What startup founders can learn from the habits of Magnus Carlsen

As founders juggle a range of priorities and challenges, they must act quickly and lay a foundation for the future, following their instinct. working out what to do now and next. They are driven by curiosity, leading to the conversion of new ideas into new products and services, moving from imagination to impact, from innovation to invoice.

For innovation to flourish, both freedom and discipline must be present – freedom to imagine what is possible and discipline to turn ideas into action. Now if freedom and discipline are to be a duality rather than a dichotomy, how do you get the balance right?

Magnus Carlsen, Grandmaster and five-time World Chess Champion is someone who shows how to combine disruptive and disciplined approaches to bring success – a result of calculation, foresight and intuition. It’s about having the vision to see your moves ahead. Carlsen highlights how entrepreneurs need to combine long-term strategy, short-term gains, being creative, and how important having a clear decision-making strategy based on logic is. Like chess, we do need to think ahead in business, if not for ten moves, but at least think through options and the consequences.

Chess is really about psychology and intuition because the mathematics get complex very quickly. Carlsen illustrates that the subtle and intricate potential moves that lie within the 64 squares of a chessboard are totally applicable to business, and how the game can help you step back and evaluate yourself to identify your strengths and weaknesses and thus better your game.

Underlying a game of chess is an abstract structure of rules, which can be quite mind-boggling to the uninitiated. To follow a professional game is to get lost in algebraic options and notations. When the 13-year-old Bobby Fischer sacrificed his queen against Donald Byrne in the so-called ‘game of the century’, it was considered one of the finest moves in chess history – a greatness not quite communicated by Be6.

The game emerged in C5th India, but it wasn’t until the C19th when the set was standardised into the Staunton version we play today. Chess is an endless pursuit, a game of longevity with logical consequences and sly entrapment. After sacrificing his queen, another 24 moves later, Fischer won – a result he’d worked out that was inevitable if he let his queen go. It was sacrifice that was also attack, aggression that was also composure.

You start the game with a set of pieces, from king to pawns, each with their own ability and position, each has their own purpose. Novice players push forward immediately with their back row, trying to get their most valuable pieces into win positions early. Experienced players, however, know that it is the pattern of all their pieces working in concert that creates reliable success.

Master chess players see the unfolding patterns of the board over time, thinking not in terms of one piece or one move, but in terms of the entire board over dozens of moves. This ability to analyse actions and their outcomes, combined with skilled pattern recognition, is what defines strategy.

The objective is to play the board and your opponent, not just your plan. When playing chess your opponent is trying to predict and undermine you, applying their own strategy to capture more pieces, so, what do you do? One crucial skill is the importance of taking time for reflection. It’s in reflection that the brain has time to learn, to process new information, to recognise patterns, and recall previous successful moves.

All of these characteristics are relevant to startup founders – go quick but don’t rush, pause and reflect, don’t be frenzied, play the long game, not just short-term quick wins.

From a young age, Magnus Carlsen’s extraordinary talent and ability to become a top player was evident. Since becoming Chess World Champion in 2013 and the highest-rated player in history, the Norwegian Grandmaster has stayed at the very top in all versions of chess. Aged 33, he’s been playing competitive chess since aged five. At the age of 13 years and 4 months, Magnus became the youngest Grandmaster of all time. In 2011, Magnus’ World Chess rating was 2861 and surpassed Gary Kasparov’s ‘unbeatable’ record.

In 2013, Magnus became World Champion by beating Viswhanathan Anand 6,5 – 3,5 and reached a peak rating of 2882. In 2014, he became the first player to simultaneously hold the title in all three FIDE rated time controls (Standard, Rapid and Blitz). In October 2015, he ranked No. 1 in all three disciplines simultaneously. In October 2020, Carlsen set an unprecedented world record of 125 games without defeat.

After retaining his world title in 2021, Magnus announced he would not be defending his title again, leaving him ranking as the fifth best player of all time in terms of number of titles won and retained. After ten years of Carlsen, the current champion is Ding Liren who defeated Ian Nepomniachtchi in April.

I see many similarities between chess and running a startup from the strategy and tactics behind the game. Let’s look at the lessons and learnings we can take from Carlsen and his five-times world championship success.

The first phase: the opening As Carlsen shows, the purpose of the opening isn’t to get immediately ahead, rather it’s to set the stage for the type of middle game you want. The openings are the only phase in which there is the possibility of unique application, you can find something that no one else has found.

Like an embryonic startup, in the early days chess is rarely a game of ideal moves. Almost always, a player faces a series of difficult consequences whichever move he makes. When you see a good move, look for a better one.

