Simon Chadwick interviews Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov is not only the greatest chess player the world has ever seen but also author of How Life Imitates Chess, a prolific speaker on the world stage, an entrepreneur and, in his native Russia, an opposition politician. 

Simon Chadwick: We in the market research industry are in the business of asking and answering questions. You say that questions – and asking the right ones – are the key to success. Can you elaborate on that? 
Garry Kasparov: If your question is wrong, the whole process will move in the wrong direction. The question is like the foundation of a building.

Nowadays people are looking for more data and believe that they can find the answer on a screen. But before you start looking, searching, browsing, you have to understand the nature of the search – identify the target. That’s why I always say that recognising the ‘Why?’ is the first and ultimate step towards success.

Simon: I think we would agree. But at one point in your career you played IBM’s Deep Blue in fairly controversial circumstances. Today we’re being told that big data can answer all our questions. What do you think of the parallels between these two situations?
Well, if we talk about chess – setting aside the human aspect of playing against each other or against the computer – chess is an infinite game – or nearly infinite. The number of possible moves is 10 to the power of 45, which is bigger than anything a super-powerful computer in any corner of the universe can process. So, yes, relying heavily or exclusively on data can bring you success, even great success. But in life, we always deal with a number of circumstances that cannot be squeezed into formal data requirements. At a certain point, we have to deviate from the data and understand when to stop searching and start asking.

Simon: Right. We, as an industry, are facing many challenges from technology, from big data, from new methodologies outside of our borders. One of the things that you’ve been famous for saying is that only when the environment shifts radically should you consider a change in the fundamentals. But what if you’re a frog in slowly boiling water and don’t realise it? Then what?
I believe that, no matter how much information is available, there’s still room for human intuition. The more data we have, the bigger problems we’re facing. Even a small portion of human intuition can make a hell of a difference. At the end of the day, if we talk about business, it’s about winning or losing, it’s about competition.

Later you can write volumes about the mistakes you made and the right moves you could have made and how it could change the outcome, but the result is the result. In the end, there is a crunch point when a decision has to be made. Nothing can play ‘the human.’ Only we decide when to flip the switch and act manually, go from autopilot to manual and combine the best of brute-force calculation and human creativity.

Simon: Was there ever a chess match when you realised, almost too late, that the fundamentals had changed?
When you play chess against human players, you have to fight to the last move because humans are not machines. Humans are vulnerable and can always make a mistake at the very last minute. That’s why the game is not over before the clock is stopped, as we always say. If your opponent hasn’t resigned or it’s not a draw or if you have moves available, you have a chance – even if it’s a very small chance – to change everything. Yes, sometimes the trend is against you, but in most cases there’s always hope.

Simon: Following on from that, you said that continuous success leads to the potential for disaster. How can we guard against the danger of disaster coming from consistent success, especially when we think that we’re going to continue to be successful?
You can’t. It’s like fighting human nature: we are all complacent if we’re winning. As you keep winning, your mind believes that it’s due to your own greatness, and you try to replicate what you did that brought you victory before. But we have to remember that we are winning against an opponent who is trying to understand his loss. He is looking for mistakes on both sides. If we try to replicate the same methods, we risk disaster. Sooner or later it will not work – and nowadays sooner, because people have so much data available that they’ll find mistakes very quickly. Winning today is short-lived. It’s not the same formula that brought success 50 years ago. Today you have to be on a constant search for perfection. We need to remember that our victory – whether that’s on a chessboard or on the sports field or in business or in politics – is not reliant on our greatness. We did good, but mostly our opponent made the last mistake.

Simon: Moving on to just a slightly different subject, another phrase that you used that I found very interesting was that the virtue of innovation only rarely compensates for the vice of inadequacy. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that?
Being at the cutting edge is a very difficult thing. We have to be relentless – not satisfied with just winning the game or match. We have to question our success. Being first isn’t enough, you have to perform and be consistent. You can’t rest on your laurels; you have to remain innovative. It’s a huge psychological challenge, because we all have our limits.

Simon: In How Life Imitates Chess, you talk about the balance between material, time and quality. Often, in market research, this is fed back to us as the need for cheaper, faster, better, with no balance between them at all. How would you advise us to deal with that?
In the first instance it looks like comparing apples, oranges and melons. But my experience in decision making in chess is to trust intuition – you cannot put an exact value on an extra pawn versus single file, or active pieces versus a better pawn structure. Some of the factors are short term, some of them long term, and you have to make sure that, in the moment, your evaluation is superior to your opponent’s. I think that any decision that we make in life is based on the balance of these factors.

Simon: I think that, in our business, people don’t realise that there is a balance. In the book, you talk about the opening game, the middle game and the end game. If a product launch is entering the middle game, and 80 per cent of product launches fail, do you think this is due to a poor opening game or poor middle game?
Opening comes first. If you have a bad opening in professional chess – or in business – the chances of surviving are very slim. You start with the opening, then go to the middle, then the end game. If you have a great plan for the end game, it doesn’t mean that you can skip the opening or the middle game. Ideally you play all the stages of the game perfectly, but one at a time. Things can change while you make a move, while your opponent’s making moves, but a poor start, a poor launch, bad public perception is the end of the product.

Simon: That comes back to your opening conversation about asking the question ‘Why?’
Absolutely. If something goes wrong in the opening stage, it’s easy to understand that we are in crisis and need to act. Not everything can be called a failure. When it went relatively well, but not as well as we wanted, it’s more difficult – it’s a grey area, because you don’t know what is good or bad. That’s where your intuition comes in: to understand exactly what went wrong, what should be kept, what cut and how you should move forward. In most cases, whether it’s in chess or in business or politics, while you’re in the process you can see if something is not going perfectly. At that time you need to evaluate your position correctly and develop a strategy for the next stage – that’s where you can make a difference.

Simon: I would imagine this thinking has a bearing on what you’ve been doing in politics. One of the things you wrote is that there is a distinction between an anomaly and a movement, and it can’t be understood with polls and data alone. What else do we need, and how should we approach it? Is this back to intuition again?
Yes, definitely. We have a lot of data available now, and we have many institutions that are specialising in processing the data, analysing it and coming up with the perfect recommendations on how to assess the public ego – what does the public want? But I think what we underestimate is that this public opinion is not made in a vacuum. People make up their minds not because they spend time analysing all the details and looking for the data but because they follow one special TV programme, one newspaper. This public mind is made by politicians, by media, sometimes by big business. Because people often look for the easiest way out. So they see a fiction, and if it makes them relatively comfortable, they accept it. If it sounds good, looks good – fine. They don’t have time to actually look deeply into numbers or into the statements or policies. It creates one layer after another of these sorts of shallow evaluations that very often move us away from the problem rather than helping to solve it.

Simon: Finally, if you feel comfortable discussing this, what are your feelings about the future of Russia? 
Garry: I would say I’m very confident about the long-term future, although currently the country is in dire crisis. There is huge dissatisfaction of the middle class – and many now realise that there are huge economic inadequacies. A lot of money has been spent, but it’s only made the rich richer, while the Russian economy – even with the high oil prices – has been stagnating. For many months the Russian economy has not been showing any signs of improvement, and any global shakeout will have a tremendously negative impact.

Simon: Thank you Garry. I look forward to seeing you in Istanbul. 

Simon Chadwick is Managing Partner at Cambiar and Editor-in-Chief of Research World and Garry Kasparov is a world chess champion, entrepreneur, politician and author.