Golf rots your brain redux

A while back I wrote a post titled Golf rots your brain. The idea was that as fine a game as golf is, it’s not a strategic game and therefore it doesn’t build the ability to think strategically. I was thinking about this today, and it occurred to me that if golf isn’t a good game to play to improve one’s thinking, what would be?

In order to answer that question, let’s look at some valuable strategic concepts:

  • Changing circumstances. This has chess written all over it, but poker, many board games (i.e. Risk) and others are good as well. The main requirement here is that unlike golf, your actions must change the game for the other person and force them to reconsider their actions. Many folks in business are addicted to the “plan the work, work the plan” theory, and have a hard time adjusting when the game changes.
  • Sunk costs and abandoning worthless efforts. Poker is king here. Nothing teaches the concept of sunk costs or when to abandon a worthless effort like realizing you have a crappy hand before the draw. Folks who play often soon learn not to pay to see themselves lose. Of course, you really have to play for money in order for poker to have any bite.
  • Focus on the achievable. If you’ve ever played Risk and started out with armies all over the map you learned you had to abandon some of the poor fellows in order to succeed overall. Even though world domination is the goal, and armies located all over the world would seem to be an advantage, you have to focus on achievable intermediate steps to win in the end. Golf tends to promote bad behavior here – how many times have you tried to carry the water or trees, even though you really didn’t think you could make it? In golf it’s only a stroke or two, if you’re being strict.
  • Personal objectivity. Poker is really good for this, along with blackjack. If one plays according to the odds, and makes decisions strictly by the odds, it actually possible to beat the house on some video poker machines. The problem is that we inevitably use our gut, for good or ill, and ignore the evidence. I find poker to be a game that seduces me in this way more than any other. There’s just something about cards that gets me thinking about luck and how I’m “due” for a win. Again, money has to be involved for the lesson to sink in.
  • Plan execution/multiple steps. Risk and other board games are good here, along with chess. The idea is that to complete the plan many small steps are required, versus poker where there are usually only 3 or 4. There are lots of folks who just won’t settle for a solution that requires more than a few steps to complete. The problem is that life doesn’t always hand us 3 or 4 step problems, but the inability to think past this will close off many possibilities. This is another area where golf is particularly bad – par 5 maximum tends to create short-sighted thinking.

Now, I know that none of these games have quite the executive allure that golf does, but all are just as good for getting to know your coworkers and building camaraderie. If you need to start building a greater ability to think strategically in your people, consider skipping the links occasionally and trying something else.

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