David Caulfield

Knowing chess rules does not make me a grandmaster

What are the rules of chess?

Chess rules are simple: Trap your oppenent's king before they trap yours. Of course, there are other rules like how pawns should capture other pieces or how a king should castle. I know these rules and I know them well. My go-to method of procratination is to play a game of chess on lichess.org.

So here's a question: If I know the rules of chess, why can't I beat an experienced chess player?

I know that bishops move diagonally and knights make that weird "L" shape. But if you put me against an experienced chess player, I don't stand a chance. The reason for this seems plainly obvious: Knowing the rules is not enough.

The same applied to all games. While knowing the rules is essential to play the game, they do not inform the tactics and strategies of the game. The rules don't tell me what the best chess openings are or what the best endgame is. They don't explain the traps that happen when I move the queen to this position or the knight to this. They don't tell me the consequences of my move in two, three or four moves time. Knowledge of the rules alone explains none of these things.

How does this apply to the business world?

So we've established: Knowing the rules does not qualify us as a master of the game. Then why not apply the same standard to the professional world?

A Python certificate does not a Python developer make.

A Scrum certificate does not a Scrum Master make.

A Six Sigma certificate does not a Project Manager make.

We should not place blind trust in CVs or certificates that simply say that a person is qualified in subject X.

What signals mastery?

How would we know someone is good at chess? We would play them against someone else who is also good at chess.

The same goes when hiring candidates or evaluating people's expertise. Their CV says have some certificates - great! At least it means they probably have an interest. But we must make sure they can play the game.

My favourite way to evaluate expertise is to talk to the person about problem scenarios in their field. In my opinion, this is how all interviews should be conducted (not multi-day take-home assignments or leetcode exercises). If it's a programming problem, let's talk through it together and come up with a solution on paper first and then write some code. If it's a leadership problem, let's discuss the assumptions, ideas and proposals to solve it.

That's how we check for expertise - we see if they can play the game.

How can I show I'm an expert in something?

At the risk of repeating myself: Show others you can play the game.

Show them that you don't just know the rules but can apply tactics and strategies to real world problems. Write about the times you've played the game. Tell them about the mistakes you've made and what you've learned. Build things to prove that you can build them.

Of course, all of this assumes one important thing: You must know what you're talking about.

While there are shortcuts to achieve expertise quicker (namely focus), nothing replaces putting in the hard work. That doesn't mean you need to spend 2 hours everyday for the next year learning how to play the game (but if you have the time why not!?). However, it does mean that you need to keep chipping away at it. A little bit here, a little bit there - it all adds up. But please, please, don't stop after just learning the rules.

The rules matter.

But playing the game matters most.

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