Collection Spotlight—Chess, Negotiation, and Strategy

Chess and the Art of Negotiation: Ancient Rules for Modern Combat, by Anatoly Karpov and Jean-François Phelizon, with Bachar Kouatly.
Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2006.

How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom, by Garry Kasparov, with Mig Greengard.
New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Reviewed by Harold Henkel, Associate Librarian

Anatoly Karpov (b. 1951) and Gary Kasparov (b. 1963) were adversaries in one of the great chess rivalries of modern times. In five world championship matches between 1984 and 1990, the two grandmasters played 144 games, with Kasparov winning 21 and Karpov winning 19; 104 games were draws. Kasparov has said that the pressure of having to prepare for competition with the older champion helped him realize his full potential as a player.

Although the two players were closely matched in strength, their playing styles were mirror images of each other. Karpov was known for cautious positional play, waiting to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes; while Kasparov’s style was characterized by aggression and creativity. The difference in their chess playing seems to have analogs in their subsequent careers: while Karpov is currently serving in the Russian government, Kasparov has emerged as one of the leading oppositional figures to the Putin/Medvedev administration.

Chess and the Art of Negotiation takes the form of a dialogue between Karpov and Jean-François Phelizon, CEO of Saint-Gobain Corporation. Many readers will find it disappointing that Phelizion does most of the talking, applying lessons from writers on strategy (principally Sun Tzu) to his own experience in business negotiations. Nevertheless, Karpov’s recollections and insights into what is required to succeed in chess at the highest levels are quite illuminating.

Karpov emphasizes the need for total preparation—physical, intellectual, and moral. Moral preparation—knowing oneself—is the most difficult part of planning (on this point he is at one with Kasparov), but becomes critical in tournament play, where a player must fall back on reserves of character. As important as planning is, Karpov also stresses the need to think creatively and posits this as one of the reasons for Russian preeminence in chess: “In Germany and Japan, high-level players can master technique, but they sometimes seem to have trouble when they find themselves in a new situation. That is not the case for the Russians. For centuries, we have always considered that laws were made to be broken. Perhaps that is why we tend to be so creative.”

How Life Imitates Chess has a looser structure than Karpov’s book, and from its style appears to be the product of conversations Kasparov has had with his co-author. Kasparov’s subject is strategy and decision making. For Kasparov, success at high levels is predicated on knowing oneself, a condition that is only possible from rigorous and often painful self-examination. Perhaps the most important wisdom (valid for most aspects of our lives) Kasparov imparts in the book is his contention that “better decision-making cannot be taught, but it can be self-taught.” Ultimately, Kasparov writes, mastery in chess is the product of synthesis, “the ability to combine creativity and calculation, art and science into a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.”

Kasparov is at his best when he discusses chess strategy and forces the reader to connect the lesson to other competitive arenas. For example, in the final game of the 1985 world championship, Kasparov writes how Karpov opened untypically with a direct assault on Kasparov’s king. However, at the critical moment, when faced with the decision of whether to commit irrevocably to the assault he had spent twenty moves setting up, he reverted back to his more familiar, cautious style of play. As Kasparov writes, “when it came time to play for the kill, Karpov played a move that fit his prudent style but not the win-at-all costs situation that he himself had created. His personal style was in conflict with the game strategy that was required in order to win, and he veered off course.”

Of the two books, most readers are likely to find Kasparov’s the more enjoyable and useful. How Life Imitates Chess is not without flaws. Kasparov’s analogies between chess and historical events are not always convincing, and the author would have been better served if he had stayed focused on chess strategy and left it to his readers to ponder the game’s wider lessons for life. Nevertheless, Kasparov’s analyses and reflections on his career and some of his most important games more than make up for the book’s shortcomings. How Life Imitates Chess contains accessible lessons on strategic thinking by one of the world’s great devisors of strategy. It should be read by anyone aspiring to master this most elusive art.