“Not chess, Mr. Spock. Poker. Do you know the game?”
In one of my all-time favorite Star Trek episodes, The Carbomite Maneuver, Kirk and his crew face down an unknown vessel from a group calling themselves the “First Federation.” Threats from the crystal-shaped vessel escalate until it seems that the destruction of the Enterprise is imminent. Kirk asks Spock for options, who replies that the Enterprise has been playing a game of chess, and now there are no winning moves left. Kirk counters that they shouldn’t play chess – they should play poker. He then bluffs the ship by telling them that the Enterprise has a substance in its hull called “corbomite” which will reflect the energy of any weapon back against an attacker. This begins a series of actions that enables the Enterprise crew to establish peaceful relations with the First Federation. For those Original Series “Trekkies”, this episode was the first one that DeForest Kelley played the good Doctor McCoy (The 10th episode of the Series which also featured Ron Howard’s brother Clint Howard).
I grew up playing chess and love it as much as the next geek, but chess is often taken too seriously as a metaphor for leadership strategy. For all of its intricacies, chess is a game of defined rules that can be mathematically determined. It’s ultimately a game of boxes and limitations. A far better analogy to leadership strategy is poker, not chess. Life is a game of probabilities, not defined rules. And often understanding your opponents gives you a much greater advantage than the cards you have in your hand. It was knowledge of his opponent that allowed Kirk to defeat Khan in Star Trek II by exploiting Khan’s “two-dimensional thinking”. Bluffs, tells, and bets are all a big part of real-life strategy. Playing that strategy with an eye to the psychology of our competitors, not just the rules and circumstances of the game can often lead to better outcomes than following the rigid lines of chess.
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