The Master

Philip X. Wang brings a chess-champion mind to patent law

Published in 2019 Southern California Rising Stars — June 13, 2019

It’s an inevitable question.

Philip X. Wang is an intellectual property litigator at Russ August & Kabat in Los Angeles who also happens to be the 2011 California state chess champion, and who holds the title of International Master—a rung below Grand Master—in the official World Chess Federation (FIDE) classifications. So people want to know: How much does chess have in common with the law?

Wang’s answer: Not much.

“Law is way more complicated than chess,” he says. “There can be so many different factors, so many different players and parties.” He says the law is actually more similar to poker, “where there is a lot you don’t know. Chess is a game of perfect information, which law is not.”

Wang does like to quote former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who said, “Hard work is a talent. The ability to keep trying when others quit is a talent.” Kasparov felt it was the most important talent to have in chess, and Wang says it’s true in the law as well.

Wang has that talent in the law. Years ago, he saw where he wanted to go but didn’t see a clear path to get there; so he kept moving forward, step by step, piece by piece.

He has that talent in chess, too. “He’s a grinder who gets a small advantage and just keeps whittling away tenaciously,” says onetime Los Angeles Times chess columnist Jack Peters, who has not only watched Wang play but played against him. “Some players are very optimistic, imaginative, sometimes reckless, but he’s not like that. He is very down-to-earth and consistent.

“And he’s an amateur!” Peters adds. “He’s reached the professional level without being a professional.”

“He’s a very great and deep thinker,” says Reza Mirzaie, who helped bring Wang to Russ August & Kabat in 2016 because the firm was seeing an uptick in patent cases. “Whether it’s framing things properly in a written brief or an oral argument in front of the judge, he finds a way to just persuasively touch on the one or two things that are the reasons why he should win. And he does it in the best way, to give us the best shot at letting any audience know we are right.”

In Wang’s small 12th-floor office, the desk is messy and two chess trophies tower atop a high shelf. The books on display include several by influential legal strategist Bryan A. Garner. A bobblehead of Garner sits on the same shelf. As Wang gives a tour of the space, its head nods along as if in agreement.

He acknowledges he’s a bit of a nerd. “The good thing,” he adds, “is when you get older, you get more comfortable in your skin. In high school or middle school, you are way more self-conscious.”

At the same time, he knows a losing move when he sees one. “I have to admit I’ve done online dating in the past,” he says. “And I’ve learned you don’t put down chess as one of your pastimes.”

 

Wang’s parents met and married in Beijing, then emigrated to the U.S. His mother came first, in 1985, his father a year later, and then came Philip in 1988, when he was five. His parents both attended graduate school at the University of Nevada, Reno, studying both hard and soft sciences (mom: chemical engineering; dad: economics); but, Reno being Reno, both also worked part-time at casinos until a few years ago. Wang’s father sometimes dealt blackjack at Harrah’s.

An only child, Wang read a lot and played tennis and computer games. He became interested in chess after his parents took him to a kids chess club when he was 8. His talent was immediately apparent. Soon he was playing against adults in local tournaments, and his parents were driving him four hours to the Bay Area for tournaments.

“There’s a specific thing called ‘chess talent’—it doesn’t necessarily correlate to other things, but either you have it or you don’t,” says Wang. “If you have it, you pick up the basics and complex rules faster and start beating others. And I definitely had it.”

As a 13-year-old, he was even quoted in a Wall Street Journal trend piece on chess becoming cool, telling readers, “Chess teaches you many skills necessary to make good grades. … It’s just an overall great game.”

He was on a fast track, graduating high school at 16. At Stanford, he studied computer science and philosophy, then pursued an advanced degree in philosophy at Tufts. But he realized what he liked about philosophy was finding a way to write clearly and usefully about complex topics. He liked arguing, and convincing people he was right. So he left Tufts for Columbia, where he received his J.D. in 2008.

“I knew I wanted to do litigation,” he says. “I have always thought that litigation is why people become lawyers—you want to write and argue. I always knew I wanted to do this.”

