Chess and Life

One traditional question asked by potential chess learners is: “Why should I play chess?” I believe the answer to this question is relatively straightforward. There are a variety of benefits to playing and studying chess that are relevant to players of any age. There are the universal benefits in improving logical reasoning, balancing long and short-term planning, and developing patience. There are also some documented age-specific benefits such as social inclusion and improved mathematical ability for youngsters. Chess is also thought to slow the onset of dementia in older players. These benefits are clear and obvious enough that Armenia, India, Turkey, Norway and several other countries have added chess to the educational curriculum, while many more countries feature optional chess clubs at various levels of education.

For me, a more interesting question than the one I posed previously is “How does chess relate to life?” Although some strong players would disagree with me, I’d say that there are quite a few examples where concepts in chess are adaptable to real-life situations.

I’d like to start off the concept of a ‘downward spiral’. Perhaps the most common example of a downward spiral in chess is a player first making a small mistake which leads onto a larger mistake down the track.

The initial mistake does not ruin his position, but does make his job harder. The player repeatedly and silently reprimands himself over this mistake for the next little while (e.g. over the next few moves he says to himself “You fool! Why did I make that stupid move earlier?”) and he loses self-confidence. As a result, the player will become less alert and this will often lead to an even larger mistake that actually ruins his position. Hence, the game will lead to an undesired result.

In comparing this phenomenon to daily life, a typical example would be a person who, still frustrated about something that happened earlier in the day, loses their temper with someone on an unrelated issue.

Though I don’t think we can fully nullify the effects of the downward spiral, by being aware and occasionally reminding ourselves of its existence, we can lessen its effects. I believe that a person who admits they have this problem and reminds themselves to ‘avoid the trap’ will experience a considerable improvement in productivity.

You would probably be able to find discussion of concepts such as the ‘downward spiral’ in a psychology textbook. However, most members of the public are not psychology students and being taught these notions via a game is a much more accessible and enjoyable method.

My second and final example for this article will be a rather long one. Firstly, I’ll discuss some basics to chess: there are three phases to a game of chess – the opening, the middlegame and the endgame, although the borders between each are sometimes hard to define. Beginners often memorise ‘opening traps’, which are designed to provide checkmate straight in the opening or at least to render the opponent virtually defenceless in the middlegame or endgame.

Consider a player who spends an enormous about of time memorising opening traps. While he has put the hard work in, he will eventually find that the area he has put his work into has been misguided and this will hinder his chess in the long run. Opening traps are a quick fix for a player that does not have a sound game – it’s sort of like taking steroids to reach your short-term goals faster. Or take a different analogy: you must lay enough concrete foundation before trying to build your house or skyscraper on top. If you attempt to construct the building first, it may stand for a little while, but will eventually crumble due to its lack of foundation.

At some point, the player will have to ‘backtrack’ and learn all the key knowledge he missed, such as positional/strategical skills, an important set of skills which normally focus on a long-term picture of the game, even until the endgame where there are few pieces left on the board. In fact, one of the most successful chess books of all time was written for players who need to ‘backtrack’ due to their missing foundational knowledge.

Another essential area that is missed by opening-obsessed players is the endgame. Endgames are the final phase of a chess game where there are often still a significant number of pawns left for both forces, but only a handful of other pieces left. The 3rd World Champion José Raúl Capablanca, known for being able to convert miniscule advantages, advocated learning the endgame before “everything else”.

American International Master Joshua Waitzkin considered that the studying of the pieces in isolation allows players to appreciate the full potential of those pieces and to better coordinate their entire forces in other phases of the game.

(As a side note, lack of piece coordination is a problem commonly found in beginners. They know their queen is the most mobile piece, so they move it out at the beginning and shuffle it all over the board. However, having one piece on a rampage near the start of the game and without any support rarely achieves anything useful.)

In my opinion, while this “building a strong foundation” idea is a relatively insignificant concept compared to the commonly heard principle that “practice makes perfect”, I believe it to be a useful nuance to keep in mind.

This article featured two major examples that related apparently theoretical concepts in chess to real-world practical applications. I can think of many more relationships between chess and life, but these were some of the big ones. I hope the reader was able to take something away from these examples!

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