Chess provides excellent leadership lessons in the 2013 Candidates Tournament

April 6, 2013

The qualifying battles to become world chess champion in London this year showed why chess is considered an excellent metaphor for the processes of strategic decision-making

Magnus CarlsenI have often blogged about the merits of chess as a metaphor for strategic thinking. The last three weeks [March 14th – April 1st 2013] reinforced my beliefs.

The Candidates Tourney

London hosted the qualifying competition, with the winner going to a one-on-one shootout with current world champion Vishy Anand of India. In the UK, news coverage prior to the tournament was extremely limited. In contrast, chess enthusiasts had excellent live streaming of all games on specialized sites.

Watching live

For those with time to spend, you could watch the battles live in the afternoons (starting time 2pm local time). The format was our matches each day played simultaneously, with all eight contenders in action. This made it easy for the expert commentators (mostly grand-masters) to chat happily about moves played and about to be played, working their way from match to match. The technology did not quite work, but the commentators coped with the gliches well, particularly in the last hour of the last day, when the result still depended on the remaining two games. It seems an estimated million chess players world- wide had seized up the servers.

The Chess Federation [FIDE} website captured the tension of the last round of matches:

Magnus Carlsen [image above from wikipedia: Ed] won the FIDE Candidates’ Tournament in London on Monday after a bizarre finish of what has become a historic event for chess. Both the Norwegian and the other leader, Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, unexpectedly lost their game in the final round, and so they remained tied for first place and Carlsen won on the second tie-break rule: higher number of wins. This means that in the next title match, World Champion Viswanathan Anand will face Carlsen.


The few popular news stories concentrated on Carlsen’s extreme youth, and marketability for himself and the game of Chess. “No problem with finding a sponsor for the World Championship” one commentator chortled.

Bizarre end

When the technology was restored, the rest of the chess world learned that Carlson had lost a game in which he had played weakly his standards as the highest rated player in the World. He could still be overtaken by former World Champion Kramnik who also seemed to be losing. After a nervous wait, Kramnik resigned, and Carlsen was declared winner.

Chess lesson

I am still reflecting on the lessons for strategic leaders offered by the players and their commentators. Carlsen, utterly fatigued at the press conference immediately after he had learned of Kramnik’s loss added one new lesson [for me, anyway]. “We were all tiring in the last rounds. My sense of danger weakened.” Worth remembering by business leaders needing to deal with their dilemmas…

Hamilton wins FI in Montreal but dream team doubts persist

June 11, 2012

Lewis Hamilton won the 2012 Canadian Formula 1 race and was quick to praise his team. But watchers would have wondered whether McLaren has the high performance team needed to win consistently

Formula 1 racing is an excellent spectacle for observing high performance teams engaged in competitive action. The teams compete with a clear-cut goal, for maximise points. But there are far more complex issues to take into consideration. When Lewis Hamilton praised his team after the race, it should be noted that the term is open to several interpretations.

His car is one of two each maintained by a distinct team within McLaren. Hamilton was probably referring to ‘his’ team. But he might have been referring to the smaller team responsible for the vital pit-changes of wheels and fuel top-ups, or even the wider Team McLaren.

Two inter-related competitions

There are actually two inter-related competitions going on throughout the Formula 1 season. Each contractor provides its own brand or marque, referring to its cars. Some marques have historic names such as Ferrari and Mercedes. Others such as Red Bull and McLaren are more recently successful. The contractors’ championship is a competition between brands.

Each contractor races two cars, with identical characteristics. However, the cars are maintained by two distinct teams, each with its driver. There are pressures on the drivers to compete with each other. The potential for dilemmas between contractor and team(s) is high, as being outperformed by the other driver of a marque may mean being replaced at the end of a season. In our story Lewis Hamilton is paired with, (and against) Jenson Button. Both are top drivers who have won the FI championship once already. Button did not figure highly in the Montreal race.

