At the invitation of the Association for Corporate Growth, Silicon Valley and its CEO, Sally Pera, I had an opportunity to attend a lunch today with around 25 Silicon Valley executives, sponsored by Silicon Valley Bank, to welcome the Norwegian World Champion Chess Player Magnus Carlsen to Silicon Valley.  

Since I read Norwegian newspapers regularly I of course knew about Magnus and his impressive win in November of last year when he at the age of 22 defeated the five-time former world champion Viswanathan Anand (on Anand’s home turf)—and making him the first World Champion from a Western country since Bobby Fischer in 1972. Magnus was a child prodigy, becoming an international Grand Master at 13. At 19, he was the youngest chess player to be ranked number one in the world,

The visit to Silicon Valley was more than a “photo-op” or a “techno-tourist” visit that we see so many of here in the Valley, as Magnus is here at least in part on a more serious and important mission: Help promote chess in schools. This evening, at an event at the Churchill Club, where he will be in discussion with Peter Thiel—an avid chess player as well as a well-known entrepreneur and venture capitalist—they will announce a great initiative to promote chess in schools as part of America's Foundation for Chess (AF4C) that will bring the First Move chess program into elementary school classrooms as a tool for enhancing critical and creative thinking skills.

During the session, including Q&A with the audience, here are a few things I found most interesting about Magnus’s mission and the role chess can play in stimulating and promoting STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] interest among students:

  • Fun and Learning. Chess is a game, and educators know that games create engagement and are fun for kids to play, and this stimulates learning. Magnus, and representatives for the First Move program, talked a great deal about the fun they have seen kids have when they play chess.
  • Chess Teaches Pattern Recognition and Analysis Ability. These are key skills in the information and knowledge economy and especially important for learning STEM. But I have also heard that many entrepreneurs say that having strong pattern recognition skills is also a very important capability to have as entrepreneurs try to understand complexities and rapid changes in markets and technologies. Magnus also noted that learning to analyze and make decisions in response to actions taken by your opponent (or competitor) is key to success in chess—and this is also true in business.
  • Don’t Overestimate Role of Memory and Ability to Do Complex Calculations (in your head). Magnus noted that this is something many feel is a key to success in chess but he disagreed, and felt that having strong capabilities for pattern recognition, analyzing competitors’ moves and being agile in making decisions were more important.
  • “Bjorn Borg effect” in Norway Around Chess? After the considerable success of the Swedish tennis player Bjorn Borg, winning five Wimbledon tournaments in a row, plus winning many other championships in the 1970s, an important effect was a boom in Swedish tennis and many great Swedish tennis players coming into the game in the next 2-3 decades. I asked him if he was seeing similar effects already emerging in Norway and if the government is likely to create conditions and programs to enable such developments. His answer to my question was “Yes” and he noted that it is currently hard to find chess sets in stores as interest in chess has clearly surged following his recent success.
  • Norwegian Software Startups Around Chess. I suspect that the success that Magnus has had will create strong interesting among Norwegian software entrepreneurs—including “edupreneurs” (entrepreneurs focused on education and learning markets)—that will build “educational games around chess.” In fact, I sat next to a partner of Magnus Carlsen—Anders Brandt, Partner in IDEKAPITAL in Oslo—who told me that they are working on something in this area, so I look forward to seeing what they develop. Perhaps Anders, and Magnus, will be back to Silicon Valley if and when they feel they need “serious VC capital” for their venture and I suspect that Peter Thiel and many others will be happy to take a serious look at what they plan to do in this space. And since the Silicon Valley is a hot spot for edupreneurs, with new startups getting funding every week, I suspect we will see Anders back here before too long.

Eilif Trondsen