So it was advantageous that Irell & Manella hired him out of law school to work on patent litigation. “You go to trial a lot,” he says. “It’s very different than, for example, antitrust litigation, where people practice for 20 or 30 years without stepping into a courtroom.”

He adds, “I think of it as just another type of litigation. You still have to take depositions, you still think about themes and storytelling if you are going to end up being interesting to a jury or a judge.”

The early years were challenging. “You’re not really sure what you are doing,” he says. “Even at a big firm, some of the work is so disconnected you may be doing some aspect of a case, like reviewing documents or conducting legal research, but … you are still not getting the full experience of being a lawyer.”

So he kept pushing to get where he wanted to go. Every step mattered. “Like if you write a brief, say,” Wang says, “sometimes the court will schedule a hearing on it. And just being able to engage in that hearing can be very illuminating. You see how the judge sees the issues. In order to get that experience of being a good writer or researcher, you really need to see the whole thing.”

He spent five years at Irell & Manella, then three at Latham & Watkins. “But I confess, I feel like the last three years is when I finally really got it.”

At Russ August & Kabat, one of his first big cases involved Realtime, a company with patents relating to data compression. Wang was brought in to reframe the argument—starting with a patent infringement case against a firm named Riverbed—and, as second or third chair, he deposed the other side’s tech experts and argued at the claim construction and summary judgment hearings.

“I was definitely nervous beforehand,” he says; but the butterflies went away once it began. “You do the research, spend the hours agonizing over it, you’ve thought about it a lot and can handle the questions. None of the questions from the judge were unexpected.”

They won the case, and Wang has gone on to help represent Realtime in several other major patent infringement cases.

For Wang, the key to winning these cases begins with learning what the products—apps, primarily—do and how they do it. Being able to read code doesn’t hurt, either. “But it would be a mistake to stop there,” he says. “You have to think about themes that are compelling for the jury.” He looks for basic narratives: David vs. Goliath, issues of fairness: “‘We invented this technology; they are using it and not paying for it. All we want is fair compensation.’”

“The guy got accepted to Stanford’s computer science program when he was 16,” says Mirzaie, lead counsel on the Realtime cases, “but he is humble and can connect with anyone.”

 

In law school, Wang stopped competing in chess tournaments; he just didn’t have the time. Once he began practicing, he was able to pick it up again. He entered a few tournaments to knock the rust off, then competed in the 2011 California state championship and won it all. He was 28. The following February, after finishing second in two 2011 FIDE tournaments, he won the 16th Metropolitan Invitational, earning a third “norm”—or performance benchmark —within a 12-month span, which is what earned him the title of International Master.

“I was exhausted,” he says, “having played in nine long games over five days, and I had to go work the next morning.” But it was rewarding—particularly since the title seemed increasingly unlikely once he began working in big law.

For the moment, he’s decided against actively pursuing the honor of Grand Master, which would require three more benchmark performances against titled players in FIDE tournaments. “It’s a dream to become a Grand Master, but it’s honestly not likely, given my age and work responsibilities,” he says. “Chess at this level is a full-time job that would require several years of total dedication.” As for turning pro? “There’s very little prize money in chess—unless you are the best of the best.”

Besides the practice, Wang and his wife, Vivian, an orthodontist, have a 1-year-old girl. Yet when he can, Wang will still hop on a plane and take on a tournament opponent—for fun.

“When I play a good chess player, I can feel it. I watch how they concentrate before the game and during,” he says. “I notice that in law, too. I’m sitting back and appreciating the arguments of those who are the best. I can see when even great reputations are phoning it in. I have this appreciation of the right way to do something.” 

 

The Winning Move

On the path to attaining International Master status, Wang, playing white, was paired against Alexandre Kretchetov, a Russian master. It was a game he needed to win. This is the move that helped him do it.

“At the critical moment, I played rook on d5 takes pawn on f5. This was scary because now the black knight can move anywhere—even capturing pawns—and put my king in check. But I saw that no matter what, it wouldn’t be fatal and I could block the check with queen or rook and consolidate the position. Even if something looks scary, you have to be confident and make what you think is the best move. It worked out. He didn’t have anything serious, and I won the game a few moves later.”

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