The strategic opportunity of an elite chess team

The April 23th Webster University Journal article, ‘Costs and benefits of elite chess team’ questioned the costs to Webster University of investing in the Susan Polgar Institute of Chess Excellence (SPICE) – a reasonable strategic question on face value. However, the article primarily focused on the costs of an elite chess team, and spent less time on the potential benefits to Webster University. Prior to the article being picked up by the Washington Post on April 28th, University had already received significant press coverage due to the recent Final Four championship. This immediate media buzz suggests an opportunity. Working together, Webster University and SPICE have the potential to create a unique position in competing for business students that other business schools could not easily duplicate.

The article questioned of the strategic vision of the chess team for the university. I believe there is a significant strategic opportunity that the original article did not address. Specifically, as a strategy professor I recently had the unique occasion to teach what I believe was a first of its kind seminar combining business and chess strategy, with Grandmaster Susan Polgar and Paul Truong (both representing SPICE). This for-credit course, “SPICE’ing Up Business Strategy with Chess” was held April 11-12th, 2014. Although the comparison between business strategy and chess is not new, I believe Webster University’s Walker School is the first-mover in successfully merging business-level and corporate-level strategy with hands-on lessons from chess, and delivered by the best collegiate chess coaches in the country no less. This seminar developed a new approach which focused student learning on the skill of ‘strategic thinking’, specifically in terms of how to move and counter move resources vis-a-vis competition, and used chess to illustrate this in a very meaningful, very visual way to teach students how to think through strategic situations.

Most business schools explain business strategy in terms of Jay Barney’s resource-based view, or Michael Porter’s industry-based view, or Henry Minzberg’s ‘emergent strategy’ view; but Webster’s business school does something unique by integrating all of these perspectives to explain resource movement as combinations of attack, defend, retreat and avoid movements, precisely as one finds in chess. By using chess to explain movement and counter movement of business strategy, provides a point of differentiation for Webster’s business school, with appeal to students who want an applied, hands-on way to improve their strategic thinking skills.

Given the 1 billion people in the world now playing chess, and the large existing (book) market for business-related strategic lessons from the world of chess, if Webster can successfully integrate chess into the business curriculum in a truly meaningful way (specifically, strategic decisions around movement and counter-movement) this would provide a unique position among business schools. Webster’s Walker School of Business and Technology is looking at ways to further build chess into its graduate and undergraduate business programs. One student wrote that it was the best course ever taken, and a true “game changer” for his business.

Doug O’Bannon, PhD
Professor of Strategy
Walker School of Business and Technology
Webster University

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