Business Analysis, Chess & AI

Why Chess and AI?

A few years ago I picked up chess again, sharing the interest in this game with my parents. I thought I’d also do it with the Business Analysis community, taking advantage of our blog and the connection ideas that the theme offers with respect to AI!

Having abandoned manuals and books from the past, now as for everything, the resources are on the Internet. My return to chess therefore passes through specific apps, which have been able to enrich the simple computerized game board with real or virtual, real-time or deferred multiplayer challenges, training and all the further ingredients of gamification.

An Historical Perspective

Furthermore, computers and the game of chess were a combination present before the Internet, since the dawn of Computer Science. I remember a friend of mine who was asked to develop a chess game as part of a computer science exam (who knows if they still give tasks like this?). Chess ability has even historically been evaluated as a way to define the limits of artificial intelligence (AI). Limits overcome after the famous defeat of Kasparov, then world champion, against Deep Blue in ’97.

Going further back in time it seems that chess arrived in Europe around the 16th century. Here a few centuries later we find them protagonists of curious man-machine exhibitions, which we will talk about shortly. The very first forms of the game date back to about a thousand years earlier in the East, in India to be precise.

It would be interesting to also try to trace the origins of Business Analysis. I like to think that the first application preceded the birth of chess. Our ancestors certainly went through a sequence of primordial Business Analysis activities to arrive at technological solutions such as fire or the wheel!

Chess player and computer around a chessboard. Human intelligence and AI in chess but also in Business Analysis
Photo from LaStampa article on the ’97 match Kasparov vs Deep Blue

The Man-Machine Challenge (i.e. AI)

The Mechanicla Turk first application of AI applied to chess. Using Business Analysis terminology, this is more of a mock-up than a real solution.
Photo from von Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, source Vicesse.eu

The thought of the man-machine challenge, as we mentioned, predates the information age. Chess has been present in the courts of the powerful since the Middle Ages and in the modern era we even have traces of forms of man-machine competition not without a certain imagination and creativity. In those days artificial intelligence was necessarily a trick (some would say that even today it is overrated, have your say in the comments). This is the case of the small skin and bones chess player hidden under the table and the gears of the automated chessboard. It was Von Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, from the second half of the 18th century, which today is often referred to in relation to the themes of Artificial Intelligence and its training by human beings. This is reinforced by Amazon’s choice to call its original AI training marketplace MTurk.

Like everything in the Internet era: the ad-hoc App

As with any hobby/game/sport, the Internet offers everything and more: I invite lovers of the chess.com platform to contact me and challenge me. You will find me with the nickname Luigi Burgov (pronounced Burgoff). Colorful note: the surname is my son’s idea, convinced that a bit of Russian could help me improve my level!

App and Business Analysis

An ad-hoc article could be written on the interconnections between Apps and Business Analysis (any IIBA volunteers want to propose?). For now we limit ourselves to reflecting on how the captivating way in which the app involves the player can be borrowed in the Business sector. In my work experience we apply Gamification to encourage team activity in different areas of customer management activity. Scores deriving from operational KPIs are displayed dynamically with respect to the relevant targets with animations and backgrounds. In a way completely similar to those of a video game, accompanied by rankings, progressive levels, avatar customization and recognition of achievements via badges that appear next to the avatar. These apps have become business tools like email or chat.

App, Chess and AI

Returning to the chess App, it is interesting how it can also provide feedback on your playing style: best gaming practices are now codified. The ex-post analysis of a match proposed by artificial intelligence (AI), although not personalized and empathetic like what could come from a real chess master, is absolutely useful and valuable for understanding how to improve. Who knows if one day, even on the Business Analysis front, we will have artificial intelligence that will show us where in our work we have made excellent or poor moves, or real mistakes. Would you accept feedback that indicates, from the analysis of emails or chats, where Business Analysis best practices have been applied and where they have been neglected, or would it be an unacceptable interference? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Is there also a gender theme (family statistics)?

My brother-in-law and I took up the world of chess again, especially during the summer holidays in the mountains at the time of Covid, conditioned by the limitations on usual social activities. Indeed, in the group of young people, made up of 3 boys and 3 girls between children and cousins, chess made an impact especially on the boys. I’ll launch an idea on gender equality, and I invite you to leave your thoughts in the comments.

In fact, it seems that, as it happens in the STEM world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, here too there is a male predominance. As far as chess is concerned, Queen of Gambit certainly made a contribution to reflection. Well-known novel and above all well-known Netflix mini series. In 2020, 17 years after the novel, the series has brought themes such as chess and female empowerment to the spotlight.

To complete the previous family statistic, I must say that the game of chess fascinated mostly the boys. But it was the girls who understood that through MTurk it was possible to earn money by training the AI ​​through simple tasks such as answering questionnaires, recognizing images and sounds. I like to read a hope: even if chess will remain a very masculine world, business analysis, AI and large organizations will be increasingly influenced by the girls of the future!

