Chess and Project Management: Part 2

A previous article, Chess and Project Management, explored the similarities between the game of chess and project management. A professional chess player who is also a PMP found the first article to be unique and interesting, which made my day. If you haven’t read it, you might consider it before reading Part 2 here.

Basic chess is quite easy to learn, and I daresay, it would benefit any project manager to do so. It’s not much harder than many modern board games. Learning to play it well is the hard part. No matter how skilled you become, there is always something new to learn – new opening ideas or techniques to master. That’s why chess has remained so popular for such a long time (over 1,400 years now). It originated in India (around 600 AD) and quickly spread to Persia and the Arab world from there. Within a few hundred years, chess was widespread in Euro-Asian countries. Although Russia has long been the dominant chess power, China, India, and Africa are rapidly catching up. On June 30, 2021, a boy from New Jersey named Abhimanyu Mishra, broke the world’s record for being the youngest grandmaster in history – at the age of 12 years 4 months and 25 days.

Chess is a game that can hook you in for life, and has for countless famous people (Napoleon Bonaparte, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Madonna, John Lennon, and Charles Dickens, to name a few who enjoy(ed) it delights). The bottom line is that chess is an exceedingly popular game for everyone to enjoy and learn. Unlike other sports and games, amateur and professional players regularly complete against each other in tournament and match play.

The Benefits of Chess Playing to PMs

Chess has numerous intellectual and intrinsic benefits that I think could help project managers (PMs) improve a number of important skills. Let’s explore them now.

  • Intelligence

Scientists believe playing chess results in better brain function, strategic thinking (or long-term planning), and attention improvement. Research has also corroborated that chess can raise your mental IQ.

  • Empathy

A big part of this is understanding your opponent (or team players) and how they play. Observing their facial expressions and overall body language will tell you much about your opponent (and the players on your team).

  • Memory

Playing chess can improve memory because of its complex rules that players have to remember when making a move. It also helps develop memory recall because you want to avoid making previous mistakes (i.e., lessons learned in project management) and/or remember the playing style of the challenger (risk management).

  • Creative abilities

Chess gives you the ability to think ahead or forward on what your next set of steps are going to be versus only your next move—a vital skill for PMs, as well.

  • Planning and critical thinking skills

It helps us to make strong moves when there is a problem (or issue) and to stick by them. This includes the discipline process of conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or information gathered from observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication.

  • Risk

Every project has risk, and a certain amount of risk is involved in playing chess, too. It’s called a gambit, and occurs in the opening phases of a game with sacrificing a valuable piece (Knight, Bishop, or Castle, for example) for a gain in development to get more pieces. Gambits are extremely popular, but can be dangerous if you don’t secure some compensating advantage. There are many distinct types of gambits, but one of the most popular one’s is the Queen’s Gambit whose objective is to secure the center of the board. Last year during the pandemic, the Netflix mini-series, “The Queen’s Gambit,” came out and was an instant hit. In fact, millions of people (myself included) renewed their interest in chess after seeing the show. If a risk becomes reality, you launch your counterattack and monitor the results.

  • Flow

What I mean by “flow” here is the optimal and enjoyable experience of running a project or playing chess in which there is a deep concentration on the activity at hand. Flow is what enables people to be satisfied with, and have a sense of exercising control in, their lives. Usually, people who achieve flow also maintain a winning or positive attitude. A positive attitude can bring pleasure to performance of a challenging task or a chess game. You may be surprised how many more games (or projects) you will win by having a winning attitude. People who consistently maintain positive attitudes tend to have higher energy levels than those who are less positive. A revealing anonymous quote states: “A pessimist finds difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist finds opportunity in every difficulty.”

  • Mobility

In chess, is moving one’s pieces to important parts of the board quickly and easily. It means you are usually an aggressive or active player, and you use this technique as part of a winning strategy. Passive moves contain no threats, which means your pieces have limited mobility. If you consistently make passive or weak moves, you are not really an active player—or have successful projects.


Hopefully, you can now see that chess has numerous intellectual and intrinsic benefits that could also help PMs improve their project management skills. A key to playing chess well is to better understand the relationships between the pieces (or team members) and the ability to recognize patterns. When you see a pattern (or plan) that you are familiar with, the right moves surprisingly suggest themselves. I’d love to hear your comments on this chesstacular article in the section below.

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Written by Ronald Smith
Ronald Smith has over four decades of experience as Senior PM/Program Manager. He retired from IBM having written four books and over four dozen articles (for example, PMI’s PM Network magazine and MPUG) on project management, and the systems development life cycle (SDLC). He’s been a member of PMI since 1998 and evaluates articles submitted to PMI’s Knowledge Shelf Library for potential publication. From 2011 - 2017, Ronald had been an Adjunct Professor for a Master of Science in Technology and taught PM courses at the University of Houston’s College of Technology. Teaching from his own book, Project Management Tools and Techniques – A Practical Guide, Ronald offers a perspective on project management that reflects his many years of experience. Lastly in the Houston area, he has started up two Toastmasters clubs and does voluntary work at various food banks.
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