Life Lessons from Chess

By t.wheeler on Nov 20, 2011 - 09:50am
Chess pieces

I don't consider myself a chess expert, but a few years ago I read Garry Kasparov's autobiography and I was hooked. Kasparov was world champion for much of the last decade. I learned to play from my dad when I was a child, but I never really got serious about studying it until after I read that book. Until then I always had this idea in my mind that chess players had these fantastic mental powers, and were almost magical, untouchable, genius. But on reading Kasparov's book, I realized that although they are very talented and smart, it really comes down to hard work and study. And I felt inspired to try to improve my own abilities by making a rational study of the game.

I actually enjoy reading about great chess players, their triumphs, their quest for the coveted world title, their failures, and the politics and intrigues that have surrounded the game as much as I enjoy playing it. I've since read biographies of Paul Morphy, Max Euwe, Bobby Fischer, and Mikhail Tal.

And I've read a fair share of chess tactics and theory books, but I don't play enough to really be good. This past year we started a chess club at my son's elementary school and I volunteered to be the chess coach. It was a lot of fun (and a lot of work) to try to teach the kids to play.

I want to soon put some kind of multimedia project here that helps a student to learn some standard opening theories. Until I get that worked out though, here are some of my favorite hangouts.

  • Chess cafe - An excellent site with frequent chess articles posted by masters and grandmasters of the game. There's a nice store here too. The only thing they don't serve at the cafe is food.
  • This Week in Chess - The place to get the current report on all the tournaments, and gossip going on.
  • - Home of the US Chess Federation
  • America's Foundation for Chess - Sponsers the US Chess Championship Tournament in Seattle
  • The Chess Mill - A new one I just found, looks pretty good. Chess articles, commentary, run out of Wisconsin.

Isn't chess just a big waste of time?

Chess, like most really great games, is addictive. I'm still not sure if that's a good or a bad thing. Especially in our day and age when kids (and adults) waste so much of their time in front of pointless, even disturbing video games, to advocate more gaming might seem questionable. But we all need diversions occasionally, and chess has several redeeming characteristics; some of which were pointed out by none other than Benjamin Franklin over 200 years ago:

"The Game of chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of chess, in which we have points to gain, and competition or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or want of it.

By playing at chess then, we may learn:

First, foresight...Second, circumspection...Third, caution...

And lastly, we learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs; the habit of hoping for a favorable chance, and that of persevering in the secrets of resources."
- Benjamin Franklin

Playing & studying the game has definitely had a big impact on how I live my life and pursue my goals. Chess has taught me not to live in a reactionary way, allowing circumstances to dictate decisions I make. Many people, perhaps most people, allow life to force them into a position they never desired to be in. Just like a good chess player can overwhelm a novice, forcing him to react to threats, to make moves he doesn't want to. Many people allow life to do that to them.

It might be a career they settled for, or some other situation they feel they are powerless to get out of. I was struggling in a job where I wasn't really happy, with a company that didn't have a clear picture of where they wanted to go. And it was during my chess studies that I decided I needed to apply the principles of the game to my life. I needed to make some clear decisions about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my life - and make deliberate decisions about getting there. So I did. Now, a few years later, we're living where we want to be living, and pursuing the goals we set out for ourselves.

Of course we can't control everything, chess has something to say on that note as well. You are only allowed to make every other move on the board. Only 50% of what happens is in your direct control... your opponent has his opportunities. A certain amount of unpredictability enters in. But the game teaches you that even with this uncertainty, the stronger you plan, the better the chances are that you will be successful. It may not work out exactly the way you intended, but invariably good things happen. In fact, I've found that as I pursue the general idea of my plan, certain unforseen opportunities often present themselves. True for chess, true for life.