What Chess Can Teach You About Life (and Horse Racing)

J.R. Ball Issue 09 - Jan/Feb 2014, Legal Leave a Comment

How a black-and-white chessboard prepared Alan Tse for a storied gaming institution’s colorful General Counsel role.

In her guidebook for surviving dangerous places, author and former BBC reporter Rosie Garthwaite quotes Sebastian Junger—himself a famed author and war documentarian—regarding the necessities one should carry when entering into a war zone. Junger’s recommendation: “Army Tourniquet, clean needle, antiseptic, water purification tablets, and…”

“… A portable chess set.” Junger’s final provision may, at first glace, seem misplaced. But chess, Junger attests, is an equalizer among men—regardless of the banners they fly or the borders they patrol.

An equalizer, perhaps. But according to Alan Tse, Executive Vice President (VP) and General Counsel for Churchill Downs Inc., who is himself a former nationally ranked chessmaster, it is also an incredibly useful learning tool for life.

“Chess has taught me, as much as anything else, how to be a good lawyer,” Tse said.


Tse, whose skill on the chessboard helped fund his undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley and ultimately Harvard Law School, credits the so-called royal game for teaching him strategy at the corporate level.

“As lawyers, we’re paid for our judgment”, Tse said. “And in a way, we’re defined by the one mistake we make. But you can’t be paralyzed by fear; you have to constantly make good decisions along the way. And that’s exactly what chess taught me.”

Opening Gambit

In 1997, Tse joined Brobeck, Phleger and Harrison LLP—then, a large Bay Area law firm—as an Associate. Just 36 months later, he was hired at a Telecom broadband services corporation to serve as the company’s VP of Strategy and General Counsel. All before he turned 30.

Tse joined worldwide consumer electronics leader LG Electronics in 2005 as VP and General Counsel for the U.S. As he settled into his role, and the new home built for his growing family, opportunity knocked yet again.

This time, Tse was offered a position with Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), the storied owner and operator of The Kentucky Derby. The catch: The company, based in The Bluegrass State, was 2,000 miles from LG’s U.S. mobile corporate offices in sunny San Diego.

“The opportunity was something I just couldn’t say no to,” Tse said. “Of course, it’s an iconic brand, but as I learned more about the company I discovered it’s essentially a 137-year-old start-up.”

The company’s rebirth began in 2005, when CDI began assembling an entirely new executive team. The lineup, which included a new CEO, COO and CFO, had embarked on a new corporate strategy, aimed at growing the company into what it is today. And what it is today is quite impressive.

Prior to reorganization, the company was a $300-million horse racing enterprise. Today, CDI posts nearly $1 billion in annual revenue, with a portfolio of businesses that includes six casinos, four race tracks, the country’s largest legal online wagering business—which takes in nearly $1 billion in bets every year—and a cable TV network. Since Tse’s arrival as the fourth member of the senior executive team, the stock price has doubled and the company’s growth has accelerated.

“I have great respect for our executive team and for what they’ve built,” Tse said. “In large part, I came here because of their vision. We’re growing and we’re not done yet.”

A Sound Strategy

Tse’s first objective, having arrived at CDI without a background in gaming or horse racing, was to fundamentally understand all components of the business.

“I immediately wanted to add value,” Tse noted. “I started by learning all aspects of what we do and where we’ve been. I needed that base so I can help the team make good decisions in order to move the company forward to accomplish our vision and goals.”

As General Counsel, one of Tse’s primary goals is to protect CDI’s stellar brand reputation, forged over 139 years.

“We’re a company that takes bets, and people entrust their money to us,” Tse said. “As the house, people expect us to be fair and transparent. Our reputation is everything.”

To accomplish this, along with his team of six lawyers, Tse must often venture into largely uncharted territory. Many of the current laws governing horse racing were enacted in the 1970s or earlier—a seeming millennia away from today’s online gaming culture.

“The laws surrounding online gaming aren’t always clearly defined, so you must extrapolate what’s legal and what’s not,” Tse said. “That means reviewing case histories as well as considering how judges, juries, regulators and the public will react. Because of these challenges, we’re always assessing risk, whether it pertains to a business opportunity or even a lawsuit.”


Tse’s history of facing challenges head on, as well as his appreciation for the intricacies of the U.S. legal system, goes much deeper than face value.

The son of two medical school students who escaped Communist China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Tse first arrived in America from Hong Kong at age seven.

“While my parents couldn’t articulate it, they knew the United States was ‘the land of opportunity’ because of the rule of law,” Tse said. “Here, opportunity flows from our legal system thanks to a court system comprised of independent judges that ensures a level playing field.”

As well as crediting the sacrifices of his family for making his success possible, Tse humbly recognizes the trail blazed by other Asian-American pioneers, many of whom he has never met.

“I’m an Asian American who is General Counsel for a company based in Kentucky—that’s not something anyone could have dreamed of 25 years ago,” he said. “Nowhere else in the world can a poor, immigrant son have the opportunity to go to Harvard Law School and become an executive of such an iconic company.”

Drawing on his chess know-how, by making strategic moves and assuming risks throughout his career, Tse’s version of the American Dream has become a reality.

J.R. Ball is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.



Comments, thoughts, feedback?