Life Lessons From Playing Chess

I had always hated playing chess. When I was about eleven years old, my step dad taught me how to play the game. He was a CPA, a very thoughtful and deliberate man who would work difficult math problems for fun in his spare time. He slaughtered me in every game. I'm sure he was taking it easy on me because he wasn't a cruel man, but I didn't have a clue about how to play. I knew the rules, but that's it (and that's not enough).

My best friend in high school and I sometimes played chess, and he also slaughtered me every time. As a matter of fact, up until a few months ago, I don't think I ever won a chess game in my life (I was 43 years old when I wrote this).

I have pretty much tried to avoid playing chess most of my life, even though I always thought it seemed like it should be a great game to play.

I started playing again just as a way to stay in touch with my friend who moved to the other side of the country. We play online.

But nothing has changed. He still defeated me easily every time. After about six months of getting slaughtered, I decided to learn something about the game. I finally got tired of losing.

About ten years ago, I tried to read a book about chess. It used a kind of code to explain positions, you needed a microscope to read the tiny print, and I didn't know what the heck the author was talking about. I decided studying chess was not for me.

But after six months of getting kicked all over the board, I felt very motivated. So this time I reasoned it out. I figured somebody must have made a video or CD ROM or a clear and even entertaining book on the basics of chess, so I started looking and was astonished at how much good material is out there. I got books and videos and CD ROMs and I played lots of games with my computer, practicing some of the stuff I was learning. And what do you know? Not only did I start to play a lot better, but the game became as fun as I always thought it should be. It's interesting and challenging. It's just like playing a game of war. It's a great battle.

The best training CD ROM I found is called Majestic Chess.

I'm no Grandmaster. Not even close. But the difference between me two months ago and me now is amazing. I just learned a few important basic principles, and now suddenly I really see the board when I look at it. I know what to look for. I know what I'm really trying to do, and how to do it.

And that's the first lesson I learned about chess that applies to living life well: It really helps to learn some basics.

Here are the life lessons I learned while learning to play chess:

1. Learn the basics.
2. Think before you do.
3. Think possibilities and outcomes.
4. Keep your aim in mind.
5. Have a plan but stay flexible.
6. Make your time count.
7. Protect your material.
8. Accumulate small gains.
9. Choose your friends carefully.

1. Learn The Basics

It isn't enough to know how the pieces move on a chessboard and what the rules of the game are. I've known that since I was a kid. What I learned recently were principles of playing. For example, I used to always try to get my rooks out early in the game. I like the rooks. I didn't like them hidden away. But one principle of play is generally speaking it is better to leave your rooks where they are and bring out other pieces first because usually it's a good idea to castle and you can't do that if you've moved your rook. Also, while the board is cluttered up with other pieces, the rooks are hemmed in. But as the board clears up, the rooks' long range power becomes very powerful indeed.

It was also an important principle to learn the relative value of the pieces — to know that a rook is more valuable than a bishop, for example. When you know that, you'll make sure you don't exchange one of your rooks for one of your opponent's bishop. That's a bad trade for you. Your opponent has gained a material advantage that may make the difference between winning and losing the game.

There are lots of basic principles, and if you played long enough and made enough mistakes and paid enough attention, you probably could eventually learn these on your own, but learning them right at the start makes the game more fun and gives you a head start and saves you a lot of misery.

One of the principles, for example, is that it's okay to lose a knight if you can capture a knight. It's a fair exchange…EXCEPT when your piece is developed (out on the board) and the opponent's piece has not been developed (still sitting on the back rank). That makes sense once you hear it, but I had never thought of it. Now that I know this and several other basic principles, I am a much smarter player. I know what to do. Learning the rules is one thing. But learning how to play, learning these basic principles, is another thing altogether.

I not only learned these principles or rules of thumb, but I learned WHY they are good general rules. To live your life well, it is also a good idea to learn some basic principles. Not just "I should eat and sleep and get a job." Those are like learning the rules of chess and how the pieces move. Not enough. It's enough get you in the game, but not enough to succeed or have a good time.

There are some basic principles of living — things you are wise to aim for, the relative value of certain activities — and it is worthwhile to know these things. It helps you make your life more interesting and enjoyable and successful.

For example, a good friend, a true friend, a loyal friend, is about the most important thing you can have in this world, and if you ever get a chance to demonstrate your loyalty to a close friend, you should do it. And if you ever get an opportunity to benefit yourself at your friend's expense, you should definitely resist that temptation. With this basic principle, your life will be richer and happier because you are a human being — an intensely social creature — and no matter what philosophy you subscribe to, if you don't have at least one true friend, your chances of being healthy and happy are nil.

And having lots of friends will reduce your happiness. You cannot be a good friend to 30 people. You can be a fair acquaintance, but none of us has enough time to be a close friend, a true friend, a good friend to more than a few. How much spare time you have will determine how few.

