In a recent interview by Jane Playdon for The Review – The Journal of the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment, Duncan talks about the parallels between life and chess, illustrating Garry Kasparov’s assertion that “chess is life in miniature”.
This article was published on the 11th February 2020
As a former chess prodigy who still practises daily, Duncan has learnt the value of strategising – a skill he applies to his professional life as partner at financial planning firm Wealthflow LLP. “Planning for potential obstacles three or four moves ahead while preparing for the here and now is crucial in both chess and financial planning,” he says. “Helping our clients think forward to their potential next few moves, and planning accordingly, allows them to move with confidence.”
Duncan took to chess “like a fish to water” at the age of nine, joining the school and local chess teams in Falkirk, Scotland, progressing quickly to a professional level and playing in tournaments around the world. Four years ago he played the Million Dollar Tournament in Las Vegas, against some of the best players in the world. His most notable result was a draw against American grandmaster and three-time US women’s chess champion Anjelina Belakovskaia after 4.5 hours of play.
“It is not uncommon for tournament chess matches to last three to four hours,” says Duncan, noting more parallels between competitive chess, financial planning and wealth management: “Chess teaches us to be patient. Financial planning and investment management supports clients to be patient, without looking for the quick fix, in order to achieve and maintain their desired lifestyle.”
With the ongoing expansion of his business, Duncan has shifted his focus from tournament chess to “daily online play and weekly team matches in the Central Scotland Chess League”. But he remains “passionate about sharing the many life-changing benefits of playing chess with others, both young and old”.
In 2017, he organised a chess fundraising event in Edinburgh for several client-related charities. “I played 25 matches simultaneously over a two-hour period against 25 Wealthflow clients and local professional connections. I won all 25 games, much to my surprise and delight. Each participant was gifted a chessboard and chess set, provided they agreed to teach at least one young person the game.
“Chess isn’t just about winning; it’s about challenging your own excellence”
Following that experience, I travelled with my son to Kosovo to support The Ideas Partnership, an NGO supporting marginalised ethnic groups, including teaching local kids to play chess. My son and I spent time coaching the kids and Wealthflow donated chess sets and beginner chess books to the group. Local people didn’t think it appropriate for young girls to learn chess, so I took pride in letting the girls know about the many female grandmasters around the world. The charity now runs the chess club for both boys and girls.”
Duncan has helped to establish three chess clubs: one in Kosovo; one in his local primary school, and is in the process of establishing a chess club within the New Club in Edinburgh. This requires “little more than a few chess sets and keen participants,” says Duncan.
With its capacity to exercise intangible but priceless qualities, such as strategising, concentration and intuition, chess is often used as an analogy for life. Duncan’s chess hero, grandmaster and former world champion Garry Kasparov even wrote a book on the subject: How life imitates chess. “He believes the power of intuition is at the heart of success in all things: the power of intuition and the ability to harness and use it like a master,” says Duncan. “The biggest problem I see among people who want to excel in chess – and in business and in life in general – is not trusting their instincts and intuition enough.”
In another parallel with life, chess, unlike some other games, doesn’t allow you to “skip a turn if you can’t identify a direction that suits you,” says Duncan. “In chess we have the obligation to move. One of the great challenges of the game is how to make progress when there are no obvious moves, when action is required, not reaction. Here is where we find what separates pretenders from contenders.”
Duncan, as a serious contender, has gained a great deal from chess – even the ten-minute matches he plays daily, which require an intense focus for a short period. “The result is an almost innate ability to think on your feet while quickly determining long-term strategies. I love it!
“Chess isn’t just about winning; it’s about challenging your own excellence, looking for new strategies and truly understanding the psychology of the game. That said, the best outcome is always a win.
“It’s a much easier game to learn than you might think and the benefits might just change your life. Give it a try!”