‘Rules against rules’ of competition are in place to prevent contractors instructing one driver to favour another. If such practice was left unchecked, a contractor would be encouraged to disadvantage one of the drivers, in order to maximise points in the contractors’ competition).

Pit-stops and chess in hyperspace

FI is currently designed to test the cars and the racing strategy of using specified tyres. Teams have to plan complex strategies of changing tyres and re-fueling in pit-stops. The decisions require judgement on tyre wear, fuel, racing conditions including weather, and several other variables. Speed of pit stops is down to the pit-lane team; timing including number of stops down to the broader team. A slight mistake can change the race completely for a driver. It’s like Chess in twenty dimensions. Perhaps a Bobby Fischer is needed for each team.

Hamilton’s pit-team and pit-stops

The pit stops for team Hamilton in Montreal did not appear to have been as slick as was expected. One of the stops was sluggish through a re-start error by Hamilton. The other was a slow tyre change, with evidence of some team scrambling, as a replaced tyre wandered out of control behind the team momentarily. The measurable consequence of each stop was loss of time, placing Hamilton at risk of losing a race he seemed to be winning.

Hamilton’s intercom discussions

The drivers receive up to the moment information by intercom. This is open to other teams (and indeed the to the TV commentators and audience). Hamilton’s discussions showed he was concerned that his rivals were planning a ‘one pit’ strategy which would require Hamilton to drive accordingly. He was repeatedly advised this was not the case. The more he was reassured, the more Hamilton requested re-confirmation.

The one pit-stop option

It turned out that the strategists for Team Hamilton had based their conclusion on the dangers of a one pit strategy not the possibility of one. The dangerous Sebastian Vettel, and Fernando Alonso were on a one-pit stop strategy. Eventually Hamilton was told that he was still in a great position because the other drivers would be catchable as their tyres degraded.

Victory and thanks to my team

As it turned out, Lewis Hamilton caught and passed his rivals to win the race. He graciously thanked his team for their brilliant effort in securing him his first FI win of the season.

To the victor…

The press reports barely hinted at the problematic aspects of Team Hamilton’s performance.

Crucially, Hamilton has reclaimed the lead in the championship, even if only by two points from Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and three to Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.

Regardless, it was a day to savour as McLaren made a two-stop strategy work to perfection, despite initial scepticism when Hamilton made his second trip into the pits with 20 laps to go.

According to McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh:

Lewis drove brilliantly… For Jenson, by contrast, today was another day on which we, his team, failed to provide him with the tools with which to do the brilliant job we all know he’s capable of.

Brown’s Budget Week Anti-sleaze Shock

April 22, 2009
John Pienaar

John Pienaar

On the eve of the budget, Prime Minister Gordon Brown grabs headlines with an announcement about MP expenses. BBC’s John Pienaar suggests how such a leadership decision might be analysed

Budget day [April 22nd 2009] but there is another story dear to the hearts of MPs preoccupying our parliamentary representatives. Yesterday, Prime Minister Brown did something quite unexpected, both in message and medium chosen to communicate it. In a U-tube video he announced that he intends to move swiftly against the deeply unpopular system of MPs expenses. Unpopular that is for the public at large, but seriously popular for the majority of MPs benefitting from current arrangements.

The shock was partly because Brown had appeared to be ducking the issue of acting swiftly over the contentious issue, aided by an on-going investigation by Sir Christopher Kelly.

All the signs were that public outrage over bankers was now transferring to public outrage over MPs expenses, threatening career-damaging results for the Government. Opposition MPs, unlikely to be found completely unsullied through such revelations, are likely to suffer from what might be called friendly fire in the battle.

Maybe the shock was partly also because of a simplistic stereotype of Gordon Brown as a vacillating leader unable to act decisively or imaginatively. It is easy to make the case as a mood of national frustration with events is sweeping all before it. This week, one paper labelled Gordon the worse Prime Minister of all time.

