How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov

I’ve been slowly working my way through Garry Kasparov’s excellent How Life Imitates Chess.  I had rather low expectations, since in my experience superstars in a very narrow activity generally do not have the breadth of perspective to adequately situate what they know in broader ways.

But Kasparov’s book is excellent, a pleasant surprise. It is heavily focused on competitive decision-making of course, but he manages to abstract out lessons from chess encounters very well, so you can read the book even if you aren’t a player. It is helpful to know the basic rules of chess and the general nature of chess strategy (for example, it helps to know that openings and endgames are thoroughly studied and well-understood, while mid-games are complex), but you don’t need to know specifically what the Sicilian Defense is.

Here’s an example of the sort of lesson you get. Kasparov recounted a phase in his career when he was so dominant and so experienced that young players tried the strategy of trying very unusual, little-studied variations, in the hope of neutralizing Kasparov’s experience. Turned out to be nearly always a bad move. Kasparov’s conclusion: those unusual variations were unusual and rare for a reason, they mostly suck. When a domain of practice has as long a history as chess does, you can be fairly sure that if some patterns don’t show up much, it’s more likely because people have concluded they don’t work, rather than people having missed innovation opportunities.

There are plenty of other such anecdotal lessons.

If the book has one flaw, it is the lack of conceptual generalization. Kasparov manages half the job very well: getting rid of the chess-specific elements in the wisdom. But he doesn’t really finish the job by offering constructs or concepts that make it easier to apply in other domains. You kind of have to do that yourself, using the raw material of all his individual insights, presented somewhat unsystematically.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but I am taking notes to incorporate in the next edition of Tempo.  So far I’ve been very pleased to discover that Kasparov’s wisdom, drawn from decades of high-level practice, strongly validate my own more armchair-inspired ideas.

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  1. Spell checker says

    It’s spelled Kasparov.

  2. If you liked this book, you’ll love “The Art of Learning” by Joshua Waitzkin. He was US Junior Chess Champion, and later became a world champion in the martial art form of Tai Chi. It is an outstanding book on learning from life and winning.