Winning the Game – Three Lessons on Excellence from a World-Class Chess Champion

By Dave Striegel, Ph.D.

“You tell me what I need to know about performance, and I’ll tell you what you need to know about chess.” These were the words a young, professional chess player said to me at our first meeting over 20 years ago. I was working at a Florida training center coaching elite athletes and executives how to be strong leaders under pressure. The chess player was Josh Waitzkin. You may recognize Josh’s name if you’re a fan of chess or if you’ve seen the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was about Josh’s childhood as a chess prodigy in New York City.

When I met Josh, I was just a few years out of grad school and was thrilled to work with someone who was NOT a typical athlete or business executive.

There was only one little problem…I didn’t play chess…like at all. At best I knew the names of some of the pieces. There was a king, a queen, a horse and a castle. That’s it! I was panicking, because I didn’t know Josh’s “sport.”

So, when we sat down the first day, I said, “Josh, I need you to know I don’t play chess.” He didn’t even flinch and replied, “That’s ok, Dave. Even if you did, you don’t know chess the way I do. So, you tell me what I need to know about performance, and I’ll tell you what you need to know about chess.”  That was the first of many powerful lessons I learned from Josh. My talent and knowledge were enough. I just needed to trust them.

Now, Josh had come to our training center in what sports people call a “slump.” He was not performing nearly to his capabilities, and he was frustrated.

After much conversation, we arrived at a critical understanding. In chess, there are two basic styles of play…attacking and defending. Josh was a naturally aggressive player. But, as he was learning how to beat defensive-type players, he started trying to PLAY that way…a style that didn’t match his instincts. It would be like trying to play golf or do dentistry with your non-dominant hand. Good luck with that! And he couldn’t see it because the field of neuroscience has shown that when we’re frustrated, our ability to self-analyze takes a huge dive. He needed my help seeing what he couldn’t see.

So, Lesson #2 from Josh was that we all can benefit from coaching. Even the best of the best want, and need to be coached, and they want a coach who will tell them the truth, no matter how ugly it might be.

As I watched Josh implement our plan, I learned my third powerful lesson from him:  It’s not enough to just practice. You have to fall in love with the entire process of improving.

Every few months Josh would return to Florida for a check-in. He’d sit down in my office and want to analyze like the 17th move of a chess match that took place two months ago in Turkey. He’d flip open this little magnetic chess board. But instead of putting the pieces in the “position” he wanted to analyze, he would start from the beginning of the match and move the pieces one by one so he could feel the pressure build that led to the mistake. Yep, he was learning to love the PROCESS of getting better.

But more importantly, he was learning how to be a champion.  In fact, after his chess career, he would go on to earn a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu, win a world championship in tai chi, write a best-selling book called The Art of Learning and is now a successful speaker and coach to some of the most successful investors on Wall Street.

Josh’s path shows that to become a champion at anything, we must follow these three steps:  1) know your strengths and trust them, 2) find a coach who will tell you the truth, and 3) fall in love with the entire process of improving and the invisible victories the outside world doesn’t see.

Having spent the past decade coaching dentists and their teams, I’ve realized we all are no different than Josh.  By implementing these principles, just like Josh, you, too, can learn to be a champion in your own pursuit of excellence. So, I’ll leave you with a final question we all should consider…What if we pursued excellence in our businesses the way Josh pursued excellence in chess?


Dr. Dave Striegel’s unique background, with a Ph.D. in sport psychology, coupled with his highly engaging, no-nonsense communication style have led to over 25 years of success as a performance coach, consultant and speaker.  He has worked with individuals and organizations including professional and elite amateur athletes, Fortune 500 executives, business owners, doctors, top educators and law enforcement specialists.

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