Book review: “The Score Takes Care Of Itself” by Bill Walsh

I subscribe to Ryan Holiday’s reading recommendation email. His focus is on stoicism and American history, but he reads wider than that and I have found some gems through his recommendations.

The latest of these is The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership by Bill Walsh. Since I am not interested in American football, I had no idea who Bill Walsh was. However, the book made it onto Holiday’s top books of 2015, and for a guy who reads over 100 meaningful books a year, that is saying something.

Walsh writes about his philosophy of leadership, but I found much insight from the point of view of an improving chess player. The framework Walsh works within is to plan to the finest level of detail, starting with his “Standard of Performance”. He believes “there is no guarantee, no ultimate formula for success. However. […] there are a multitude of means to increase the probability of success” (p.1).

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One should instill a culture that may facilitate positive results. “Champions behave like champions before they are champions.” (p.25). Walsh does this through his Standard of Performance. He “had no grandiose plan or timetable for winning, but rather a comprehensive standard and plan for installing a level of proficiency at which the production level would become higher in all areas. Beyond that, the score would take care of itself” (p.20). “The score wasn’t the crushing issue; we were immersed in building the inventory of skills that would lead to improved execution.” (p.21)

A key message throughout the book is the importance of setting yourself up for success, for mastering your craft, by always being professional. This includes “Striving to be perfect in games and practice” (p.xiv) and to “take pride in [your] effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort”. (p.16) Walsh describes mastery as a process, not a destination. (p.146). He explains that you “never stop learning, perfecting, refining – molding your skills. You never stop depending on the fundamentals-sustaining, maintaining and improving. There is an absolute and direct connection between intelligently directed hard work and achieving your potential” (p.185).

Walsh went to immense lengths in his planning, from which chess players can learn for their chess study plans. He would not only plan the obvious – which skills the various players should practice and how – but also everything around the obvious, including writing the script for the receptionists at head office. “By analysing, planning and rehearsing in advance you can make a rational decision, the best choice for the situation at hand. And that still leaves room for those gut-instinct decisions you may want to make (p.53)”. “Consider the width and depth of the intellect you have applied to contingency planning. (p.55)”. However, he warns against planning the wrong things. Don’t become immersed in the trivial meaningless at the expense of the meaningful. It is an escape mechanism; a method for distracting yourself from the tough work ahead. (p.88)

And that tough work means working consistently. “Consistent effort is a consistent challenge.” Walsh says that his high standards for actions and attitudes never wavered. “I envisioned it as enabling us to establish a near-permanent “base camp” near the summit, consistently close to the top, within striking distance, never falling to the bottom of the mountain and having to start all over again.” (p.27)

Of course none of this is easy. If it was, we’d all be grandmasters. With the plateau I’ve been on for the past several months, I found value in the five do’s for getting back into the game: (p.11):

  1. Do expect defeat.
  2. Do force yourself to stop looking backward and dwelling on the professional “train wreck” you have just been in.
  3. Do allow yourself appropriate recovery – grieving – time. [But] don’t let it drag on.
  4. Do tell yourself, “I am going to stand and fight again”, with the knowledge that often when things are at their worst you’re closer than you can imagine to success.
  5. Do begin planning for your next serious encounter.


Walsh has advice about giving sustaining your effort over time: “Your effort in the beginning is part of a continuum of effort; your Standard of Performance is part of a continuum of standards. Today’s effort becomes tomorrow’s result. The quality of those efforts becomes the quality of your works. One day is connected to the following day and the following month to the succeeding years.” (p.231)

In closing, I’ll leave you with Walsh’s twelve habits of leaders, which I feel apply equally to us improving chess players: (p.84)

  1. Be yourself. You are not Anand, Kasparov, or Carlsen. Find your own style.
  2. Be committed to excellence.
  3. Be positive.
  4. Be prepared. Good luck is a product of good planning.
  5. Be detail-oriented.
  6. Be organised.
  7. Be accountable.
  8. Be near-sighted and far-sighted.
  9. Be fair.
  10. Be firm.
  11. Be flexible.
  12. Believe in yourself.

2 thoughts on “Book review: “The Score Takes Care Of Itself” by Bill Walsh

  • 3rd January 2016 at 7:03 pm

    Yes, I agree it applies very well to chess too ! 🙂

  • 6th January 2016 at 2:37 pm

    Very good book selection. Thanks.

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