Does Your Association Board Operate Like a Chess Master?

My son’s latest obsession is chess. He joined the chess club at school, got a new chessboard, downloaded chess apps to all the electronics he could get his hands on, and started reading strategy books. On a snow day like today, it’s no surprise that we’re spending part of the time playing chess. In the midst of our moves, I can’t help but think how the game of chess translates to the business of community associations. Whether in chess or association decision-making, the following tips come in handy:

Know the moves. Chess involves a finite number of pieces, and the basic moves are easy enough to learn. As a board member, the “pieces” and moves at your disposal are much more numerous and complex. You will need to understand the moves available to you under your association’s governing documents. You’ll also consider what the association’s budget can support, the politics and dynamics of the community, options presented by vendors, and advice from attorneys, engineers, accountants and management.

Develop a strategy. A good chess player must anticipate moves of multiple pieces well in advance of the plays. It’s said that Bobby Fischer could merely glance a chess board and anticipate three and four moves for the various pieces. I could stare at a chess board all day and still make a move that results in a lost piece. Board members should strike a balance between Fischer’s predictive play and my seemingly blind moves. If you know the available moves and can anticipate what’s coming at you, you can plan accordingly. Your strategy isn’t a step-by-step roadmap as much as an understanding of the priorities for your association and how your board will make decisions to support those priorities.

Act offensively. In Searching for Bobby Fischer, the young protagonist, Josh, took lessons from a classically trained chess master who counseled his young prodigy to protect his queen. Josh also played speed chess in the urban park by his house, where the seasoned players moved the queen off her space earlier in the game – and urged Josh to do the same. The queen is a powerful piece, but she can’t work her magic sitting on her space. Associations experience a similar tension between proactively addressing matters and responding to, or defending against, issues after problems occur. Whether anticipated or not, you will inevitably have problems to address as a board member. Even so, you must undertake the association responsibilities entrusted to you by the membership, and you must get in front of problems before they overtake your community.

Maintain your game face. My six-year-old son hasn’t yet beat me in a chess match, though I expect his skills to soon surpass mine. One advantage that I currently have over him is my ability to maintain composure when he’s got me on the defensive. He melts when his plans are foiled, and his whole game is noticeably affected. Sometimes, he lays his king on its side and gives up. Board members who can maintain their composure under pressure retain the ability to make informed, rational decisions and work their communities through tough situations. Getting angry is certainly not a good game face for board members. Similarly, board members don’t put their association in the position for a “win” if they give up, walk away, or ignore issues that require attention.

Play your endgame. As with any game worth playing, someone usually wins at the end of a chess match. Community association decisions don’t necessarily result in winners or losers, but the decision itself should at least signal an ending. Too often, boards mull over issues well beyond the time that a decision could have occurred. Boards must make reasonable, informed decisions in the best interest of their associations. The key to this is that the board must decide something. Deferring decisions usually only delays the inevitable – and doesn’t offer the board important legal protections such as those available under the business judgment rule.

If you approach association business like a game of chess, you can keep your association in check - which means a "win" for your community.