The stereotype has been useful shorthand in countless attacks on the Prime Minister in the media and from political opponents in Westminster. My point here is not to defend Brown as to point out the possibility that there is some contrary evidence in past behaviours. When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown revelled in startling budget day stories which at very least kept opponents on the back foot at the time. One of his first actions as a new Chancellor was to relinquish control over the Bank of England (retrospectively challenged, but at very least imaginative and decisive.

Why did Gordon act so decisively?

BBC’s John Pienaar spotted the point. Commenting on the newly released U-tube he observed that such decisions operated at several different levels, so it was hard to arrive at a simple explanation of specific whys and wherefores.

In other words, it’s too simplistic to assume Gordon acted to appease public opinion, or out of moral indignation, or because he didn’t want Alistair Darling to grab the headlines or because he wanted to find news that would play better than likely reaction to the budget. As academics like to say, it was a decision made under conditions of considerable uncertainty. Unfortunately, the academic acceptance of ambiguities does not fit comfortably in a culture impatient for answers This is contrary to the ‘Yes or no, it’s a simple question’ approach of Jeremy Paxman in his Newsnight interrogations).

Can’t we do better than that?

I geenrally find more in Pienaar’s thoughtful approach than in Paxman’s petulance. I also assume share Pienaar’s view that political decisions are made after consideration of a large number of salient features. That’s a hypothesis based on an assumption that political leaders plus advisors operate under complicated and uncertain conditions, in which the important questions are not amenable to yes/no, right/wrong resolution. Unfortunately, Pienaar’s point remains unsatisfactory to the extent that it offers little on how a leader might be advised to take major decisions.

Might we be able to assess whether Gordon Brown was acting effectively and decisively, or ineptly and impulsively? Or am I also falling into either/or thinking? Can’t we do better than just accepting the ambiguities around strategic decision-making?


Put another way, what sense might we make of the decision by Gordon Brown to act how he did, when he did? The decision reversed a more measured approach to the issue of MP expenses, (the on-going investigation) and one which he himself appeared to approve of until the announcement?

Thumbing through my leadership notes, I find useful suggestions. Under conditions of extreme pressure, a leader is more prone to resort to favoured strategies which may override rational considerations. Information is filtered to conceal some of the complexities of the situation. Bob Woodward’s accounts of the Bush regime contains repeated illustrations of denial and doubtful decisions.

Overall, this decision also seems consistent with another favourite principle I have written about. In an earlier post, I looked at a Gordon Brown decision when he was Chancellor. He grabbed the headlines with support for England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup.

At the time I compared the decision to The Tarrasch principle in chess.

[The Tarrasch principle] suggests that strategically you should act because you want to, or because you have to, but not simply because you have the option. Mr Brown acted because he wanted to, perhaps also because he judged it was better now than waiting for a more favourable time, and in that sense because he had to, or miss a promising opportunity. In other words, it was not just because it was an available option open to him.

Which doesn’t tell us precisely what informed the Prime Minister’s decision, but it might make sense of it, and serve as a guide to leaders facing tough decisions.

Nick Faldo and the Tall Poppy Syndrome

September 22, 2008

The much-fancied European team loses the Ryder Cup. Within hours, the recriminations begin against team captain Faldo. The predicted process of cutting down the tall poppy has begun

This is a postscript on the week-end’s post on Ryder Cup leadership. In particular the observation on the tall poppy syndrome …

[S]horthand for the process in which high-profile figures receive celebrity status and at the same time become vulnerable to attacks ‘to bring them down to earth’. The process began when Faldo, someone always likely to be unswayed by popular sentiment, omitted public favourite Darren Clarke, and appeared to have given Ian Poulter (another quirky and gifted personality) preferential treatment even as other players struggled for the automatic places available on the team through tournament rankings.

As it happens, the captain’s pick, Ian Poulter, was the outstanding success of a patchy performance from Europe’s best golfers. That has hardly lessened the post-match criticisms.

