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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies


This weeks blog is being written from a hotel room in Lower Manhattan, which is my home for the week as I deliver leadership development for a client I've been working with throughout the summer, in a number of locations around the world. In some of the locations I've visited, typically those across the UK, I've turned up, worked with the teams and left, but with the more far flung destinations I've typically had a day to acclimate and relax before the work started. Those who know me, however, will appreciate that relaxing isn't something I'm particularly accustomed to and my form of relaxation is typically pretty active; getting out and about and exploring the locale, making the most of the downtime. Today's story involved me doing exactly that!

I landed at JFK on Sunday in the early afternoon and by the time I'd been through immigration, collected my baggage and made my way into the city to my hotel, it was well into the afternoon and approaching dinner time. Crucially, it was also week one of the NFL season, meaning that there were three slates of games, back to back, to enjoy, so I found a local bar, ordered some chicken wings and a beer and wiled away my Sunday evening watching the games, including my beloved Giants finally starting the season with a win!

After a lovely snooze, I woke early, had breakfast and showered, and prepared to head out into the city in search of adventure. Knowing that I had a full day to myself, I'd made a list of things that I wanted to do and see. Aided by google maps, I put them into a vague order in a scrap of hotel paper, packed my rucksack and hit the streets. First I walked along nearby Wall St, up Broadway and across to the 9/11 memorial. The last time I was in NYC, the former site of the Twin Towers was still little more than rubble and given that I'd flown into JFK on the 21st anniversary of the attacks, it felt appropriate to visit. After some time reading the names on the beautiful memorial and reflecting, I headed through City Hall Park and hopped on the 6, like a poor mans's JLo and travelled right up to 77th street.

The rest of the day involved meandering south through the city, ticking off some of the sites on my list, as well as picking up a few souvenirs and bits and pieces for Cathryn and Harper. And then, after lunch, something really special happened!

Through much of my time at primary school, I was an avid chess player. My dad taught me to play and I'd spend hours playing against his little chess computer (a SciSys Kasparov Plus Model 129 which I've just discovered going for nearly £100 on eBay and my mum NEVER throws anything out so I'll need to get that dug out next time I visit!) I was never a great players, despite my legendary Primary 6, Primary 7 and S1 three-peat of championships (I went to a very small school and I'm fairly certain that Kevin Barclay threw the Mearns Academy championship game because he was much older and felt sorry for me!) but I loved it and I used to subscribe to a chess magazine and replay legendary matches from grandmasters from the notation.

As well as tips, techniques and game notation, the magazine used to have articles and one really struck me when I read it. It talked about a place in New York where avid chess players and hustlers would play matches every day, taking on all comers for wagers. Something about this seemed incredibly romantic to a young Matthew Lewis Davies. Sitting in a park in New York City, playing hours and hours of chess against anyone willing to put a few dollars on the table. The place in question, was Washington Square Park.

When I moved on to High School, my chess playing waned, possibly driven by an inter-schools tournament in Aberdeen where I turned up and had my arse handed to me. Being exposed to that extent, having been the big fish in the small pond for so long, meant that my sense of my own ability was badly shaken and I lacked the resilience to push through. In the end, my playing became less frequent and other hobbies came along to fill the time. Over time, I forgot all about the magical park I'd read about.

Then, some years later, I was listening to a podcast where Tim Ferriss interviewed child chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, which led me to read the book about his life, In Search of Bobby Fischer. This was later made into a movie, where lo and behold, young Josh plays speed chess in Washington Square Park! Suddenly, I was a kid again and the magic was reignited! With a day to myself in New York City, a trip to the park was very much on the agenda!

A little bit of research, however, told me that many of the players had moved on to another venue, around ten blocks north, called Union Square Park. I couldn't find out much more than that, but I put both of the parks on the list and off I went. Arriving at Union Square Park, I quickly found the players and walked past, being heckled (along with anyone else in earshot) to join in and challenge the players. I grabbed some cash from an ATM, found a vacant seat, got chatting and off we went. And I can tell you, it was every bit as special as I'd thought it was going to be.

My opponent was a man named Alfred, who was kind enough to pose for this picture! He explained that he, like most of the players, had moved on from Washington Square Park because intravenous drug use had got so bad there that nobody wanted to visit and play. I visited it later that afternoon and I could see what Alfred meant. Despite the very vibrant scene (including one local walking their rabbit on a lead!) there was a real air of desperation in one corner of the park and the whole place had a significant police presence. There were still a few games of chess going on but most of the stone tables with the built in boards were being used as picnic tables.

Alfred told me he plays every day, rain or shine and has done since 1972! That means that when I was reading all about the park as a child, he'd already been playing there for two decades! He was warm, funny and not only a great player but a great coach too. In the first game we played I surprised myself by starting strongly, in my favoured balls-to-the-wall attack mode, but eventually I made a simple error which cost me my Queen and pretty quickly after that, it was curtains! He asked if I'd like to play again and this time, he absolutely hosed me! After that, he schooled me on where I'd gone wrong and some simple things I could have done to give myself a much better chance of a favourable outcome. He asked me about my job and we spoke at length about the parallels between chess and many aspects of life, including leadership.

Delegation was a point he came back to over and over again - delegating the protection of a piece on the board to another, piece of seemingly lower status, in order that your more versatile pieces are free to be deployed in areas where they're more impactful. I explained to him the concept of Balcony and Dancefloor (which I really should get round to writing a blog post about) where leaders begin their careers on the dancefloor, among the work, and eventually move to the balcony where they can observe and support the dance, and need to recognise when it's appropriate to be in the mix on the dancefloor and when they need to move to the balcony to be more strategic. Too often leaders put themselves on the dancefloor where they're comfortable, but they really need to be on the balcony. He loved that and ruminated on how even the pieces deemed as has having the least value are fundamental to overall success. Just like in any team where even the newest, least experienced or lowest paid members need to be supported and deployed in the right ways if the team wishes to be successful.

Eventually it was time to go and I asked Alfred what keeps him coming back. He answered with the following:

"I love this game. It's the great equaliser. It doesn't matter what you've got or where you're from. You either know it or you don't."

Lessons on leadership creep up everywhere, often where you least expect them. I left the park absolutely beaming; a childhood dream achieved and full of reflections on chess and leadership and life in general. I'll have been just one of the people Alfred met that sunny September day, but he will forever occupy a special place in my memory.

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