Chess Metaphors

I invite you to watch this video of my participation in a discussion held at the end of the first day of international chess competition at the London Chess Classic, December 8, 2009, between myself and Diego Rasskin-Gutman, the MIT Press author of “Chess Metaphors”. It happened on the same day as one of the most remarkable chess matches in contemporary times, and one I was privileged to watch first hand.

That match between 19-year old Norwegian phenomenon Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik, the number 1 and 3 players in the world respectively, was clearly the main event of the day and people in the chess world still haven’t stopped talking about it. (You can read a popular account of it in  Time Magazine.)

I want to thank the London Chess Classic, especially it’s organizer, Malcolm Pein, who was hospitable and gracious. And I would also thank our moderator, three-time British Chess GrandmasterJonathan Rowson whom you will see was as much of a contributor as a moderator.

Our discussion, which happened after the Carlsen Kramnik match concluded, was on whether the goal of teaching computers to play chess holds any lessons for other disciplines (like business rules and process modeling for example). Diego’s book suggests that it does, that the ancient game of chess actually frames the cognitive task of problem solving, which is something all of us in business do every day. Diego confirms something that I always suspected: that chess play and strategic business modeling have a lot in common. Back before we started Pegasystems, and after my brief career as a professional chess player, I was involved in trying to teach computers to play chess like a human being, never imagined that they would one day defeat an actual World Chess Grand Master. Back then you had to be elegant, concise, and lean. We didn’t have the massive computing power available today. But the exercise paid off. The same kind of thinking has informed the unique and lean approach we have taken here at Pegasystems to unify business rules and process as an actual platform for computer-supported organizational innovation and agility.

In his review of Diego’s book in the New York Review of Books chess legend Gary Kasparov’s picks up the chess vs computers theme and asserts that the real issue is innovation: “Like so much else in our technology-rich and innovation-poor modern world, chess computing has fallen prey to incrementalism and the demands of the market. Brute-force programs play the best chess, so why bother with anything else? Why waste time and money experimenting with new and innovative ideas when we already know what works? Such thinking should horrify anyone worthy of the name of scientist, but it seems, tragically, to be the norm. Our best minds have gone into financial engineering instead of real engineering, with catastrophic results for both sectors.”

Kasparov has a good point. Real engineering means empowering those who can to truly innovate, giving them the metaphors and the tools to make a real difference. As Kasparov laments, things like proprietary high frequency trading (using massive brute force and literally split-second transaction speed to wring robotic profits in between other peoples buy and sell orders) is not exactly what Adam Smith had in mind. Listen to this insightful BBC documentary on high frequency trading. Kasparov is right. It should all be about innovation and competition, whether chess or in business. Business is a serious game: you need to be paranoid about the whole board and you can’t fall in love with your own strategy. If you just think you are winning, you probably aren’t. Someone else may come up with a whole new chess piece or add a few more rows to the board. Can you detect the patterns as they emerge? Can you predict them?

Now that is the real innovation challenge – having the power to master change itself!