These are a couple basic principles of living. Yes, you can learn this the hard way, by making mistakes, but it makes life more fun and saves you a lot of misery if you learn those lessons from a book or a teacher rather than from your own mistakes.

Learning the basics goes a long way, in chess and in life. The importance of learning the basics is itself an important basic principle that you can learn from chess and apply to your life, and be richer for it. Let's look at a few more.

2. Think Before You Do

Chess teaches in an almost brutal way. Chess taught me to think first before I make a move. And it taught me by punishing me again and again for failing to do it. Every time I lost a rook or a queen out of sheer blunder — out of just not paying enough attention or thinking a little longer — I paid for it. Those lessons were painful, but less painful that learning the same thing in real life. When you choose a house or a career without enough thought, or even if you choose what to say to an irritating co-worker without enough thought, it can punish you far more than losing a queen in a chess game.

But the cool thing about learning the lesson in chess is that while you're playing, it seems disproportionately painful to lose that queen, so you not only got some sharp constructive feedback from your impatient move, but you get the feedback immediately. And the opportunities for learning it are frequent during a game. That's a good way to learn.

Taking the time to think before I take action was difficult for me to learn. I have a strong desire to take action. I am easily frustrated by the lack of movement or progress or action. But getting punished again and again on the chessboard for impatience taught me well.

It teaches that lesson very elegantly to everyone who persists in playing the game. Studies show that kids who play chess improve their schoolwork and are better at solving problems. Learning this vital lesson is probably the key. I could have avoided so many mistakes in my life with a little more thought before I took an action! I'll bet you can say the same.

Learn the basics in chess, and play this enjoyable game and it will teach you — without you even trying to learn it — the most important lesson (from a practical standpoint) you'll ever learn. As you learn it, you will naturally apply it to your life. Think of how much this one lesson will change the whole trajectory of your life. You'll make better decisions. You'll get better results.

Think before you move. Think about what? Possibilities and outcomes.

3. Think Possibilities and Outcomes

To think well, you have to know what to think about. And how to think about it. So here is how to think, both in chess and in life:

a) Come up with possible actions you can take. There is a lot to learn about possible actions that will help you. All the things you can think of are not all the possibilities there are. For example, in chess it is useful to know some basic techniques like the fork, the pin, and the skewer. Then when you are looking at the board, you know what to look for.

b) Guess how those possible actions would turn out. Guess what the consequences are. Guess the outcome.

c) Make the best move you can. There's an old saying in chess: When you see a good move, don't make it. Why? Because you may find a better move if you keep looking. One way to make a decision is to look until you see something good and do it. Another way is to keep looking even after you've found a good move and see if you can find an even better move. Try to do that in chess and in life (at least with the important decisions): Keep thinking up possibilities even after you've found something good. See if you can do even better.

4. Keep Your Aim In Mind

In chess, the goal is getting your opponent into checkmate. Often I've found myself busying myself with grabbing pawns or going after a piece or whatever, and missing the point. I get sidetracked from the real goal. The real goal is to checkmate your opponent. Your goal is not collecting pieces, not promoting a pawn, not biding your time trying to keep your pieces safe. You have a very clear aim in chess: achieving a checkmate.

In life, it is equally difficult to keep your important aims clearly in mind. The world seems to be in a conspiracy to take you off course, to make you forget about what you really want to do, and to cloud your attention with distractions. If you can keep bringing your mind back to the goal, you will attain more of your goals in your lifetime.

Avoid the temptation of "staying busy" with activity that is productive, but doesn't accomplish the real goal. You will learn this lesson on the chessboard repeatedly. You can justify your activity all you want, but you will be cornered and checkmated if you don't checkmate your opponent first. Straying from the real aim will be punished harshly on the chessboard. It is harsh in life too, although the time span is much longer. You'll suddenly realize your life is half over and you haven't really gotten much of a start on your most important aims. You're too busy with diversions and distractions and staying busy.

5. Have a Plan But Stay Flexible

One of the things I was surprised to learn is that even chess Grandmasters only think a few moves ahead. I thought they'd have the whole game and all the possibilities figured out ahead of time. But mathematically, that isn't possible. Even computers can't do it. In each situation, there are something like 35 possible moves you can make. After you move, the other person has the same amount of choices, and after three or four moves, you're talking about a lot of possibilities to think about because each combination multiplies exponentially with each turn.

So oddly enough, you can't think too far ahead. And you have to stay responsive to what your opponent throws at you. But you still need to plan. That's a good principle for life too. You need a plan, but you also need to remake your plans as circumstances change or as you learn new information.

