Chess, Poker or Basketball?

I’ve been thinking lately about how business is a game, but pondering which game it most resembles. I’ve come up with three that seem to fit the bill, but I’ve got more caveats and games running through my mind, so this post may get another look if any of those ideas strike me as more relevant in the future! I’ve decided to look at business through the lens of chess, poker, and basketball:



Players: you vs. “the system”

Strategy and gameplay: Slow, methodical pace, long-term strategy, no second changes, winner-take-all

Playing business chess: At first, I thought business was a lot like chess, with two big players trying to take the king. “The system” wants only the best, so it weeds people out at every stage, from the rejection letter for your #1 college choice, to the denial of a promotion, to getting laid off just before your pension kicks in (granted, my generation doesn’t get a pension, so technically, we got weeded out even earlier!). I definitely viewed my career as a chess game for the first few years out of college, thinking that it was me vs. everything that didn’t want me to succeed. I’ve since found, though, that the system is not nearly as methodical as we think it is, and there’s a lot of dumb luck and a lot of winding roads to end up at a version of success. Sure, it may be a chess game on a particular deal, at the highest level of the organization, but I think business is too messy to really be considered a gentleman’s game.



Players: you, your colleagues, your professors, and your bosses

Strategy and gameplay: everyone makes decisions with imperfect and incomplete information, based on a combination “gut instincts” and statistics, ability to walk away after each hand, allowing for “degrees” of winning, combination of long-term and short-term strategies, strategies are often dependent on who you’re playing with

Playing business poker: I think business is much more similar to poker, in that it’s a much more fluid game, with many more opportunities to fix your mistakes. Bet too much on a bluff? Don’t worry, you’ll be dealt a new hand in just a few minutes. Now, poker only allows for so many mistakes, because eventually, you run out of money. The same is true in business. Didn’t get the promotion this year? Don’t worry, you can apply to different companies, make a move to another group within the organization, or bust your butt and get the promotion next year! Business also using incomplete information, so you have to use your knowledge, and instincts, to make the right play, with the right person. Your “tells” change based on who you’re doing business with, and you can’t use the same strategy with every partner (or adversary, as the case may be).



Players: you, your team, and your opponent

Strategy and gameplay: short-term, fluid strategy, real-time decision-making, team effort, starting over after each score, ability to “come back” many times, fast-paced, physical vs. mental

Playing business basketball: To me, basketball is a much more appropriate game to represent business. I think most companies want to foster a cooperative, team environment, where everyone plays on their strengths. Maybe you’re the person with the slam-dunk, closing deals, and getting contracts signed. Or, you’re the person who runs faster than everyone else, so when there’s a quick deadline, they call you. Maybe you can block and play defense better than your team mates, so they bring you in for the hardcore negotiations and legal issues. I also think business strategy can turn in a flash, just like a basketball game. You were going to pass the ball, but you’re being covered, so you have to pivot until you find your next move in basketball. One of your employees received another offer… do you counter-offer or let them move on? You’ve also got the ability to sub out players in basketball, and you can make sure you put your best players in for business as well. Essentially, the fast pace of basketball allows for you to mold your team and your strategy into the best version for that moment.

I’m still not sure which game is correct, and I think it depends a lot of the industry and organization size. Larger companies with more bureaucracy may play more like chess, while start-ups go the scrappy basketball route. I think there’s also applicability on an individual level, and individuals may play differently than their organization. How do you play the business game?


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