
1. The opening gambit sets the tone. In chess, the player using white pieces always starts, but the first move from each sets the tone for what’s to come. There are nearly infinite scenarios once the game begins, but the first move is one’s best chance to change the game’s course. In business, it’s critical to make a solid first impression, and in any negotiation, new business pitch, ad campaign or interaction with media, making a well-informed first move can be the difference between an opponent on their heels or an aggressor ready to trample you.
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2. Sometimes defense is the best offense. Inexperienced chess players tend to be more aggressive than true masters. In corporate warfare, patience and strategic thinking will often trump bluster and aggression. It’s important to be confident but not impulsive, and waiting for your competition to make a mistake is advisable. In advertising, sometimes “first-mover status” can lead to “first to fail.”
3. Always think a few moves ahead. Chess requires seeing more than just the next play. The best players are masters at seeing most of the game play out before it does and predicting causality. In business, it’s not only crucial to make a good forecast of your campaign’s impact, but also to have a contingency plan for different scenarios so you aren’t caught flat-footed when surprises arise.
4. Use all your pieces. Even the pawn has its place, and good players need to unleash the strength of each piece’s hidden talents. The best brands and agencies are comprised of diverse people from all walks of life. Distinct skills, passion points and frames of reference strengthen a team’s ideas, organizational culture and results.
5. Manage resources. Chess is a game of diminishing resources as players take each other’s pieces, and managing this process is critical. In business, having success with unlimited resources is easy. In reality, that’s rarely the case and one needs to be resourceful, nimble and inventive to survive. Achieving ambitious goals with limited funds, understaffed or overworked team members and headwinds from unexpected market forces is where truly impressive entrepreneurs and executives shine.
6. Know your opponent(s). Chess is not solitaire, and every game is against a human being with pressure points. Similarly, most things in business involve a human factor. One’s product or service is rarely viewed in a vacuum, but rather as compared to the competition. What will our competitor say to my client when I’m not in the room? What can I say about them when pitching the business? What is the white space in the market for us to place our product? To win, it’s important to understand your competition’s strengths and weaknesses and position yourself to address those in a favorable light for you.
7. See the whole board. In chess, as in business, only the very few can rise above the weeds and see the horizon. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day minutia but it’s critical to see the bigger picture. What longer-term market forces or industry trends are percolating that you need to be aware of? Rather than take orders from clients or customers, let’s ask ourselves what they may actually need or want (even if they don’t realize it yet).
In a 1786 Colombian Magazine article, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with…” It’s clear this ancient pastime has mystical powers to inspire, challenge, baffle and endure in our public consciousness. Hopefully, those same powers can be leveraged to our advantage on the proverbial chessboard of life.
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Author: Mike Valdes-Fauli, Forbes Councils Member