Chess Star Makes a Move

Going out on a limb means a very different thing to French chess grandmaster Joel Lautier.

Lautier, 34, quit 22 years on the professional chess circuit and his Paris home in November to suit up as an analyst with Russian consultancy Strategy Partners. In six months, he has gone from analyst to an associate's role as director of international development.

"Chess and business are similar in that you are confronted with a problem that does not have a unique solution," he said in a recent interview.

"In chess, you're used to looking carefully over every position to keep all your options open," said Lautier, who is one of only three players in the world to have beaten every world champion dating back to 1975 during the course of his career.

"Business analysis is also like mapping a tree of possibilities," he said. "One error can be fatal to hours of work because everything is a logical chain -- every step must have its foundation," he said.

Strategy Partners, an offshoot from the first Innovation Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, has worked on more than 50 projects in the regions since its 1994 start alongside the multinationals, competing in the sector by positioning itself as a local expert.

As with any advisory, Strategy Partners sells the brainpower of its consultants. And the chess graphics featured on the firm's web site following their recent rebranding is telltale of Lautier's quick accession to the team.

Without hesitation, Alexander Idrisov, the firm's founding partner, assessed his new hire: "Joel has a brilliant mind, never forgets anything. He is smart in a very creative way."

"We talked for an hour when he first walked into my office [last year] before I found out he is not Russian," Idrisov said.

Lautier's seamless Russian stems from his long association with the country's premier chess champions. He worked as a trainer for chess champion Vladimir Kramnik leading up to his world championship victory over Garry Kasparov in 2000.

Lautier was 3 when he began playing, and though his father, his first trainer, was the more passionate player, he learned the initial moves from his Japanese mother.

At 8, he won the 1981 national competition for his age level, which "was the first real revelation" of his potential as a chess professional.

But Lautier said he understood the true meaning of professionalism when he came to the Soviet Union to train for three-week periods in camps outside Moscow in the late 1980s, as chess was among the prestigious sports rigorously promoted in that era.

Russian grandmasters resemble one another in their play and their systematic, almost scientific approach, Lautier said. By contrast, Westerners are more temerarious in their strategy, leaning on psychological play because they depended on winning top prizes in Western tournaments to make a living. The two did not meet often as Soviet players traveled rarely, and the level of Soviet players was much higher.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Lautier says that business analysis, like chess, is like mapping a tree of possibilities.
When possible, Lautier avoids speaking in the first person and instead opts for more general terms to describe his experiences. He is modest about his success, insisting that chess is not a particularly mathematical or inaccessible game.

He preferred novels to other assignments as he pursued his education, which in parallel with six hours of daily training with coaches, chess books and computer modules -- a regiment he maintained throughout high school -- before turning to chess full time.

The vibrancy and pace of the business in Russia attracted Lautier, who felt he had reached some kind of ceiling temporarily in his chess game.

Though chess acumen carries a certain intellectual capital, not every player can make the transition to business. Lautier admits that it was not easy to adapt to a business environment after living "a bit like an artist," responsible only to himself.

"Some things are transposable, but you have to find a way to make them applicable," he said.

Idrisov said Lautier had crucial qualities that he did not expect from a chess player. "He is very open for a chess player and able to read people."

Having forgone college for chess, Lautier is entirely self-taught. He enjoys promoting chess in business and had previously organized major chess events, including a world championship final, delivered company conferences and created his own sports consulting company in early 2005.

In 2003, with Kramnik he co-founded and was president of the Association of Chess Professionals, which he grew into an international body with more than 400 grandmasters, organizing an annual world tour of more than 60 tournaments.

Lautier's advice to Western companies is: Take more risks in the Russian market. Latecomers are losing out to their Russian counterparts who spend less time questioning what they stand to lose. "Because if it is not you, it will be your competitors."