Chess Can Actually Teach You Serious Life Lessons
The Queen’s Gambit came out, and suddenly everyone loves chess again. I’m not ashamed to admit I got the chess app and started learning how to play.
I watched the show at my friend’s house. He was a regional chess champ when he was a kid. I had only played a few times with my dad. Needless to say, he wiped the chessboard with me.
I wanted to beat him. I took up watching YouTube videos about strategy. I played computer opponents and real opponents online. I was shocked that the game felt like a perfect analogy of how to live a good life.
After a month or so of practice, I called my friend up. “Wanna play chess?” I say, acting all casual.
“Sure!” he says.
In my head, it was a showdown.
The first thing you start to learn when you look up strategies is openers. You want to beat someone in 3 moves a feel like a real pro.
In fact, I played my friend again (before the big showdown) only a few days into my research. I tried doing the “Scholar’s Mate” (as seen on Episode 1) and winning in a few moves. He saw it coming and took my queen. Oops.
After a while, you realize that the win-in-a-few moves openers are for dips. When you get into the later game, you are so pissed that you didn’t use the time in the opening to get your pieces in the right places.
You could be the most brilliant player on the planet, but if you don’t get your shit together when you have ample opportunity, you will pay for it later.
Take the time to get pieces in places where they could be useful in the future. Stop trying to win right away. It takes time to win a game properly.
As in life, it’s best to make hay when the sun shines. Set yourself up to be ready for when things get hairy.
You have to zoom out and set yourself up for any contingency.
Don’t Squeeze Too Hard for One Plan
A common thing for new players to do is to get an idea in their head and sacrifice everything to carry it out.
You think, “I’m going to take that queen in 5 moves…” 5 moves later, you have pressure on the queen, but you were so busy doing that that you didn’t realize that you’re now in checkmate.
In chess, like in life, plans are enticing. They give us a sense of certainty. We feel like we have a trick up our sleeve. We feel like if we let it go, we would have nothing — so it better just work.
Also, like in life, you can’t really see too far ahead. You need to do what you can in 1 or 2 moves. 3 to 5 moves might as well be a different universe. That will take care of itself when the time comes.
In life, you can’t really see more than a few years into the future. If you get too focused on one outcome, something — or someone — else might be putting you in checkmate in the meantime.
What Your Enemy Is Thinking
We get really wrapped up in our plans, and we forget to think what our opponent might be thinking.
The time spent in their shoes might be more useful than agonizing over what you should do with that exposed bishop. Perhaps the answer is to threaten a queen.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have too many actual enemies in life. But where there is less in the external world, there is more in the internal world. My enemies are procrastination, depression, and anxiety.
Like in the game, I can’t sit down against these opponents and be nothing but hostile. It’s a game, after all. I need to sit down with my inner demons and think hard about what they might be doing.
What is the strategy of depression? Is it trying to tell me something important about how I’m spending my time? What does the world look like from its point of view?
In a strange way, we need to empathize with our opponent. If we see them as evil, we have no chance of getting in their head.
To win the match, we have to know our enemy better than they know themselves.
Accept Where You Are
It’s insane to agonize over where you wish pieces were.
You know that look chess players get on their face when they are thinking? That is real effort. They have been shown to burn up to 6,000 calories in a match.
Just like athletes, we have to use our energy sparingly and wisely. Often, I waste my precious time and mental energy staring at pieces and wishing they were somewhere more useful.
I’m sure you see the life analogy coming. Where are you wasting energy wishing things were different?
You already made those mistakes. You are where you are, no matter how much you wish otherwise.
That being the case, how are we going to proceed?
Chess is Ancient
Games, like stories, connect because they say something important about reality.
If stories didn’t tell us something useful, we wouldn’t remember them. If games didn’t make us better at living, we would stop playing them.
Chess has been around for a very long time. There are more possible chess games than there are atoms in the observable universe. This game isn’t going anywhere.
Accept that good games have something profound to teach you — especially if they have been around for a very long time.
I showed up at his house and was a little too eager to play the game.
“I’ve been practicing,” I told him.
We set up, and the game is going better than normal. I am much more aware of the moves he is trying to capture me with, and I do the work to prepare myself for the mid-to-late game.
After only about 30 minutes, he makes a mistake and loses his bishop to my queen. Another move later, I move the queen next to his king. My knight is guarding the queen.
“Checkmate?” I say.
We check around and shrug. “I guess you got me!”
We laugh about it and shake hands.
My comeback didn’t feel as profound as I had hoped.
I have a cheesy ending to this story, OK? The game really is just about connecting with other people. It’s a sophisticated form of play.
It was fun to train for the showdown at the end of the day, but the outcome didn’t matter very much. I was just happy to have someone to play with.
I hope he wants to play again.
(This is where you get first dibs and deeper dives.)