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The Bottom Line: Why Negotiation is Nothing Like Chess.

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

One of the breakout series of 2020 is Netflix's 'The Queen's Gambit'. The story follows a woman's professional chess career as she negotiates social and competitive obstacles in 1960s America. It is a wonderful mini-series that expertly weaves social commentary and a touching coming-of-age story into the rules and strategies necessary to succeed in life and chess.

It's success has seen a resurgent interest in the timeless board game. It has also seen an innumerate number of publications likening chess to business negotiation which, if believed, undermine professionals' understanding and preparedness for the real-life arena.

The Case for Comparison

It is easy to understand why some might draw parallels between the game of chess and the art of negotiation:

  • There are two opponents;

  • Each seeks to gain a competitive edge over the other with every move;

  • The game requires players to think several steps ahead;

  • Players must simultaneously think offensively and defensively; and

  • Experience matters.

However, these (superficial) similarities are just as applicable to nearly every competitive sport, and are really where the case for comparison ends.

Why Negotiation Stands Apart

In reality, negotiation and chess are as heavily contrasted as the 64 playing squares on the latter's board. This is because every game of chess has certain assumptions that are fatal if applied to negotiation.

In chess, each player has their pieces aligned on their side of the board in identical starting positions, and the game starts with 'white' making the first move. By contrast, however, most negotiations do not even start at the beginning of the 'game'! Most negotiations are preceded by reputation, complex relationships, and a breakdown or failure of communication. Additionally, the parties to negotiation rarely have equal starting positions. One party is usually 'larger', better resourced, and less reliant on their counterpart. To assume that a negotiation commences 'at the table' or that the parties stand on equal footing can doom the player that enters with such a misapprehension.

With limited exceptions, each player in a game of chess has the same objective: to place the opponent's king-piece in threat of capture with no opportunity to block, destroy, or retreat from the threat. Parties to a negotiation often have different objectives. One party may sit at the table believing the conversation is about genuinely reconciling disagreement on price, while the other may be present simply to say "no" in-person to let their counterpart 'know who's boss.'

Somewhat similar to the last examples, in chess each player knows who they're up against - the person sitting on the other side of board. Negotiation is rarely this clear. Oftentimes there are decisionmakers behind the scenes - the client giving their attorney their instructions or the Board of Directors reserving their assent to any consensus reached by the parties. If a negotiator enters the arena believing that their only opponent is the one they see, they're unlikely to see the big pictures or notice the cues that offer hints about its nature.

Chess also has set rules that both players abide. This makes certain moves predictable: A bishop will never land on a different color, a rook will always move in straight lines (unless castling), and my dad will always try to win using a queen-knight combination. These rules offer structure to the game. Generally speaking, however, there are no rules for negotiation. Participants are free to act irrationally or against their own interests, or can refuse to participate altogether. In some instances, such behavior can even work to their advantage.

Finally, and most importantly, unlike chess, negotiation is not an adversarial exercise. Where players of chess seek to overcome their opponent with every move, parties to a negotiation work together to achieve a common objective. In illustration of this axiom, chess players sit on opposite sides of the table, while negotiators sit together. If a party enters a negotiation with an adversarial mindset, they may turn their counterpart into an opponent rather than a peer.

The Bottom Line

There are some undeniable parallels between negotiation and other competitive activities like chess. However, to suggest that the strategies that work for chess are as equally applicable to negotiation is like trying to win a game of Monopoly playing by the rules of Twister. You might get lucky, but you're far more likely to tie yourself in a knot while you go bankrupt.

If something is important enough to negotiate, it's important enough to bring in a professional. Out-House Attorneys, LLC. offers executive-level attorneys with international experience in negotiating high-stakes deals. Whether you're negotiating a contract or making last ditch-efforts to avoid litigation, Out-House Attorneys is ready to help you make all the right moves.

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