Why You Should Play the Game of Kings
No one can really say why chess came to be known informally as the game of kings. The name conjures up a more genteel time, of halcyon days of romance between lords and ladies, complete with chivalry, noblesse obliges, and court intrigue. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that monarchs and other royalty would often play the game during their leisure time — something that those less fortunate and not born in gilded cradles rarely got to enjoy.
It was a form of active recreation, something that when done could sharpen the mind, indirectly, for the more direct and pressing matters of state that occupied rulers: namely, diplomacy and waging war. Or it could be that it acquired this name because in chess the end goal is to capture the king. The very words of triumph that one speaks in chess to their defeated opponent, “checkmate”, derives from the Old French eschew mat — and before that from the Arabic šāh māta and Persian šāh māt. All carry the same ominous translation: “the king is dead”.
However, the purpose of this article is not to explore the nuances of chess history, but to persuade you, the readers, to take up the game of chess. Perhaps you already know how to move the pieces, but if you don’t its no bother. I can tell you from first-hand experience there is knowing how to play chess, then there is knowing how to play chess. But we’re not going to go over the rules of chess — the moves, strategies, or tactics — rather we will go over the reasons, and the benefits, to learning and playing chess and what it can do for your lives.
It’s no astonishing bit of news that attention spans have been steadily faltering over the past few decades. People have become fidgety and distracted, almost oblivious to their surroundings. How often throughout the day do you catch yourself checking your smartphone, zipping through Facebook or Twitter, for news or updates to your likes, dislikes, or tweets that often don’t happen to actually materialize? Has anything really changed in the two minutes or more since you last looked? Probably not. In the 21st century, most people are slavishly tied to their smartphones. No longer able to sit through commercials, most television viewers have opted to “pull the cable” and go straight to direct video streaming platforms so that they can watch what they want when they want it, without interruptions. You can even skip forward or backwards on the show or movie you’re watching — just in case you missed something while checking your social media feed.
Chess teaches you to focus, to rule out the distractions and be an engaged participant in the game before you. So you think that you don’t have time for a long chess game, where the players mull over and contemplate their moves for minutes before finally pushing a piece across the board? No matter, there is blitz chess (timed games with a preset agreed upon time limit, typically 10 minutes or less for each player) or even bullet chess where each player has 3 minutes or less. While experienced chess aficionados will tell you that these are not the best ways to learn or “get good” at chess, who cares? We are talking about the benefits of focusing your attention span, lengthening it to be an engaged observer and participant in the action before you. Do you really not have five to ten minutes to spare in your day? C’mon.
Cause and Effect
I do this, and they do that, then I do this, and they do that, and then checkmate! Got ‘em! A game of chess will rapidly teach you cause and effect. One learns that for every action on the chessboard there is a reaction from one’s opponent. The game makes you stop and consider the possibilities, to weigh the pros and cons of each course of action, sometimes for two, three, four, or more moves in advance. Indeed, it practically compels you to, lest you start recklessly throwing away your pieces and adding them to your opponent’s victory pile of captured pawns, knights, bishops, rooks, and, oh no, the most powerful piece on the board, the queen herself!
Making Use of What You Have
This dovetails into the previously mentioned section. It may be that you made a mistake early in the game, a big-time blunder, and your opponent happened to capture a piece, or two or even three, and now you’re at a disadvantage. In chess, the term for these captured pieces is “material.” No, not what the board or the chess pieces are constructed out of, rather we mean the material value of the collective pieces on the board. Sometimes it may be that you are at a material disadvantage to your opponent (they have captured more of your pieces, or more powerful pieces, than you have of theirs) but with a little strategy, some ingenuity, and sometimes a bit of luck, you can still pull off the checkmate and beat your opponent.
You Can Play It With Anyone
Chess is practically a universal language among those who know and enjoy the game. The rules are the same across the whole of the Earth, with the same pieces and move common to all. Language is no barrier to playing chess, and with the rise of multiple on-line chess games, one can play a game of chess across all time zones, with people who don’t share the same language let alone live in the same city. The writer of this article has played chess with people from Brazil, India, Japan, Argentina, Columbia, Canada, Great Britain, and even countries once belonging to the former Soviet Union. You even learn that some stereotypes do contain a kernel of truth. Yes, the Russians really do tend to be exceptionally good chess players. As pointed out previously, there is knowing how to play chess, then there is knowing how to play chess.
It Burns Calories
While many do not view it as a form of exercise, playing chess, can, in fact, burn calories. Some of you may be familiar with the stress that came from a big mid-term or final exam that loomed with dread in your scholastic or professional careers. So you studied. You made flashcards. You read through and tried practice questions and quizzes. You reviewed your notes or watched videos to better understand the material— all to prepare you for the moment of reckoning. Did you notice that you somehow managed to lose weight, or were always hungry, even though you may have decided to skip physical exercise in lieu of studying? This is because activity, any activity, especially prolonged and deep concentration, can burn calories. As a recent 2019 article states, “Over the course of an intense multi-day tournament, a chess grandmaster could burn up to 6,000 calories a day” and that “some players in this elite category find that they lose weight after a competition” (Stieg). While most of us who do learn the game of kings will never become grandmasters (very few attain that lofty status) the perks of an added calorie burn, even while seated, can be enticing indeed.
The Thrill of Victory…and the Agony of Defeat
Playing chess, like any game or sport, can create a stress response. Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the relief that comes from acing a test, finishing a long run, or even landing a first date with that special someone can be exhilarating. Chess is no different. An evenly matched game against an opponent of comparable experience is almost akin to a boxing match. A single mistake — a piece moved recklessly, or a piece thoughtlessly captured — changes the face of the board and can lead, like a boxer sloppily breaking form and dropping their hands, to a knockout blow. The consequences of losing a chess match aren’t as severe as getting flattened in the boxing ring, but the thrill of beating your opponent, and the battering your ego takes from a loss, can be just as palpable. When you win a chess match, or “when we engage in an activity that keeps us alive…neurons in [our brain’s] reward system squirt out a chemical messenger called dopamine, giving us a little wave of satisfaction” (Jabr). Because of this, chess can be an intensely exciting experience, full of emotional ups and downs that can create its own strange addiction; but, unlike the physical addiction of narcotics, or the worrisome vice of gambling addiction, the highs and lows one gets from playing chess are all-natural.
In conclusion, it is this author’s hope that this article has persuaded you to take up the game of kings. It only takes a matter of minutes to learn how the pieces move, and there are several web-based chess gaming platforms that one can join for free. From there all one has to do is make the simple decision to play a game. So next time you’re sitting around bored at home, feeling listless in a coffee shop, or in dire need of a distraction to kill some time during an airport layover, give the game of chess a shot. The benefits you get from it may surprise you.
By Master of the Codex Manesse (Additional Painter I) — http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg848/0021, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=155138
“Checkmate: Definition of Checkmate by Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com Also Meaning of Checkmate.” Lexico Dictionaries | English, Lexico Dictionaries, 2020, www.lexico.com/definition/checkmate.
Jabr, Ferris. “How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 Nov. 2013, www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-brain-gets-addicted-to-gambling/.
Stieg, Cory. “Chess Grandmasters Can Lose 10 Pounds and Burn 6,000 Calories Just by Sitting.” CNBC, CNBC, 22 Sept. 2019, www.cnbc.com/2019/09/22/chess-grandmasters-lose-weight-burn-calories-during-games.html.