Skills and technique, in chess as well as in Business Analysis. In the photo a player concentrated while making her move.
A frame from the award-winning TV mini series Queen of Gambit, source Netflix

Why Business Analysis?

The answer on why to connect chess and AI to Business Analysis could be very simple: because this article is written for the Business Analysis Blog. So the ‘Chess, AI and Business Analysis’ link is a must. True but not only for this reason! I am not the first to take advantage of my chess knowledge, which in my case is limited, and to attempt this reflection. How can chess strategies and approaches be successfully applied to the business world?

What others are saying about Chess and Business

At the beginning of my job, as a new graduate and new ‘global consultant’ assigned to a large insurance company, I remember a colleague. He was highly appreciated for his precision, analytical ability and reliability. He told me about being a chess master and how it was he has pursued his career in this field since he was a boy. Although the colleague told the story with modesty and naturalness, I was very impressed… and so was probably my client who within a few months hired him in his organization in a responsible role.

Several years later I happened again to connect chess minds to managerial positions. First, at a conference I ran into a manager of a large banking group, a top-level chess player. On a further occasion I attended the presentation of a real course on management and chess proposed by a well-known Business School.

In all these cases the topic was Chess and Business, but not precisely Business Analysis. You can delve deeper into the general theme in this book or in this other one.

Below the focus will be on Business Analysis. And returning in this regard for a moment to the topic of gender. We note how in almost twenty years of presence of the Business Analysis Chapter in Italy there has been a continuous increase in female participation. This happened both among the members, where the percentage has constantly grown and is now close to 40%. And in the governing body, where with the elections at the beginning of 2023, between deputy directors and vice-presidents it has reached almost 50%.

Chess Phases and Business Analysis

Playing chess is a skill. The skills are treated in the BABoK by a sui generis Knowledge Area, that of the Underlying Competencies (Chapter 9 BABoK v3). It addresses the theme of ‘analytical thinking and problem solving’ from which we draw some ideas below.

Furthermore, as is known, the game of chess is divided into three phases: opening, middle game and closing. Let’s go over them by comparing them sequentially with the following three Knowledge Areas of Business Analysis: Business Analysis Planning and Monitoring (Chap. 3 BABoK v3). Strategy Analysis (Chap. 6 BABoK v3), Requirement Analysis and Design Definition (Chap. 7 BABoK v3).

We have excluded other Knowledge Areas from the mapping, and below we will justify the reason for the choice.

Finally, we conclude with a reflection on the time factor, which links the topics of Chess, AI and Business Analysis.

Analytical Thinking and Problem Solving

Among the skills shared between chess players and Business Analysts we certainly have Analytical Thinking and Problem Solving and its core competencies:

  • Creative Thinking: Kasparov in the matches against Deep Blue understood that to overcome the machine he had to break away from the established patterns
  • Decision Making: the essence of choosing the piece to move and the move makes it happen!
  • Learning: learning to play and improve is continuous learning
  • Problem Solving: a chess classic is the problem to be solved in n moves
  • System Thinking: the ‘holistic’ vision is also important in chess, connecting people (instructors, mental coaches, manages), processes (various competitions) and technologies (certainly including IT)
  • Conceptual Thinking: this is an important skill for dealing with complexity, managing to learn from past experiences to deal with the present situation. For the chess player it can be the study of all available information on the opponent: formation, previous games, strengths and weaknesses
  • Visual Thinking: let’s think about the scenes in Queen of Gambit. There the protagonist concentrates and mentally visualizes the chessboard with future moves and sequences

Opening

The opening is the first phase of the chess game. The aim of the opening is to set up the game by trying to develop the pieces by controlling the most important squares on the board. From there you can then attack the opponent’s king, but at the same time guaranteeing protection for your own. To achieve this, players must try to activate their pieces as much as possible, maximizing their range against the opponent.

FeatureChessBusines Analysis
Plan ahead and minimize improvisationDefine which opening to use if you are the first to start the game (the whites). Analyze the opponent and the likely opening that the opponent (the only stakeholder!) will apply. In any case, foresee the probable game variations to be followed in the opening phase. Measures of success in the opening are the level of ‘solidity’ of one’s own side and the presence of weaknesses for the opponent. For example if he has ‘castled’ and whether the opponent has also done so or not, or if there are spaces for subsequent attack manoeuvres.Choose the methodology to apply. Identify and analyze stakeholders. Define how to govern the initiative and measure its progress. Ref. Business Analysis Planning and Monitoring (ch. 3 BABoK v3)

Middle Game

The middle game is the central phase of the game, between the opening and the closing. It is difficult to establish its boundaries. It begins when the two players have finished developing their pieces and the structure of the pawns has taken on a more or less defined physiognomy. It ends when most of the pieces are changed.

