A review of How Life Imitates Chess

How Life Imitates Chess, by Garry Kasparov, 2008. 204 pages.

I've been wanting to write a review of this book for a while. I forget now exactly when I got it, but I have greatly enjoyed reading it. I have read it several times. It's a book on decision making (it's not really a book about chess) from a man who's Russian (which matters because I work with many Russians), a master of decision making, and not least of all -- he has taken on the world's toughest opponents and continues to do so today. These days he's retired from chess, and is going toe to toe with the Russian government.

Kasparov takes the reader through the thought process underlying his own decisions: observation of self and others, intuition, experimentation, tactics, strategy, and the value of many "intangibles" such as persistence and confidence.

It's a fascinating look into a brilliant mind, which helps me clarify my own thought processes. For example, I've always known that I am not particularly a genius as a programmer, but I'm really persistent. I will spend a weekend on something that others might accomplish in an hour or so. But that's not the point: the point is that I will spend the weekend, instead of just saying "someone else could do this in an hour." This is how things get done in my world. Some people might also describe me as stubborn, or as a perfectionist, both of which are fair accusations. Those traits serve me well when I direct them well. Garry Kasparov's peculiar gift to me in this book is his ability to analyze his thought processes and draw cause-and-effect conclusions, which are revealing for me to reflect upon.

This book is also a lot about decision making in the context of competition. There are many stories about competition at the board and elsewhere. Garry puts things bluntly and precisely: did someone show you up? Be grateful they showed you your weaknesses, rather than hiding in the childish desire not to look bad. If you tried and failed, is it a compliment to hear "you did your best?" No, actually it's reason to depair, if it's true. To hear instead "you didn't succeed, but you can do better" is reason for optimism. How backwards many of our social mores are, designed as they are to pamper someone who needs a jolt!

Garry is a good writer, something he must have worked hard to achieve. He moves deftly from principle to example, illustrating many things with war stories about his or his competitors' (or various other peoples') triumphs and failures. He's a shrewd judge of both character and of dissecting what really happened, often showing surprising subtleties in what happened as well as what people thought about it.

The book is arranged in three parts. Part One is about how to understand the fundamental ingredients of self-mastery and effective decision-making. Part Two is about evaluation and analysis: where are the weak spots, and what can be done about them? Part Three is about how to get from point A to point B.

Here are some interesting quotes. (I've dog-eared nearly every page in some places.)

If you are employing a powerful and successful strategy, whether gaining space on the chessboard or market share in global commerce, the competition will try to trip you up by getting you to abandon it. If your plans are sound and your tactical awareness is good, your competitor can only succeed with your help.

My colleagues and I have certainly resisted efforts to divert us from our primary aim. We've even had people throw down the gauntlet in front of us and demand that we stop competing with them. Of course, we just laughed.

Change can be essential, but it should only be made with careful consideration and just cause. Losing can persuade you to change what does not need to be changed, and winning can convince you everything is fine even if you are on the brink of disaster. If you are quick to blame faulty strategy and change it all the time, you don't really have any strategy at all.

Or how about this one:

My love of dynamic complications often led me to avoid simplicity when perhaps it was the wisest choice.

Kasparov analyzes similar traits, successes, and failures in many, many other players -- and also in US politicians, Russian politicians, war generals, web browser wars, and lots of other relevant topics. And the point of it all is to illustrate a process by which the reader can gain more self-awareness. It surely helped me crystallize or refresh my thoughts on some of my own character flaws and assets, and to see where I am using them too little, too much, or for the wrong ends.

If it sounds like a bunch of platitudes, I'm quoting out of context. There's a lot of explanation and illustration, not just things that could go on some inspirational poster. This is a brilliant book, and I highly recommend it if you want some thought-provoking material to help you examine your decision processes.

Oh, and someday I'll also try to write a review of another book by a man who is both a chess grand master and world-champion martial artist: Josh Waitzkin's The Art Of Learning. It's also well worth reading. Not that I'm obsessed with books written by chess champions.

I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.