Was Faldo a bad captain? Nowhere nearly as bad as he is now being presented.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and well, and maybe needs as much attention as those other pernicious poppy harvests around the world.

Faldo, Azinger and Ryder Cup Captaincy

September 21, 2008

Nick Faldo

Nick Faldo

Paul Azinger

Paul Azinger

Ryder cup captaincy is an unusual kind of leadership. The pre-match picks, the pairings of players, and order of play in the decisive singles all call for judgements of a complex kind and which make a difference to the outcome of the match

The biennial Ryder Cup has become an immense sporting occasion, capturing the attention of non-golf fans in the way Wimbledon is said to capture non-tennis fans in England.

Captaincy calls for a special kind of leadership. Decisions are exposed to the scrutiny of a hundred commentators and millions of viewers, many of whom enjoy the vicious pleasures of casting doubt on the captain’s judgment, and my implication his fitness to lead. That’s not so unusual. Football phone-ins are saturated with emotional and angry view of fand who appear to believe they could do better jobs of running their favoured team than the managers. Some seem to believe anyone could do a better job than the incumbents.

Faldo and Azinger

Faldo and Azinger conform to the expectations of players and public. They need to be former Ryder cup captains, and ideally one of the available greats, playing in sufficiently recent memory in Ryder Cup battles to have iconic status in the minds of the players.

Faldo, and Azinger meet that requirement. Although I have no more to say on it, the selection of the captain is itself the outcome of leadership selection processes worth studying.

Faldo’s potential as captain, his playing career, and high-profile person life have all been extensively covered in Europe. Azinger’s profile has been far less examined, certainly in the UK press coverage. I suspect the converse holds in the USA (confirmation or otherwise of this point welcomed).

In his playing days, Faldo tended to present himself to the public as a somewhat taciturn figure. Public image was way back in his priorities to winning. But rapidly after this retirement he revealed concealed skills as a commentator, albeit still with a quirkiness and self-possession that had little of the professional camera appeaser of a Gary Lineker, a football star who also successfully made the transition to pundit and public figure.

As a player his obsessive style and determination always appeared to be accompanied by an intelligence applied to the multiple facets of winning golf tournaments. If there were pre-match rumblings, it was perhaps because the media expected more truculence and less treacle than usual from him.

Azinger presents himself as a more traditional sporting figure with a duty to treat the public and media with upbeat respect. The style may also be more of a necessity in the USA than in Europe, where the cultural differences of say the Scandinavians, Mediterraneans, and the Anglo-Saxons offer a wide range of personal styles for the public persona. Interviews with the players of both teams have always made fascinating viewing to the culture theorist as much as to the sports fan.

On Captaincy Choices, and Tall Poppies

I have not written much about tall poppies, shorthand for the process in which high-profile figures receive celebrity status and at the same time become vulnerable to attacks ‘to bring them down to earth’. The process began when Faldo, someone always likely to be unswayed by popular sentiment, omitted public favourite Darren Clarke, and appeared to have given Ian Poulter (another quirky and gifted personality) preferential treatment even as other players struggled for the automatic places available on the team through tournament rankings.

The decision-making process

The decision-making processes required of the Ryder Cup captain is massively complex. Faldo seems likely to have operated with little regard for the views of others, and after considerable conscious thought. Other successful captains such as Ian Woosnam have been far more intuitive. One such, on Sky Sport’s treatment was the much-admired earlier English icon Tony Jacklin.

As far as I can see, with little insight into the technicalities of the decision, the process has ultimately to reply on untested beliefs. Decisions are in part judgment calls. But the captains and their decisions are themselves judged on the performances of the players.

The Players

Like millions of others I have watched more of the contest than I expected to. Is it possible to write anything worthwhile about the Ryder Cup without reference to the heroic struggles of the players? Without these heart-stopping dramas upstage, and not as context, commentary is a near irrelevance.