Play the Product Marketing Game Like a Chess Grandmaster

In an earlier life I was a fairly good chess player. I still play occasionally; one of my favorite times in London a few years ago was chatting with locals at the Churchill Arms over a pint and chess (UK 3 – US 0, I’m afraid).

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One of the best chess books of all time for those seriously interested in becoming very good players is Play Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov. Unlike many chess books preoccupied with theory and opening lines of play which often become obsolete over just a few years, Kotov’s 1978 book remains as valuable as when it was first published.

Kotov’s chess advice bearing interesting similarities to the results-oriented Pragmatic Marketing training for Product Marketers.

From Kotov’s book:

The player who wishes to improve, who wants to win in competitive play, must develop his ability to assess positions, and on that basis work out plans for what comes next…[Specifically, after the player] has worked out the relationship of the [position’s] elements to each other, the player moves on to general assessment [and then] proceeds to the next step, when (s)he draws up a plan for what follows (emphasis added).

Assessing Key Elements. Effective chess play begins with correctly assessing the key elements of a position. Kotov then lists 17 key elements of a chess position, categorizing them in a way product marketers can appreciate: permanent advantages and temporary advantages. So, winning chess first requires identifying your advantages, understanding how the advantages relate to one another and which advantages are most important.

Similarly, Pragmatic Marketing’s Marketecture process of product positioning calls for identifying those advantageous features of your product that relate to the most important challenges your target market/target buyer is facing, and prioritizing those advantageous features.

General Assessment. After a chess player has completed her review of the key elements, she summaries her findings in her mind in the form of an internal monologue: “Black (the opponent) has three weak pawns, all defended by his bishop…,” and so on.  This is what Kotov calls the “general assessment,” which bears some similarity to the marketing positioning document; which basically is the written findings of Pragmatic Marketing’s Marketecture-focused process of product positioning.

Planning. With the general assessment in mind, a chess player is ready to formulate a concrete plan, linked organically from his general assessment (i.e., “I will force my opponent to trade his bishop for mine, leaving those three weak pawns all undefended, which I will attack with my queen…” and so on).  The road to a marketing plan has further steps – the positioning document is used to develop collateral and other marketing assets which are used to help develop a go-to market strategy, which in turn leads to the selection of specific marketing tools and programs.  Still, the point remains that the selection of marketing tactical activities comes only after a strategic assessment process.

The benefits of the previous steps taken prior to developing a plan are similar for chess players and product marketers in that they enable focus. Beginner chess players typically struggle trying to choose between what feels like a limitless number of possible moves; however, a plan drawn from an assessment as Kotov describes helps eliminate moves from consideration that do not pertain to that plan. Similarly, product marketers meanwhile struggle with “the list” – the seemingly limitless check-box task list of marketing to-dos; with a strategic process completed, you can delete things off “the list” that do not support that strategic process.

There are even more intriguing analogies between Alexander Kotov’s wise insights into chess and the product marketing advice of Pragmatic Marketing!  UPDATE: I wrote an extended article on this same topic for the June 2011 Pragmatic Marketing newsletter.  You can find that article here!

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