Can a board game from the sixth century really help you develop an innovative mindset? Shogi champion Ling Zhou is convinced it can, and more.
Ling Zhou is sitting quietly, focused only on his opponent’s next move in Shogi, a Japanese chess game stemming from the sixth century. “Shogi trains my brain,” Ling says, referring to the almost superhuman patience and concentration he needs to focus on every move made by his opponent.
Ling, a product manager for SAP Labs China in Shanghai, draws many parallels between Shogi and his job. Anticipating his opponent’s next move on the Shogi board is similar to anticipating what his customer’s expect from him when he is localizing SAP’s human capital management software to the requirements of a country or region. “You need to think about what the customer really wants, and this may vary widely depending on the circumstances,” says Ling.
His patience may actually pay off, because the algorithms delivered by SAP in its HCM solution to manage payroll, for example, are complex and require utmost precision. “Even small errors in a tax calculation algorithm can lead to large losses at the customer,” Ling explains.
Ling knows something about world-class patience and concentration. He proved it by winning China’s national Shogi amateur championships in 2006, and was ranked among China’s Top 5 for several years. What began for Ling on a trip to Japan with friends has turned into a passion and skill for Shogi that he practiced to perfection. Granted, the birth of his daughter several years ago has redirected his priorities somewhat, but he still enjoys a good match at his Shogi club when he gets the opportunity.
An Attitude of Curiosity and Discovery
The Shogi master is convinced that playing the game helps him adapt his mind to change.
“At SAP we are adapting our software to the cloud and integrating new technologies, so I need to be open to the new rather than holding onto the old,” Ling explains. “Because every game is different and presents the opportunity to learn a new strategy or move, Shogi can expand my mind and how I think. So when I am playing matches I train my mind to be open and follow new opportunities.”
Ling says that instead of playing to win, he’ll sometimes test various strategies to learn new ways of approaching a match. “I then apply the strategies learned as a secret weapon for future opponents,” he says. “Sometimes it is necessary to separate one function into two, move some essential process from the back to the front, or adjust the process.”
He believes that this way of playing a game can increase a person’s ability to be more innovative in other areas, because they maintain an attitude of curiosity and discovery.
Achieving Balance with Competitors
Among chess games, Shogi is unique partly because it requires players to achieve a balance with each other throughout the game.
“You should try to be maximum one or two steps ahead of your opponent, but you should never break the balance,” explains Ling. “If there is a large imbalance, your opponent might take advantage of it and change the situation thoroughly.”
Rather than trouncing his competition, Ling is therefore focused on creating what he calls a “best game” between himself and his opponents, involving many different strategies and remembered for a long time.
One of Ling’s most memorable matches, however, involved an opponent who applied the moves in a freshly published book on Shogi strategy, not imagining that Ling had read the same chapter the night before. Ling played dumb initially and then demolished his opponent at the last minute.
Sometimes stealth and a poker face is simply the best strategy.
Video by Natalie Hauck and Alex Januschke from SAP Development University