Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Billionaire Who Started with Chess

Peter Thiel is a chess master who made a billion dollars as a hedge fund manager. Chess was an important model for him. Student notes explored by Jonathan Wai of Business Insider in a June 6, 2012, article show an outline of how he succeeded. Thiel himself calls it "The Mechanics of Mafia."

Know the relative value of your pieces.

In chess, the queen is the most valuable piece, followed by the rook, bishop, knight and pawn. Theil values engineers at $1 million x number of engineers but MBAs at $500,000 x number of MBAs. These he calls "transparent" valuations. Sales are vital but harder to value because their value is not easy to assess. Salesmen can be amateurs, experts, masters or even grandmasters.

Know how your pieces work best together.

Thiel notes that two personality types are vital – nerds and athletes. STEM individuals and engineers tend to be nerds – intelligent problem-solvers who are not fighters. Athletes tend to be fighters and competitors. "So you have to strike the right balance between nerds and athletes," which is to say that you have to have enough athletes to protect your nerds if there is a fight.

Know the phases of the game and have a plan.

In chess there is the opening, the middle game and the end game. In business, Thiel posits what Jose Raul Capablanca famously said: "You must study the endgame before anything else."
People mistakenly default to no plan, which is chaotic. Even a bad plan is better than no plan at all.

Being the last to move, like the dealer in poker, has the advantage of having the most information. The decisive moves are made in the endgame. "Make sure you’re around at the right time to make your move.

Have a plan."

Talent matters; there is more to success than luck.

Talent is clearly a primary concern in chess, though both talent and luck matter in business. But we tend to discount skill in business, emphasizing luck and not allowing anyone to show how he actually controlled anything.

Thiel has said, "since the best people tend to make the best companies, the founders or one or two key senior people at any multimillion-dollar company should probably spend between 25 percent and 33 percent of their time identifying and attracting talent." This leads to situations where some people hold disproportionate levels of value and control than seems apparent, so find those talented people within the organization.

Chess is a brutal mental game. So is life. Make your moves carefully.

"Chess is a really brutal game. I think because it’s so contained. It’s all going on in the head. And if you lose to your opponent, you feel stupid. You can call someone all the names under the sun, but if you call someone stupid, that’s the worst thing you can say to another human being. And that’s a bit what it feels like when you lose a game of chess. It’s all intellectual."                                    -- chess grandmaster Danny King's interview with 60 Minutes

King also said, "You can’t take your moves back. Once you play your move you could be stepping into some horrible trap."

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