Entrepreneurship is a Game of Go, Not Chess

Go is an ancient Chinese board game that has become the national game of Japan. In the 1980s, I read an article that declared that Go, the oldest game in the world (4000 years!), was the reason Japanese businesses were beating American businesses. My father had an old Go set, and I learned how to play. At the Half Hollow Hills Melville library, a local Go evangelist by the name of Milton N. Bradley hosted an ad hoc Go club, and I bought his ring-bound mimeographed book "Go For Beginners." I never became very good, but I could see why people had attributed almost mystical traits to the strategy game.

Go's rules are so simple, yet the available strategies are so complex that its masters, until recently, have been able to beat every supercomputer competitor. Contrast that with Garry Kasparov, the best chess grandmaster 20 years ago, who famously lost his match to IBM's Deep Blue. Chess, as exciting and rich with history as it is, is a poor metaphor for business strategy: there is only forward motion. Except when a pawn reaches the other side of the board and can become a Queen or Knight, there are no opportunities for making up for past losses.

On the other hand, Go is fluid until the end. You may feel like you've got your adversary where you want him or her--surrounded!--but, in fact, you may find you are surrounded yourself. Unlike in chess, which places an outsized value on the sacred nature of each piece, Go celebrates the act of cutting your losses and pivoting. Go is actually an excellent metaphor for entrepreneurship: each day for an entrepreneur is fluid. Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down, and sometimes you don't know if you're the predator or prey.

I'm a huge fan of Mike Judge's "Silicon Valley," and, when I watch the exploits of talented and quirky engineers trying to make it in the cutthroat startup world, I feel like I'm watching the roller coaster rides my most entrepreneurial clients seem to experience. Sometimes they appear to be masters of the universe. Other times, they feel trapped. Some might say they are pawns. I prefer to think of them as players holding a bowl full of jade goishi.