Games we play make us better at work

First published in the Financial Times on 3rd September 2013.

Plenty of ways to hone the entrepreneurial edge but none compares with the real experience

This summer my elder son and daughter (six and eight respectively) became obsessed by the board game Monopoly. I saw it anew through their eyes and was reminded that games can be a useful introduction to the world of business.

As with life, success in Monopoly is down to a combination of luck and skill. Players learn to handle money, make investments and plan for the future. They find out about strategy, winning and losing, trading and leverage.

Such manoeuvres are not bad preparation for a career as an entrepreneur. And because it is not real life, you can make mistakes and start all over again the same afternoon.

There are other classic board games that are useful for would-be moguls. Acquire was created by Sid Sackson in 1962, and involves the building and merging of hotel chains. It involves less chance than many games and lets everyone build a hospitality empire.

Both Risk and Diplomacy could be seen as practical training for corporate executives scheming to rise to the top – each concerned with global domination, political intrigue and military power. As essayist Charles Lamb said: “Man is a gaming animal: he is always trying to get the better in something or other.”

But there are much older games that can be both fun and instructive for students of business. Poker has enjoyed a massive new lease of life in recent years thanks to television coverage and an online boom. I know quite a few entrepreneurs who enjoy a spot of seven-card stud. They realise it is about making the most of the hand you are dealt, and although it is a form of gambling, talent plays its part.

The card game has many of the ingredients of capitalism, especially if real cash is being staked: understanding your rivals, incomplete information, human psychology, bluff, persuasion, analysis of motives and undertaking risky financial transactions.

Moreover, poker can be a fine way of developing new relationships. Some even regard it as the new golf in terms of the opportunity it offers to mix business and pleasure. The social aspects of such pastimes played face to face are their great advantage over online variants. A few hours playing cards together for serious money is a pretty good way to get to know someone.

Bridge is a competitive but thoughtful game that many wealthy founders play. There are several high-powered clubs in London where industrialists meet for weekly sessions. Perhaps the most famous advocate is Warren Buffett, who has said: “It’s got to be the best intellectual exercise out there.” He likens the game to investing, where participants must work constructively with partners – or managers, and have to use probabilities and limited knowledge to maximise superiority over the opposition.

Many would argue that chess is the ultimate contest for those seeking mental stimulation. The only element of chance is whether one is black or white. It is an ancient and international sport of war: like business, it consists of judging a rival’s strengths and weaknesses, and weighing short-term tactics against longer-term strategy. Yet so often players lose by letting their emotions rule their heads. As AA Milne wrote: “It is impossible to win gracefully at chess. No man has yet said ‘Mate!’ in a voice which failed to sound to his opponent bitter, boastful and malicious.”

Like chess, Go is a venerable game where all the information is exposed and luck is not involved. Tens of millions play it in east Asia: some say it is why the Chinese are so good at commerce.

There are now hundreds of video games – online, console and PC – based around business simulation, from SimCity to Capitalism to Railroad Tycoon. These can be educational, and perhaps more engaging to MBA scholars than dry economics textbooks.

However, like many games, they can be addictive, and distract from activities in the real world. Such digital pursuits are also stealing away contestants from traditional board games such as Monopoly or chess, which must really be played in person for a genuine experience.

Of course, none of these pleasant hobbies compares to the greatest game of all: actually starting and managing companies.