How Chess Helped Me to be Braver

Celine Lai
Oct 22 · 7 min read
Electronic Chess Game, photo provided by author.

I consider myself a non-competitive person. I am not interested in winning in sports or in playing board games and other games, in order to win.

Like many people, I enjoy playing board games, like Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Scrabble and Monopoly, but I’m not one of those who will “go all out” to win.

My partner generally doesn’t want to play board games with me, because I usually don’t take the playing or the winning seriously, for example, when trying out chess, I would play around with the Knights, which of course are horses.

He is a very good chess player, having first learned it at school in England. I used to like watching my brothers playing chess, but thought it too complicated for me to play.

Vintage Tandy chess game, with book. Photo courtesy of Celine Lai

Chess is a great game for concentration or focus and for spending a long time over the chessboard and pieces, strategizing what moves to make, for the end goal. The objective is to check-mate the King or prevent the King piece from moving.

The life-size chess game in the Harry Potter movie enthralled me, and I love the giant chess pieces in art, that I see on the television. However, when I decided to give chess a go online, using GameKnot, I found that it stressed me trying to actually win!

My over-riding concern or thought was “I have to win to show that I am better than the other person” but this concept made me feel very uncomfortable.

Chess was terrifying to me when I first came across it. The number of possible moves and games was daunting, and the skill level for it seemed unobtainable for me.

I didn’t know then that I wasn’t ready for chess.

Watching online players on GameKnot opened up my sense of recognising and appreciating skills in strategizing (to play chess) and captured my admiration, as I witnessed players with magnificent names like “Duchess” gain top points and remain in the hallowed Hall of Fame.

There were some light-hearted fun days when I did challenge other beginner chess players to online chess games on GameKnot.

More often than not, one of us conceded, or the game ended quickly after one of us had a landslide win against the more incompetent player.

As I have quite a strong interest in mathematics and the scientific method, I learned the basic rules of chess.

I have enjoyed watching chess-related films, like “Searching for Bobby Fisher”. Robert James (Bobby) Fischer was an American chess grandmaster and many consider him to be the greatest chess player of all time.

Currently, I am reading Josh Waitzkin’s book “The Art of Learning.” Josh is an American chess player and describes the lessons he has learned from mastering both chess and martial arts before the age of 30.

To me, these great chess players must have had minds like steel-traps, able to focus, think, and see many moves ahead, capable of lateral thinking and of perceiving patterns, able to tune into the likely and possible moves of their opponents, and with the patience of saints.

noun: lateral thinking

the solving of problems by an indirect and creative approach, typically through viewing the problem in a new and unusual light.

Cue Celine: the need to be more of a lateral thinker, as thinking indirectly and creatively was severely curtailed in me due to a lifetime of feeling threatened and being closed off, as a result of traumatic events.

Courage in my life was simply asking for what I wanted, it was walking out the front door and engaging with people, it was acknowledging that I needed help and getting it, it was doing the spiritual work to strip away the layers of self-doubt and dislike of myself, to realize that what was underneath was worth-while and good.

Over the chequered years, I have had plenty of opportunities to observe, assess, experiment with, and respond to the variables in life, and with each year, I am feeling more empowered and capable.

Tandy electronic chess manual and a booklet on the rules of chess. Photo provided by the author.

My sister recently gave me a wonderful old Tandy electronic chess game. I love beautiful things, and this vintage game is beautiful, as is the game of chess.

So as soon as I got a chance, I sat down with the machine and set about to play at the lowest level. My spirits were high as I said to myself “I’ll just mess around with this and see what happens.”

To my surprise, after three moves on my part, I thought “I’ve had enough of this, I can’t do this.” The brief tendered to me was too much. It was:

Chess is really hard, you can’t play chess even if you tried, so you may as well give up right now because you can’t play a good game, let alone win.

I’m glad that I let this feeling/judgement/thought filter through.

I was rather astonished and dismayed at the same time. I knew that I was doubting myself and being weak-willed, and giving up too soon.

I put out a call for help, and that help was my partner, Mere Male (MM). He loves chess and took a bright interest in what I was doing. MM and that chess game taught me something that I hadn’t known until then.

Chess is interesting. It’s a great game, it’s a game of beauty or elegance, requiring the dedication of taking the time, the lateral thinking, the will, and the inclination to size up the whole playing field first of all, then making the first decision or first move, based upon one’s knowledge of self and opponent and game play and rules, and based upon one’s own experience.

This is followed by enjoying or entertaining yourself, scrupulously moving your pieces, while always looking at the permutations of your and your opponent’s current and next moves (as far as your brain will allow), with the end goal always in sight.

Chess has an end goal, and while I am familiar with castling, en passant, stalemate, pinning, discovered check, and classic check-mate patterns, and the need to control the center and to develop the power pieces; it is the playing and applying of these principles that I need a lot of practice and progress with.

Hey, I’m starting to get the hang of this chess thing,” I thought as MM kindly and patiently pointed out possible moves and repercussions to me.

His encouragement made all the difference.

When I got to C1 F4 I thought I had the computer licked, but instead of check-mate, a move came up.

The computer got me to move one of its pawns to get the King out of check-mate.

The guiles of chess play are many, but chess is also exciting and enticing.

Nearly the end of my rookie game! Photo by Celine Lai

This rookie inaugural game left me feeling a huge lot braver, and thinking:

Even though this chess playing is very challenging, I can actually get somewhere; and if I practice enough I will make progress.

From my rookie game on the vintage Tandy chess computer, I have learned that even if things are hard, the doing and the fulfilling or completion is as much in the trying as in the winning.

When I was ready to absorb the message, chess taught me to feel the fear and do it anyway, the fear of looking like a fool, of not being good enough, of not knowing enough, and of never winning a game.

Life is like this also, there are ways of doing things and seeing things, and if one believes that she/he is able to understand the play and get somewhere (i.e. be in it ), then winning is not the end goal.

The enjoyment or satisfaction of the journey helps to choose to continue to be in it, and it is unrealistic (and unhealthy) to always expect to win a chess game, or to “win” at everything in Life.

Life is not about losing and winning, but is about achieving goals.

It may be about agreeing to play with rules, where a “win” technically means the gaining of a completed set of behaviours.

A cricket team can gain more runs than the team it is playing against, a card player can gain a hand of cards that grants them entitlement to the pot.

A chess player can gain the checking of the King.

Maybe I never will gain the completed set of behaviours that checks the King, but that’s okay. Winning is not about being better than another person.

To me, winning is being brave enough to try something out. And winning is about the gaining of a completed set of behaviours.

Chess, which is the pinnacle of possibilities, combinations, patience, waiting, lateral thinking, mathematical ability, creativity, intelligence, sacrifice for the greater good, and wanting to reach an end goal, taught me to be brave enough to try attaining my missions.

Chess has helped me to be braver and now I can take on the World.

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Celine Lai

Written by

Oldest inter country adopted person in Australia, biologist & avid reader

The Startup

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