If you ask my wife what the weirdest thing about me is, she’ll have a number of answers to choose from. One of these answers would be that I like to watch videos of Magnus Carlsen playing chess. He’s currently the top-ranked player in the world in three different styles of play. I love greatness and he is pure greatness. (Lots of people hate greatness, which might be a blog post in the future. Tom Brady, LeBron, Tiger, Steph, Griffey. People love to hate on greatness all the while aspiring to be great.) Reading his Wikipedia page reveals that he holds an insane number of records like: Longest unbeaten streak at elite level (120 games unbeaten), highest-rated chess player ever, largest lead in the rankings of all time, only player to ever be ranked #1 in the world in the three main styles of play, youngest player to surpass a rating of 2800, youngest player to reach number one in the world rankings.
Carlsen is fun to watch because he always seems to be in control and he’s the best there is. You know you’re watching the best chess available when you watch him.
While he is arguably the best chess player to ever exist, there is something pretty remarkable about Carlsen and his ranking. I recently looked up his win/loss record, expecting to find something like 1,000 wins and 100 losses. When I saw his record, I was surprised that Carlsen hasn’t won an overwhelming percentage of his games. Not 90%; not 80%. He hasn’t won 70% or even 60% of his games. Magnus Carlsen, the man who is capable of simultaneously playing chess against 5 opponents while blindfolded, has won only 43% of his official games.
So how can he be ranked number one in the world in three different categories, while possessing what appears to be a not very good, even poor record? The first reason is that chess has a weird scoring system I don’t fully understand. The second reason is that Magnus doesn’t lose. He may only win 43% of his games, but he draws around 42% and loses only 15%.
While Carlsen is extremely good at winning chess games, he’s even better at avoiding blunders and avoiding losing games. He’s not playing to just remain alive; Carlsen spends plenty of time attacking. But he is playing with enough wherewithal that he can avoid the stupid mistakes that cost other players matches. He doesn’t make the idiotic moves that would cost him his queen early, or open himself up to a counterattack, at least he doesn’t do this very often. (Funny enough, Carlsen does like to sacrifice his queen early, but it’s an intentional sacrifice, not a blunder.)
So now for the big reveal: chess is like life.
A loss in chess is like a major mistake in life; a draw is neutral, just kind of living clean, you didn’t stand out or fail; and a win is obviously a big victory in life. If you buy this analogy, you can draw from it that in life, just not being an idiot 42% of the time sets you up really well to succeed. Minimizing major mistakes and staying aware enough to not be a goofus might get you to the top of your profession. So many people do things that are clearly blunders, just total “what were they thinking?” moments that cost them dearly. I think of the Nascar driver who used the N-word while on a live stream. That’s such an obvious blunder that should be so easy to avoid and it cost him his career, endorsements, respect of family and friends. Major blows.
Avoiding major blows to your career, your financial plan, your relationships over the course of 30 years means you’re 30 years ahead of most people. Nearly everyone commits blunders and they pay for it. If you’re able to minimize these blunders, you don’t even have to win that often, you can end up in a very good place.