Ken Rogoff shares 4 lessons he learned as a chess grandmaster

  • Ken Rogoff moved to Europe in the 1960s to pursue a chess career.
  • He went on to become a grandmaster of the game.
  • Rogoff was chief economist at the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2003.

By the time Ken Rogoff was 16 in 1969, he was playing chess at such a high level that he had little competition in the United States.

So he packed his bags, stopped attending his high school classes, and moved to Europe.

“There weren’t many strong opponents in the United States. There were some good players, but there just wasn’t a lot of tournaments,” Rogoff told Insider on May 6. “So if you wanted to develop, you had to play against the best players.”

In the following two years he lived in Great Britain, Spain and mainly in what was then Yugoslavia. It was there that Rogoff found his best competitors, unable to set foot in Russia in the midst of the Cold War.

“Yugoslavia was actually number two after Russia at the time,” said Rogoff. “It was impossible to go to Russia back then.”

In 1971, Rogoff decided to change course again and, according to his faculty biography, applied to Yale University to study economics at Harvard, where he is currently Professor of Economics and the Maurits C. Boas Chair in International Economics. While studying in New Haven, Rogoff continued his chess career, playing during the summers. He also played while completing his Ph.D. at MIT.

After years of international success, Rogoff captured the highest title in chess, Grandmaster, in 1978. He soon quit playing chess altogether until he played a blitz match – or speed match – against Magnus Carlsen, then and now the world’s best player, in 2012 to raise money for charity. The couple moved.

Ken Rogoff played against Magnus Carlson in 2012.

Ken Rogoff played against Magnus Carlsen in 2012.

Photo courtesy of Ken Rogoff

After chess, Rogoff pursued a successful career in economics and worked at the International Monetary Fund

federal reserve

under Paul Volcker and as a professor at a number of universities including the University of Wisconsin, the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University and now Harvard University. From 2001 to 2003 he returned to the IMF as Chief Economist.

4 lessons learned from chess

Although he retired from chess in the late 1970s, Rogoff said that throughout his career in economics he drew on the lessons he learned from the game.

For example, during his time at the helm of the IMF, he said that chess helped his negotiating skills helps him see other people’s perspectives and control his emotions.

“Chess teaches you to think about what the other person is thinking, it teaches you to try to stay calm,” he said.

But if you think about economics and politics more broadly, Rogoff says chess taught him that Look for patterns that a specific current position might fit into. In terms of the economy, one can observe trends and the position of an economy, patterns that occur with those trends and positions, and decide how to respond to them.

Chess also taught Rogoff to think about it how a situation could develop in the longer term as a result of decisions made.

Kenneth Rogoff

Rogoff was chief economist at the IMF from 2001 to 2003.

AP Photo/Ron Thomas

“Often when you’re thinking about a chess problem you’re looking for patterns you understand, you’re trying to see if your position on the board fits into patterns you’re familiar with, and then as you go deeper you’re trying to think about how it will develop,” he said.

He continued: “There is certainly a certain analogy when thinking about what to say about interest rates, thinking about what pattern the current economy fits into, and considering whether it fits into a framework that puts you in a direction.”

Finally, Rogoff said chess taught him that slow down and reevaluate a decision before it is made.

“There’s an important part of chess, before you do anything, you should stop and consider if you’ve done something wrong,” he said. “Good chess players stop before they move.”


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