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Thunderbird at ASU professor uses chess to build students’ business acumen

Anjelina Belakovskaia sitting in front of a red and black chess board smiling at the camera.

Anjelina Belakovskaia, associate teaching professor of global finance at Thunderbird, has learned many skills to become a chess grandmaster, and that experience has informed her growth in business and in teaching about it. Courtesy photo

February 29, 2024

To be a grandmaster in chess takes dedication, patience and an understanding of the ins and outs of the game. You also have to prepare yourself for setbacks and upsets.

Such is the road that Anjelina Belakovskaia followed to become a grandmaster, and that experience has informed her growth in business and in teaching about it.

Belakovskaia, associate teaching professor of global finance at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, has taken what she has learned from chess and infused that into her business curriculum.

“Chess helps to design critical thinking and problem-solving abilities,” she said. “It shapes people's minds to include imagination, and build bridges between different positions.”

From learner to winner

Belakovskaia, originally from Ukraine in the then Soviet Union, was taught chess by her mother. No more than three months later, she says, she beat her mother at the game.

“My mother said, ‘OK, I’m done!’ And she took me to the after-school chess program,” Belakovskaia said.

After competing in the World Open Championship in Philadelphia in 1991, Belakovskaia decided to stay in the United States, settling in New York. While making a living through a series of odd jobs and teaching chess in the Russian-speaking community, she continued playing competitively, dominating American women's chess and winning the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship three times — in 1995, 1996 and 1999. She also led the U.S. women’s team in three Chess Olympiads.

In 2000, Belakovskaia was honored by the Brooklyn Borough President for her superlative chess and leadership skills and overall outstanding achievements. Since 2010, she has run the Belakovskaia Chess Academy for children in K–12 to share her exceptional knowledge and accomplishments.

After many years of focusing on her academic career, business and finance, she competed in the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Championship. The competition was held in November 2023 at the Berkeley Chess School in California. Her hard-fought victory showed her that she still has her skills, even though she had stopped playing competitively in 1999.

In the interim, Belakovskaia had come to the conclusion that being a three-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion or 10-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion would not make a huge difference.

“I was in my 30s and there was no money in chess in the U.S,” she said. “I decided that I wanted to have a family, and I wanted to have a profession. I needed a long-term plan.”

With a degree in economics and experience in trading foreign exchange and equities, she decided to move into finance.

“I just felt that it would make perfect sense to lead by example and walk the talk. Since I often told students that skills developed through chess are applicable beyond the 64 squares, it was time to use those skills to build a profession, to build my life outside of chess,” she said. 

Turning chess into a tool

Belakovskaia went to New York University, where she earned a master’s degree in mathematics in finance at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. After completing her degree, she moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to become a trader in weather derivatives.

In 2011, she accepted a position teaching business at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and then joined Thunderbird School of Global Management in 2016 as a teaching professor of global finance. Among the variety of the courses she has taught is Chess, Leadership and Business Strategy.

Belakovskaia leverages chess to sharpen her students' strategic thinking and problem-solving skills, preparing them for the complexities of the business world.

She says that she tells them: "Chess is more than a game; it prepares you for decision-making in life and business."

Her teachings go beyond traditional methods, demonstrating how strategic moves on the chessboard can translate into effective finance, business, and leadership strategies.

And her commitment to her students does not go unrecognized. In 2023, Belakovskaia was recognized by Poets&Quants as one of the nation’s Top 50 Undergraduate Business Professors

How chess builds the business mind

As she has told her students, Belakovskaia believes that the analytical mind one develops from chess is a natural fit for the global business world.

“Chess helps you to design your critical thinking and problem-solving abilities,” she said. “It shapes people's minds to include imagination, and build the bridges between different positions.” 

“There are two ways of thinking. You can think about right now, and you can have a vision for the future. All you have to do is to find how to build a bridge, how to transition from where you are to your dream.”

In other words, chess teaches you to consider not only your next move, but the next five, 10, 15 moves, she said.

“You can easily see certain moves in the short term. But if you don't think long term, it's going to bring you to a dead end. In chess, you can capture something, but meanwhile you move your piece away from the main area of the battle. So what's happening is that you've squandered your resources. When you need them, now you don't have them.”

This same idea in chess applies to business strategy, she said. The key skills are logic and analytical abilities.

“A lot of times, people are overwhelmed with the information. They're just bombarded,” Belakovskaia said. “People don’t know what to do with so much information. They either start panicking or they get depressed, because they just don't know where to start. And they never start; they procrastinate.”

“But if you use logic, you break the problem and information down into pieces. You can tell yourself that you’ll separate it into small pieces, and then analyze what you have. Then, you can put it back together, but in a much clearer way.”

Putting it into practice

Last semester, Belakovskaia took on the role of a faculty advisor for four Global Challenge Lab student teams, bringing her chess skills to bear on problems that were outside her scope of experience.

“I had four teams: the Middle East, China, Colombia and the United States. And I absolutely loved it because I brought my chess skills,” she said.

“Even though all the projects were totally different — and they were not even in finance, where I specialize — I felt extremely confident. We just approached problems with analysis and critical thinking. How to structure the project, how to make sure we exactly understood what we needed to deliver, what we needed to use to make progress, and how to put together the deliverables. 

“That’s simply logic that comes from chess.”

Belakovskaia said that the most important thing she tells her students is to never give up, whether in chess, business or life. She says she tells them to keep fighting and never resign, because you never know what will happen.

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