Business lessons from the chess grand masters
By John Kay
Published: January 29 2008 19:32 Last updated: January 29 2008 19:32
Financial Times

Bobby Fischer, who died two weeks ago, may have been the greatest chess player in history. The 1972 match in which he won the world championship from the Russian Boris Spassky is certainly the best known chess match in history.

That game has often been treated as a metaphor for the cold war; not just a contest between an American and a Russian, but a contest between freedom and totalitarianism, between individualism and order. This metaphor has recently been developed, to the point of caricature, by the neo-conservative Daniel Johnson.

There is something in it. The match was in Iceland, which is so literally on the faultline between eastern and western hemispheres that the tensions will one day pull the island apart. While Spassky was a – rather ill-fitting – cog in the Soviet chess machine, Fischer was incapable of normal co-operative human relations with anyone. Spassky was accompanied to Reykjavik by other Soviet grand masters and KGB agents, while Fischer was flanked by his attorneys.

Yet the metaphor has a central flaw. America won the cold war, but Russia won the chess war. Fischer never defended his title and was succeeded by Anatoly Karpov. The years from 1972 to 1975 were the only period from Mikhail Botvinnik’s victory in 1948 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in which the world champion was not a Soviet citizen.

There are lessons about economics from this story, but they are more subtle than those who divide the world into heroes of freedom and villains of totalitarianism perceive.

Planned regimes have often succeeded when they have ploughed resources into the achievement of narrowly defined objectives. We smile when we read of the All Union Chess Section, under the Supreme Council for Physical Education. Its director, filled with bile and Marxist rhetoric, proposed shock brigades to spearhead five-year plans for chess. But it worked. Most of the world’s best chess players became so as a result of the endeavours of the Supreme Council. If chess was the battleground between free enterprise and state planning, state planning won.

Here is the full interesting article in the Financial Times.

Posted by Picasa
Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
Tags: ,