Takeaway: Be brave is the lesson for a startup, but equally don’t rush. Be bold, but have some thoughts around what the early stages of your business could look like. Of course, early encounters with customers reshapes your thinking, so be prepared to be flexible and respond to feedback.

The second phase: the middle game What sort of middle game is our opening going to lead to? Is it one we are prepared for or have our opponents out foxed us and we’re playing catch-up? We must also play the middle game with an eye on the endgame.

Too often in business we set a goal and head straight for it without considering all the steps that will be required to achieve it. If you work without long-term goals your decisions will become purely reactive and you’ll be playing your opponent’s game, not your own.

Takeaway: In a startup it’s important to have a strategy, a game plan thinking in periods initially of no more three months, with objectives and milestones, things are just too volatile to plan too far ahead. As you navigate what it often a turbulent first phase, what you should be doing in the second phase will emerge. Continue with innovation at the core but listen to customers.

Dream a little, don’t settle for routine solutions The paradox of chess is that there is a routine set to make a strong move based on its objective merits, but recall Carlsen’s approach is a combination of freedom and discipline, sober evaluation and calculation mixed with outlandish ideas.

In a startup, you won’t find new ways of solving problems unless you look for them and experiment and have the nerve to try them but ensure flair doesn’t mean or you spend your life making beautiful blunders. 

Takeaway: Avoid the crowd. Do your own thinking independently. Be the chess player, not the chess piece.

The future is a result of the decisions you make today The strategist starts with a vision of the future and works backwards to the present. Carlsen makes the best moves because they are based on what he wants the board to look like twenty moves ahead. This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations, but an evaluation where his fortunes lie in the position now.

Takeaway: Chess is the gymnasium of the mind. Make your decisions based on a combination of intuition, analysis and experience. For your startup, take a wide view to evaluate the deeper consequences of decisions. Where do you want to be in three years? Make a start and try to make every day a step in the right direction towards your horizon.

The next best move The best next move might be so obvious that it’s not necessary to spend time working out the details, especially if time is of the essence. However, often when we assume something is obvious and react hastily, we make a mistake due to complacency.  Half the variations which are calculated in a chess game turn out to be superfluous. Unfortunately, no one knows in advance which half.

Takeaway: Startups are a competition against the error. These are the moments when your instincts tell you that there is something lurking below the surface, but take a moment to validate. 

Intuition & analysis Even the most honed intuition can’t entirely do without analysis. Intuition is where it all comes together – our experience, knowledge and judgement – our hunches. But it doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at, so combine the two.

Takeaway: No matter how much experience you have, and how much you trust your instinct, analysis is essential. It’s a balance between inspiration and perspiration, blue sky thinking and washing the pots. It’s dreaming, plus hard yards.

Attack An attacking strategy doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or recklessly lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective in chess, creating long-term weaknesses in your opponent’s position can lead to a win in the long run. One of the qualities of a Carlsen is his ability to get the maximum out of a position without overstepping and trying to achieve more than what is possible. 

In chess we have the ‘principle of two weaknesses’. It’s rare to be able to win a game with only a single point of attack. Instead of becoming fixated on one spot, we must exploit our pressure to provoke more opportunities to move our venture forward.

Takeaway: Going on the front-foot in your startup requires perfect timing as well as nerve. The window of market opportunity is often small, so balance opportunity with rationale – back to the combination of freedom and discipline in your game plan. 

Initiative Once you have the initiative you must exploit it. Carlsen reminds us that the player with the advantage is obliged to attack, or his advantage will be lost. In business, initiative can be converted into a sustainable position. Being a step ahead means we can keep our competition off balance, shifting and moving in order to provoke weaknesses.

Takeaway: Seizing the initiative is something you create for yourself. There is no neon sign saying ‘hey, big opportunity right around the corner’. Make it happen, for yourself.

When you are winning, don’t get complacent Winning creates the illusion that everything is fine. Success is seldom analysed as closely as failure and we are always quick to attribute our victories to our smartness, rather than circumstance. When things are going well it is even more important to question. Over-confidence leads to mistakes. 

Takeaway: We want to believe that we won brilliantly, not that we were perhaps at the ‘right time, right place’, having worked hard to be there. Carlsen shows us the repeated winner is the player who practiced, planned and then had a spark of inspiration to make it happen in the moment. Reflect on that.

As for startups, chess is a mental game that requires vision, tenacity, thoughtfulness, and multiple tactics. It really is a combination of disruptive and disciplined approaches, and thinking in the moment that brings success. In startup life as in chess, one must play all sorts of positions well, seize the opportunities when available, defend if forced to, and attack when possible. The end game orientation required in chess is excellent mental conditioning for any startup founder’s endeavours.

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