Simplify Your Life with These Three Lessons from Chess

Simplify your life with these three lessons from chess
Simplify your life with these three lessons from chess

Last week I caught up over breakfast at Bill’s with good friends who are both investment professionals. Our conversation always ranges wildly across many topics – from families and houses, through battery supply chain materials, to fund management in emerging markets, with a dose of local Oxford politics to keep us all grounded.

This time somebody mentioned chess, and we talked about how great it is to teach chess to children at an early age. It reminded me that there are many lessons to be learned from the game that can transfer to other parts of life.

Just recently I was re-reading Jeremy Silman’s book The Amateur’s Mind. Silman holds International Master status. But for me his most remarkable ability is that he can explain the techniques of the world’s best chess players in terms that are accessible to the rest of us.

Unlocking complexity

As we dealt with our avocados and poached eggs, the conversation turned to Silman’s approach. He argues that even amateur players can “unlock” otherwise complex positions by methodically executing a series of simple steps that anyone can understand. The purpose is to identify imbalances in the position at hand. This usually makes it much easier for a player to establish a strategy and select the next move. The result is often a radical improvement in the quality of their play.

Interestingly this same approach is applicable to business, life planning and many other fields. In many real-life situations, the sheer number of possibilities can be overwhelming. It is useful to have an approach that simplifies the situation, making it easier to decide which course of action to follow. Here are some examples, inspired by Silman’s methodology:


Space is measured, in the early stages of a chess game, by the number of squares behind the advancing line of pawns. On the chess board, gaining space means that you have more options. With more options comes greater mobility. Often more space also means the opponent is more constrained; sometimes they are even forced to play moves that you effectively choose for them.

In the world of business, this concept of space could equate to many different things – multiple ways of packaging a product, people you could hire, different markets you could address.

If there is a complex situation making you scratch your head right now – in business, or in your job or personal life – then try this. Can you identify which behaviours or actions increase the options that are available to you? Similarly, what will constrain you and reduce your options? Ideally you will focus on the first and avoid the second.


Material is probably the single topic that every chess player understands at some level. How many pieces do I have? Does the opponent have more or fewer pieces than me? Should I sacrifice my pawn in exchange for a stronger position? I take him, he takes me…

Silman puts his own twist on the assessment of material. He highlights how timing and context can significantly change the material value of pieces on the board.

An example of timing: each player starts the game with 39 points (not counting the King). Losing a pawn early in the game might not seem too drastic (giving the opponent a 2.6% advantage in material). However, if the opponent can carry that single pawn advantage all the way through to an end-game with 2 pawns against 1, their advantage grows to a game-winning 100%…

An example of context: knights and bishops both carry a material value of 3 points. However, knights are much stronger than bishops in closed positions where pawns and pieces block the diagonals – because they can hop right over the barrier. But open up those diagonals, and the bishops come into their own – they will range far in a single move, and the knights won’t be able to keep up.

Think again about that complex situation of yours. What differences might timing and context make? Are there assets or resources that you or your business have, which might be useless in certain situations, but game-changers if deployed in a different way or at a different time? What has to change in order to maximise their value? How can you remove the obstacles, or sustain your advantage until time brings it to fruition?


Initiative means controlling the sequence of events, dictating the pace – and in an ideal scenario, forcing your opponent’s moves.

Imbalances like space and material are relatively static, and can take many moves to shift or resolve. Initiative falls into a different class of imbalance. It is dynamic, and players must take advantage of it quickly and energetically.

Most importantly, initiative is generally gained by strong, assertive play. A player who meekly follows the opponent’s lead will almost never take the initiative.

In general, top players always look upon the initiative with great favor: it is always advantageous to have the initiative. The question is, will you be able to retain it and what was the price you paid to acquire it?

Jeremy Silman, The Amateur’s Mind

Back to the complex situation in your business or personal life. Do you hold the initiative? If so, how can you capitalise quickly? If not, then what assertive, decisive moves can you make to shift the balance of power – and carve out a dynamic advantage for yourself?


I am the first to recognise that chess analogies only go so far in real life. Chess – albeit a complex game – is simple in that it is a two-player contest with complete information. Few businesses or life situations fit that model perfectly. However, I do think that many of the core principles are transferable; and I use many of them in my day-to-day routines.

Oh – and if you’re ever in Oxford, make sure to visit Bill’s. They do one of the best breakfasts in town!

Photo by Ellen on Unsplash

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