FeatureChessBusiness Analysis
Assess the current state, define the future state, evaluate the risks, define the strategyBased on the alignments on the 64 cells of the chessboard, the player predicts possible moves and possible countermoves, identifying risks and opportunities. He then decides to make a strategic move that can bring him closer to victory or to apply a tactical move necessary to mitigate a riskIn Business Analysis the playing field is varied, but often even in these contexts we start from the analysis of the as-is, the definition of the to-be, the identification of risks and the change strategy. The victory in this case is the achievement of the to-be, filling the gaps in skills, processes or technologies identified along the way.

Closing

The closing is the final part of the game, in which only a few pieces other than the two kings are present on the chessboard. Although the separation between the middle game and the closing is not clear, this last phase presents several peculiar characteristics. Among them there is the increased importance of the king and the pawns. The former in fact becomes an active piece of attack and defense. While the possibility or threat of promoting seconds becomes a very important factor in the game. The hope is that your professional challenges, and not just chess ones, can also be finalized with a promotion!

FeatureChessBusiness Analysis
Close effectivelyKnowledge of typical closing schemes (e.g. the sequence of actions to be carried out to corner a king with only two pieces left). If you have the advantage, the goal is to be effective in reaching the goal, i.e. checkmate. However, if you are in difficulty, the strategy can be to maintain concentration and hinder your opponent as much as possible who, with some inaccuracies or errors, could allow you to turn the situation around.The design of the solution represents the ‘final’ of the Business Analysis activity. The adversary in this context is represented by the risks that can more or less manifest themselves. But the good Business Analyst will be able to effectively close the analysis phase by recommending the most valuable solution.
Ref. Requirement Analysis and Design Definition (Chap. 7 BABoK v3)
Man in business attire, with jacket and tie, and chess: symbols of the theme addressed by the article
Photo of chess player and board by Carlos Esteves, source Unsplash

Areas of expertise excluded

In this cross-examination exercise between chess and BA knowledge areas, a series of knowledge areas were left out of the comparison. Here are the reasons and if you don’t agree or see it differently, please report it in the comments!

Business Analysis Knowledge Area excludedAreas of expertise excluded
Elicitation and Collaboration (Cap. 4 BABoK v3)Because chess is a two-person game and it is difficult to ‘elicit’ information from the opponent in a collaborative way as would be done with a generic stakeholder in the world of Business Analysis
Requirements Life Cycle Management (Cap. 5 BABoK v3)In chess there is only one requirement: defeat your opponent! It is difficult to see parallels with requirements lifecycle management…
Solution Evaluation (Cap. 8 BABoK v3)The ‘Solution’ to the aforementioned chess player requirement is which strategy to apply to the game and this has already been written in relation to the ‘medium game’ phase and the Knowledge Area called Strategy Analysis, which is precisely focused on strategy. We could link this area to the further phase of post-match analysis, but the comparison is a bit forced

The Time Factor in Chess, Business Analysis and AI

The last important lesson that playing Chess can provide to the Business Analyst is the time factor. In company retrospectives, hectic work pace is frequently reported and it emerges that the time factor is often critical. How many times in a ‘blitz’ chess game do the 3 minutes of time available for each player end by handing victory to the opponent. Who wins even if he is outnumbered and perhaps close to being checkmated. And how many times does a project fail because it is not possible to reach completion within the set milestone? Or more commonly it is not possible to enhance the project as it could because there was no time for collateral activities. Such as communication, training and more generally change management. Change management which in the post-release can often make the difference between poor stakeholder engagement with failure of the solution over time or actual success.

Chess game timer. Time is also a crucial factor in AI and Business Analysis
Chess game timer

Incidentally, the time factor is also the secret of the development of AI in recent years. Algorithms that would have required thousands of hours of processing on limited samples of data can now run in the ‘Cloud’ in minutes. And on impressive amounts of data thanks to developments of distributed computing via Big Data architectures (Hadoop, Spark, etc…).

Let’s leave AI and return to the parallel chess and Business Analysis. As in chess the good player must constantly keep the timer under control, so in Business Analysis and Project Management professionals have to constantly update their KPIs, OKRs or Gantts as appropriate. And they must steer the company, beating the clock so that the strategy is transformed into execution. Overcoming every risk, including primarily that of running out of time available to be effective.

Pubblicato da Luigi Pantarotto

Manager passionate of Business Analysis, Data Science and of applying new technologies to process improvement. Head of Market Quality & Cost Monitoring in Eni Plenitude. VP Marketing & Communicatons of IIBA Italy Chapter. MBA, CBAP, CBDA, PMP and engineering degree.

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