Three things I learned from making it into the UK top 200

by Viv Cole on March 19, 2019

The rapidly changing business environment means that increasingly people need T-shaped skills profiles (deep expertise in one or more domains and a broad awareness of several areas). As change accelerates, people will need to reinvent the vertical part of their T more often.

The conventional wisdom (Gladwell et al.) is that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Businesses don’t have that amount of time – how can L&D help people perform at an expert level more rapidly?

Last year I briefly made it into the UK top 200 at chess. Here I share some reflections on what I learned along the journey to expert performance and how they are useful for L&D.  

Those who know me probably don’t know that I play chess – it’s not a great party conversation. I have played for a few years at county level, nothing especially remarkable. My best claim to fame is that at the age of 15 I became officially the 19th best woman chess player in the UK – although that was a typo…I can only thank my parents for giving me an ambiguous name. In 2017/18 a freakishly good run of results propelled my rating into the UK’s top 200. I attribute this to three main hacks.

Choose your battleground

Chess is a game with almost perfect information – you and your opponent can see everything on the board. Also the moves of almost all competitive master games are recorded on databases. Most popular openings have main lines that have been analysed through to move 30 or so. If you can memorise these, you can be a club player playing grandmaster moves. If your opponent deviates from the grandmaster line, the chances are you can pounce.

There is no shortage of chess books and Youtube videos that delve into different openings, strategies, tactics and techniques. The challenge is to make time to study these and stay up to date.

Hack #1: Develop your own niche. Don’t spend time studying what everyone is studying, choose the little known by-ways. It’s not objectively the best thing to do because the rewards are lower and the risks are higher. However, you’ll get an edge by being more familiar with the terrain than your opponent.

Seeing the bigger picture

In principle there is an objectively best move in any position. As computers have progressed, we know better what those moves are. However, focusing on the moves misses a crucial point – the game is still played by humans and they are susceptible to making mistakes or getting distracted.

Typical advice would be to ensure that you’re feeling physically fit and well rested. As all competitive games have a time limit you can gain an edge by managing your thinking time better than your opponent, adding clock pressure to board pressure. Here’s a less conventional tip.

Hack #2. Work out what people want to avoid. On any move, you can offer your opponent a draw – how civilised! That offer lasts until your opponent plays their next move. In a position where I’m narrowly losing and I intuit that my opponent would almost certainly refuse a draw offer, I shamelessly offer a draw. If they accept, I get objectively the best result I could hope for.

When they refuse, it gets more interesting…they have made a new commitment to themselves to play for a win. This means they are more likely to try to force the position and make mistakes. And if I manage to turn the tables a few moves later, they will waste some of their time regretting that they refused the draw offer earlier, beating themselves up. I can think of 3 games that I have won as a result of this hack in the last 5 years.

Be honest about your game

As all chess moves are recorded you can re-play and analyse your own and others’ games to your heart’s content. In real life it’s a bit harder to get an objective version of what happened and why, but you can seek feedback and make time to reflect.

Hack #3. Make your own plan. Although I spend far less time studying chess openings than I should, I make time to analyse my games and work out where I have gone off-course and what I need to improve. That way I ensure that the time I invest in improving my game is likely to have the highest pay-off.


As someone who took a few shortcuts along the way it was no surprise to me that I didn’t stay in the top 200 for long. As I return to the ranks of the top 1,000, if someone out there wants to pay me for a year-long sabbatical to practice properly, I’d be happy to have a go at cracking the top 100!

In the meantime, I trust these hacks help you develop new verticals to your Ts even faster.


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