I once sent out an audiotape I made to 42 audiotape companies, asking them if they wanted to publish it. Not a single one wanted to. They didn't even listen to it. What I found out is that's not the way the audiotape industry works. You can either publish it yourself, or publish it in a six-tape format, or first write a book and if it sells well, then the tape publishers might be interested in your tape.

I had a plan, but I had to change my plan. I made a move. Then life made a move. I could continue with my plan but I'd be wasting time and postage.

6. Make Your Time Count

Time is an important element in the game of chess, even in untimed games. This is something I have only recently discovered. It seems like a slow moving game. It seems like you have plenty of time. But each move you waste that your opponent uses well, puts you behind and gives your opponent an advantage.

One of the chess rules of thumb is to try not to move the same piece several times. That's one reason you don't want to bring your queen out too early, right? She is so valuable, as soon as she's out in the open, she becomes a target, so you move her once, then have to move her out of a threat, then out of another threat, and so on. You are wasting moves and getting nowhere while your opponent is advancing and developing pieces.

Don't keep moving things around without good reason. Don't be busy for no purpose. Pawn grabbing is a good example in chess. You see an undefended pawn and nab it. You are no closer to checkmating your opponent. It feels like you're doing something productive, but you aren't really. You're just wasting time. Go after the main aim (checkmate) and don't get sidetracked on irrelevant goals. Try not to waste your moves. Time is important.

Same in life. Be clear on your aim, and try to use your time well. You are not here for an unlimited time. Your clock will run out some day. Make good use of this precious resource. It is an extremely important life lesson, and chess teaches it very well.

7. Protect Your Material

Don't throw away material. Protect what you have. If you sacrifice a piece, make sure it is for a good reason. Only do it if it serves your ultimate purpose.

In life, it is easy to squander your money on nothing. How many times have you found you spent a lot of money and had nothing to show for it? That money, protected, conserved, could have been used for something worthwhile.

8. Accumulate Small Gains

During a chess game, you often can't make mighty sweeps and grand actions. Sometimes you need to just think ahead and do whatever small move you can make now that will be an advantage later, and be satisfied with that because that's the best you can do. Rather than feel frustrated and throw away a move, or lash out to grab a pawn that doesn't further you aims, cultivating a certain amount of patient acceptance of small accumulations of gain is the best strategy, in chess and in life.

Beyond the chess board, you have many opportunities to do things that will give you a little bit toward a long-term goal of yours, or do something that will let off steam or gratify you in the short run. You can exercise now, or you can kick back and watch a little TV. You can eat something healthy or you can eat a donut. Building this web site was done a little at a time. And when you add a little upon a little, after a period of time, you have quite a lot.

The slow accumulation of knowledge is like that. Saving money is like that. Chess can teach you the value of accumulating small gains, and can help develop the frame of mind that allows you to do it in your life too.

9. Choose Your Friends Carefully
Pick friends who back you up. Be a loyal friend and keep loyal friends. How does chess teach this lesson? A piece alone in enemy territory is vulnerable. You see over and over again the direct value of having your pieces guarding and protecting each other. One of the most important principles in chess (one of the things to consider when considering a move) is to make sure when you move a piece forward you protect it with one or two of your other pieces.

I just saw a film last night about wild dogs in Africa. They truly lived the principle of mutual protection. Only the dominant female of a pack has pups. In this pack of about 15 dogs, they all helped her feed the pups. She dug a den and stayed with the pups and never left them. The other dogs would go out hunting and bring food back for the mother. And as the pups got old enough to eat meat, the dogs brought them food too. They looked out for each other.

The den hole was dug in an open area and a vulture found them and was hanging around, hoping to catch a tasty little pup. The other dogs kept chasing it off, but it kept coming back, and other vultures from around the savanna saw the commotion and came over to investigate. Pretty soon the dogs were wearing themselves out chasing off the vultures. So they decided to make a new den in a more protected area, under a tree and bushes.

They dug a new den and then the mother carried the pups to their new home one at a time. And as she went from the old den to the new, she was surrounded by several other dogs, escorting her and protecting her and the pup as they made the trip.

It was a beautiful example of the value of looking out for each other. That's how these scrawny little animals are able to survive in such a dangerous environment.

That's true on the chessboard as well. Your pieces must protect each other. And work together — rarely can you deliver checkmate with a single piece working alone. Usually you have to use your pieces in a cooperative group effort.

In life, you may not need protection from lions, but even modern life has its dangers, some of them aren't physical, but emotional. A good friend can make a big difference.

Choose good quality friends. Choose only a few. And nurture those relationships. Keep them close. When you have an opportunity to show your friend what your friendship means to you, do it.

Chess is a great game. Not only is it fun, but it can teach important self-help lessons without you even trying to learn them. As Benjamin Franklin once wrote:

"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."

Read the whole quote here.

Learn another way playing chess is good for you.

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