Personal Finance

6 min read

November 23, 2020

All The Right Moves: 6 Money Lessons From the Game of Chess

Using learnings from the beautiful game to crush your money goals

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Chess is life in miniature. Chess is a struggle. Chess battles." - Garry Kasparov

One of the oldest games in the world, chess is well-known for containing several universal truths. Having a plan, thinking strategically, and knowing what to do when things go awry are all important aspects of winning a chess game. These same principles apply to your financial game, too. Here are 6 money lessons from chess to help you make smart financial plays with your money.

Learn the Game

You can't expect to master the game of chess without learning the rules and tools of the board. And a lot of practice. Russian chess grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik famously said, “Chess is like bodybuilding. If you train every day, you stay in top shape; chess is a matter of daily training.” In other words, if you want to get better, you have to keep at it.

Same goes for your approach to your financial health. A firm understanding of the basics—budgeting, saving, borrowing, earning—is essential to your overall success. Fortunately, there are lots of good resources out there to help you learn how to manage your finances.

Don’t know where to start? Take a look at our growing library of expert advice, like our budgeting guide and savings tips. Then make time to build those good financial habits into your regular routine.

Create a Strategy for Each Stage of the Game

Your opening move isn't the same as your endgame, and neither is your approach to personal finance at every stage of life. What you do with your money in your 20s won't be the same as what you do when you’re near retirement. It’s smart to spell out your goals and stick to your plan, but be prepared to make adjustments along the way.  

Take a page from another legendary Russian grandmaster, Mikhail Botvinnik, whose playing style was remarkable for its flexibility. Well-known for his commitment to the long game, Botvinnik considered himself a “universal player.” Put another way, he was adaptable, willing to change his approach and adjust to the playing styles of his opponents.

Play to your advantages at each stage of your financial life. For example, when you’re just starting out in your career, you may have the means to set aside as much as you’d like, but you do have the advantage of time. Experts agree that putting money away for retirement is exponentially more effective the younger you start. The wise move here is steady, consistent saving.

As you head toward middle age, your income may grow and you may have paid down things like student debt. In this stage, you might want to squirrel away a little more while you have the benefit of a couple decades’ of working years still on the horizon. And you’ll revisit your goals again as you approach your retirement “endgame.”

Start Small, Start Strong

Opening with a pawn is a classic chess move because it creates a way for the higher-ranking pieces to enter the game. Whether you're just beginning to build your savings, or dipping your toe in investing, it's a good idea to start small. Set aside a doable amount each month, and stay consistent. The bigger gains will follow as the power of compound interest works to strengthen your overall position.

You can also look at your finances like a series of chess tactics. Intentionally choose a sequence of small moves with the expectation of incremental gains.

Building a CD ladder could be another tactic, or opening an IRA for retirement savings. You might not see it right away, but those small efforts will bear fruit down the line.

Give Up Pieces Wisely

In any chess game, you're bound to lose pieces. The key is figuring out which ones to save, which ones to sacrifice, and when. Would you intentionally lose a bishop to save a pawn? Probably not. And if you’re a fan of opening your game with a gambit, you know sacrificing a piece is only worth it if you gain a better position on the board as a result.

Sometimes it can be tricky to keep that principle in mind as it applies to your day-to-day finances. You wouldn’t intentionally give up a dream vacation for a few cups of coffee. But impulsive decisions, bad investments, and a buy-now-pay-later attitude will end up weakening your long-term position just the same. So think twice when you’re tempted to tap into that emergency fund for a shiny new car, for example, or your retirement assets for a weekend away.

Be Patient

Patience has to be one of the defining characteristics of great chess players. The longest recorded chess game was between Ivan Nikolic and Goran Arsovic. It lasted over twenty hours and included 269 moves. The best players know that the best moves require measured thought and analysis. According to the longest-reigning World Champion chess player ever, Emmanuel Lasker: “if you see a great move, search for a better one.”

Patience pays off when it comes to your finances, too. If you find a great interest rate on a mortgage, for example, take some time to shop around before you pull the trigger. Are economic conditions taking a toll on your stock portfolio? Consider waiting it out before you unload your assets at too-low prices. And of course patience is paramount when it comes to growing your savings balance.

Develop the habit of carefully considering any money move you make, and you'll steadily advance toward your financial goals.

Keep Learning

You probably know that American Bobby Fischer won the “match of the century” against the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War. But did you know Fischer lost the first game and didn't even show up to the second? Even the best in the world misstep sometimes.

You're bound to suffer a few setbacks as you navigate your financial journey. Job loss, economic downturns, and individual decisions can all temporarily derail your best laid plans. But regardless of the cause or circumstances, how you respond to obstacles is the key to your comeback.

Remember, successful people don't avoid failure, they learn from it. So if you bust your budget one month, for example, don't give up. If you're behind on retirement savings, consider adjustments to make up for lost ground. And the home repair you had to put on a credit card? Think of it as extra motivation to build up your emergency fund to cover the next unexpected expense.

Just as it's true that “every chess master was once a beginner” (Irving Chernev), the lessons you learn will only make you a stronger player in the end.

Laura Southwick
Laura Southwick
With 15+ years of experience writing for finance and tech, Laura specialises in simplifying complex topics for all audiences. Her work has appeared on Ally Bank, Inman, and Hyper Networks.

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