Mindset Lessons From Games

Poker and chess can both teach us valuable lessons about our mindsets.

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Games, in general, are highly instructional for researchers and academics, but most average people don’t think too deeply about the nature of games, the rules of games, or the impact of games played across time, with multiple players, or even in changing environments.

The very first solitaire game for Microsoft was designed by an intern, which should come as no surprise. Many young mammals in the animal kingdom learn the rules of society and teams from working through games. And humans learn the same lessons by playing games–alone and in groups–throughout their childhood and in various environments, learning lessons of competition, cooperation, and of course, mindset.

Mindset is the set of beliefs, values, postures, attitudes, and approaches to the world and it’s games, that individuals develop over the course of time. The researcher, Carol Dweck, worked for many years to identify the differences between a “fixed” mixed and a “growth” mindset.

According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, your beliefs play a pivotal role in what you want and whether you achieve it. Dweck has found that it is your mindset that plays a significant role in determining achievement and success.

Thus, the lessons gleaned from the two oldest games human beings play–poker and chess–matter quite a bit to a leader who is seeking to design a team, create a culture, or move an organization toward learning and growth.

Poker Lessons

Poker is one of the oldest card games around and the most examined in media culture.

Typically positioned as a “game of risk” many non-poker players avoid the game because the risk posture seems too high, the loss possibility seems too high, and the possibility for gain seems to not matter to a much larger world.

Poker is also a game that is sometimes seen as a game that “people with money” can play because it is perceived that they have more to gain (money) and less to lose (status) than a person who is money poor, but courage-rich.

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However, leaders don’t have the luxury of engaging in such blinkered thinking and being bound by such narrow judgments, so it behooves leaders to not only understand how poker is played but also why it’s played–and won and lost–by so many people (mostly men) around the world.

Leaders can take one big lesson from the game of poker:

From poker, leaders can internalize that what matters less than the risk we’re taking to play the poker game (or any other game) in the first place, is determining the long-term value of the table at which we’ve decided to sit down to start playing the game. Many of us don’t realize the rules of the poker game we’re playing (adulthood, parenting, building a business, going to a school, etc.), and thus make decisions to sit down at metaphorical tables to play games with real outcomes that impact real people, without understanding the why of what we’re doing in the first place.

We make the faulty assumption that if we just work harder at a losing table surrounded by other more experienced players, eventually we’ll somehow pull out a win. Instead of picking up what chips we have, closing our part in the game out, and moving to another table, with other players, where the odds are stacked a little more in our favor.

Chess Lessons

Chess is also one of the oldest strategy and long-term thinking and planning games played by human beings.

Typically thought of as a game of “pointy-headed” people, or the phenomenally focused, chess is a game that is a step up from the game of checkers, and involves patience, planning, competence, and continued practice through frustration.

Chess is a game that rewards stalwart resiliency and rejects honoring quick moves, thoughtless reactions, and immediate response to the other party’s positional open to the board.

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Leaders should recognize the power of strategic thinking embedded in chess games. After all, other than Go, it is the game that many artificial intelligence programs are programmed with before they meet the human public.

Leaders can take one big lesson from chess games.

From chess, we learn that what matters in the short-term is to be tactical and intentional early on in the game, rather than waiting until we’re almost beaten to even begin thinking about how we’re going to exit a losing game.

Many people fail to plan ahead, act intentionally, or implement the lessons from the hard-earned knowledge and wisdom we have gained over time. Instead, too many people act on the faulty assumption that if we just “show up” to a chess game called by another party, that somehow it’ll all come together in the end in our favor, while we’re learning the moves, learning the board, and learning the terminology all at the same time.

Both mindsets—making risky bets based on percentages and knowing the table rules (poker) and planning ahead for contingencies and applying wisdom from previous losses (chess)—are necessary to have and apply in order to navigate the modern world.

More of us would do well to watch the World Series of Poker or read a chess strategy book by Garry Kasparov, than binge one more episode of whatever’s on Netflix right now.

And to make that decision reveals a mindset as well.

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