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“Collect as much data as you can about your competitors and about the market in general.”

Can you tell us about how you use computers in your competitive routines ?

Well, I use them in at least two different ways. The first one relates to my competitors: I use databases like ChessBase to get a clearer picture of my competitors’ style. For example, if I had to prepare for a match against Elvira Berend (an over-50s World Champion from Luxembourg), I would see that she tends to play in a certain way with specific openings. I can also find out statistics about each line of her performance. 


Just like tennis players hammering their opponents’ weak side ?

Exactly. In addition, computers make it possible to explore complex lines in milliseconds. AlphaZero, the program developed by Google, has popularised new moves and new ways to solve old problems. The program was given the rules of chess, and within a few hours, having played millions of games against itself, it had improved so much that it was clearly unbeatable, even against the best machines! This was really impressive, not just because of the program’s pure strength but also because AlphaZero has revolutionised entire areas of chess with brand new concepts. The current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, publicly admitted that the overwhelming results he enjoyed in 2019 were partly due to his study of AlphaZero’s games.

How does this relate to people working in the financial sector ?

In terms of your competition, collect as much data as you can about your competitors and the market in general. Today, there are huge amounts of data available for free; you just need to invest the time and resources to collect and analyse it. There is also a link in terms of supercomputing: I believe that powerful calculations can enhance the work of risk managers, asset managers, treasurers and so on. 

Are computers key to achieving top performance in the digital era ?

No, thankfully – otherwise we would organise computer matches all year long. Humans remain in the driving seat because calculations don’t win the match. We can make the difference thanks to our creativity, our stress management techniques and our ability to identify opportunities in what seems chaotic to most observers. This last quality is the key difference between a top-level chess player and an average professional – I guess it must be the same in other areas, including finance, of course.


How do you develop these qualities ?

If I knew the answer to that question, I would already be World Champion! People often ask me about the importance of talent versus hard work: I’d say that you need a lot of both! But the most important aspect is to have a long-term strategy and to stick to it.

Do you feel that there is significant volatility in chess performance ?

Looking solely at short-term results might give this impression, but with solid fundamentals and a healthy work ethic, performance is sure to improve over time. I believe that the same rules apply in portfolio management.


How would you prepare for a match against the reigning champion Magnus Carlsen ?

There are two main approaches: one is conservative, the other is aggressive. It all depends on the context. If you decide to play conservatively, you can choose to play a line you know really well or a line which keeps the position simple and facilitates draws. The aggressive approach involves looking for something new – a move which has never been made before – and trying to gain an edge by preparing the next move with trainers and computers while your opponent probably has to figure it out on the board. 

But it’s worth bearing in mind that chess is played with different time controls: the World Championship is played over 100 minutes, with 30-second increments after every move and an additional 50 minutes after the 40th move, while other tournaments are played very quickly, such as with rapid or blitz matches (25 and 5 minutes each, respectively). It’s just like tennis, where you can be a singles champion but only in the Top 50 in doubles or vice versa. 


Would you say that the shorter the time control, the more room there is for creativity ?

It’s not as simple as that. You can prepare well for a blitz but it’s easier to destabilise your opponent in faster matches. 


Finally, what advice would you give to financial professionals ?

If you don’t already know how to play, you might consider learning the basics of chess as a way to improve your performance at work. You can play a blitz match on your phone in less than 10 minutes and improve your creativity, your stress resistance and your self-confidence. We sometimes play pro chess tournaments in which a pro teams up with a businessman or woman; some of them are really talented. In business as in chess, it’s all about solving problems and ensuring lasting performance !

The first keynote speaker of the Black-Tie event organised on the 6th of February, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, is one of the best chess players in the world. He became the second youngest Grandmaster in the world in 2005, at the age of 14 years and 4 months, and he has won many tournaments, including the Paris Grand Chess Tour in 2019 and the Sinquefield Cup in 2017. 


Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

In 2016 and 2017, he spent several months as the world’s #2 classical chess player, while his exceptional skills in speed chess led to him becoming the world’s #1 in rapid and blitz chess in several monthly lists in 2018 and 2019. When playing, he is, quite honestly, a beast. Although he wasn’t born in the city of Lyon, his nickname in the chess world is “the Lyon Beast” because of his passion for the football club Olympique Lyonnais. But we’re not here to talk about E2-E4, E7-E5, Knight F3, Knight C6, Bishop B5 and so on – we’re here to talk about business, machines and how to achieve top performance in the digital era.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave:

Business, machines

and top performance

in the digital era

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