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CAREER | Chess, leadership & calculated risk: Washington Attorney General, UW alumnus talks to Gorton Center Global Leaders

Chess pieces and people

January 27, 2015

By Sarah McPhee

Chess has trained people to think strategically for centuries, and in former Soviet nations, chess is still considered a sport. The game originated on the Asian subcontinent and eventually made its way to Persia. The term “checkmate” comes from the words shah mat, “the king is dead,” and the Russian word for chess is essentially the same, shakhmati. Power and risk, intrinsic aspects of politics, are fundamental concepts of chess as well. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, UW alumnus and former UW student-body president, became fascinated with the game as a child. It was through this driving interest that he became a pupil of Bulgarian chess master Nikolay Minev. What he learned from Minev would help shape his future endeavors.

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Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson

Ferguson’s reputation as a competitive, tenacious, and methodical leader preceded him in the conference room of the Slade Gorton International Policy Center, where 15 Seattle-area students and recent graduates recently gathered to learn about leadership from the wisdom and experience of Senator Slade Gorton. The Gorton Center Global Leaders Program is considered “the living legacy” of Slade Gorton, aims to “enhance students’ ability to make a positive global impact in their respective fields of study.” Over the course of the academic year, the Gorton Center team arranges for monthly roundtables led by a speaker with notable leadership qualities and achievements. Students have the opportunity to ask the speaker and the senator anything they would like before breaking off into project groups.

Ferguson’s story is compelling, and especially interesting is where his life intersects with Nikolai Minev. He explained that “family and chess were the most formative parts of my upbringing.” His dedicated parents raised their children to be competitive, and his father introduced chess to the home when he was about 8 years old. He became very serious about playing by the age of 12, competing successfully with some of the best players in the country. He studied chess constantly. He claimed that his grades suffered, but he was not terribly interested in school. His parents were reportedly unenthused to learn that his ambition was to become a professional chess player in lieu of attending college.

Nevertheless, his parents had always been supportive of his passion for the game. During the Cold War, the very best chess players lived in the Soviet Union. When he was around the age of 12, his father somehow secured subscription to a Russian-language chess magazine titled 64, along with a basic Russian-language text book for chess players. Ferguson studied enough Russian to gain a basic understanding of the magazine articles when guided by the images. It was around this time that the future attorney general became the pupil of Nikolai Minev.

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Chess master Nikolay Minev

Minev was born in Bulgaria but had lived in Greece with his wife as a professional chess player for several years. After a trip to Vienna, Minev made his way to the United States in 1983, settling in Seattle. Ferguson explained that the opportunity to learn from a chess master of Minev’s stature was incredible, and in addition to editing a chess publication, Minev accepted students. On the occasion of their first session, Ferguson was told to bring the transcribed moves from several of his tournament matches. Ferguson presented him with one of his best games, which Minev rejected. Minev, a plain-spoken man, did not want to start with a match that Ferguson had won. “Losses first,” Minev insisted, and then proceeded to deconstruct a losing match with him for over two hours. Ferguson said this was a lesson he never forgot.

Slowly, he said, his matches improved dramatically because he was no longer making the same mistakes he had always made. He described the fascination of watching a master deconstruct his game, which at that point was already at a very high level. He learned to consider the subtlety of an opponent’s move, and that the path to improvement is through one’s own mistakes, which are not so easily seen when performing with great proficiency.

Through further chess and career anecdotes, Ferguson shared three more valuable lessons on leadership with the Gorton Global Leader group:

Take calculated risks.

Ferguson insists that calculated risks are rarely regretted, althouScreen Shot 2015-01-27 at 1.26.51 PMgh each individual must learn to identify how much risk is tolerable. Ferguson urged the participants to trust their training and intuition, pursue what they are passionate about, and not be deterred by an uphill battle. Ferguson took a year off of work to knock on 22,000 doors in order to unseat his fellow Democratic opponent for a Metropolitan King County Council Seat. “I spend a lot of time preparing for everything I do,” he explained. “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 1.16.35 PM“Pawns are the soul of chess.”

Every chess player knows this quote by Francois Philidor, because chess players learn from the beginning that pawn structure determines the success of the game. The “pawns” are also the soul of any organization — after all, the person who answers the phone has the most direct relationship with the customer. Ferguson insists that all of his employees are expected to communicate with everyone as if they are talking to the boss.

If you lose a game, there is only one person to blame.

“In chess, there is not an iota of luck.” FScreen Shot 2015-01-27 at 3.03.01 PMerguson found that the personal responsibility learned in chess often translates into success in life. “You are ultimately responsible for everyone in your agency. You cannot throw people under the bus.” Thus, Ferguson demands absolute honesty from his team, believes that it is valuable to show weakness as a leader, and admits mistakes. He regularly asks his support staff, “How do you think I did?”

In parting, Ferguson explained that through his chess training, and thanks to Minev, he learned “total focus” and the ability to appreciate the subtlety of an opponent’s move. “No matter how good I got, there were moves I hadn’t anticipated or thought of.” He admitted that “not being so sure I had all the answers,” learning humility, meant that he was more prepared. “At some point my opponent will surprise me.”