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Chess as a Guide to Life

While for Bobby Fischer chess may have been life, for most of us it is merely an enjoyable, albeit challenging pastime.  However upon deeper reflection, chess may be seen as an insightful model and guide to life, as appropriate for us as any chess master.

I do not refer to the common chess metaphors that we encounter from journalists who refer to disputes between warring factions as a chess game with people as pawns or the conclusions of these struggles as an end game.  What I do mean is that we can enrich and improve our lives by applying common chess concepts, both strategic and tactical, to the decisions we make and the principles that guide those decisions.

Let me begin with some examples from the father of modern chess strategy and its first world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz.  Among his positional elements of sound play we find the notions of mobility and pawn structure.

Mobility is a broad concept, but generally refers to positioning your pieces to allow the maximum number of possible moves.  From this general principle we derive the specific maxims of placing rooks and bishops on open files and diagonals, respectively.  That this is advantageous is easy to understand because it gives the player whose pieces are so situated more options.  More options translate into more choices to respond to a threat or to launch an attack.  Indeed the identical concept exists in the linguistic cliché, “Keep your options open.”

The inverse of this is, of course, to limit the options of your opponent.  Steinitz quoted Howard Staunton, who wrote, “It is generally advantageous for your Pawns to occupy the middle of the board, because when there they greatly retard the movements of the opposing forces.”  We encounter opponents not only in chess, but also in business, personal relationships and any kind of competition.  Maximizing your options while minimizing those of your opponents is good advice in both chess and life.

Since we have just mentioned pawns we cannot omit reference to the great André Philidor’s dictum that “Pawns are the soul of chess.”  Indeed the importance of pawns in the game of chess has become common knowledge in the modern era.  How can we take this as a lesson for life?  We can make the claim that it is not the leader, but the common person who actually does the work of the world.  A foolish leader may feel self-important about his decision to make something happen, but it is the wise leader who realizes that, but for those others who accomplish the work of his decision, the decision itself means nothing.  While true, this is not a lesson per se, merely an observation.  The lesson comes when we find ourselves in a position of leadership, which at some time and in some capacity or another, most of us experience. 

And that lesson is to treat the person we lead with the respect that a chess master affords the pawn, knowing that every pawn is potential royalty.  Soldiers enter the battle more willingly when their general is known to conserve their lives.  Employees will take on any task if they know their managers will perform the same work.  When I was young my first boss ever, Art Rogers, told me that he would never ask me to do anything he was not willing to do himself.  He meant it, because he first performed every unsavory task in front of me by way of training me to do it myself.  I was sixteen and Art was seventy-two, and he earned my devotion and love by respecting me.  Art was a cook by trade, but a leader by instinct. 

There are also useful lessons in chess that do not involve the placement of pawns or pieces.  Writing about chess, the famous positional master Aron Nimzowitsch said that “To swim without a goal is strategic confusion.”  In chess the opening is sometimes dictated to us by our opponent.  In life our opening may be dictated to us by the circumstances of our birth, our parents and the community we live in.  But once you conclude the opening you find yourself in, book after book on chess strategy emphasizes the importance of having a plan for the remainder of the game. 

Successful people are quite often those who live a goal-directed life.  Most of us know others who go through life having no goals.  It may be a childhood friend who muddles through adulthood responding to the random circumstances of life with random actions which, nearing the end of life, leave no legacy of worth.  The successful set goals.  It may be to marry and raise a family; it may be to start a business venture; it may be to attain a certain profession.  There are more potential goals than there are people, just as there are more possible chess games than there ever will be players.  It is the enormity of both chess and life that make each so utterly fascinating.

Early in your chess career you learn about making sacrifices.  As you gain experience you will discover how to recognize when you may gain an advantage by sacrificing a piece or a pawn.  That advantage may be to win material from your opponent, and in such cases the sacrifice is only temporary.  In other cases your material loss may be permanent, but it is replaced by a worthwhile positional advantage that leads to victory.

If it is important to recognize when sacrifice is beneficial in chess, how much more so is it to recognize in life?  If you have a plan for your life and a goal to reach, you will likely have to make sacrifices to attain it.  You may have to postpone a career in order to attain a university or even a graduate degree.  To buy a house is to borrow money and live with reduced income for decades.  To raise a child well is to sacrifice much, but the gain to yourself, your child and society is well worth that sacrifice.

To become truly skilled at chess requires thousands of hours of study and practice, just as the same level of effort is required to become skilled at painting, mathematics or horticulture.  Hard work is rewarded in any field of endeavor, be it chess or living a fulfilled life.

Growing up, my sister had the following words on her bedroom wall:  “Life is not in the candle or the wick, but in the burning.”  Live yourself a rich and rewarding life.  Regardless of the opening you have been given, form a plan for the remainder of your life.  Sacrifice and work hard to make progress towards that goal, but be prepared to take advantage of any tactical opportunity or to deal with any sudden threat. 

And as you play your game, remember to choose your move carefully, in chess as in life.

Comments


  • 4 years ago

    malithakalanka

    great work bro..........

  • 4 years ago

    jedijoseph

    I've been looking at this line of thought for years now and it goes much deeper. As reality is essential a creation by ones self, we create ways to comprehend our surroundings to survive. If you were to depict every piece as a function or tool in your life and study the first few moves alone you will have a model for the future essentially. Very hard to explain without going into detail and its only a theory but at every stage I feel this way of thinking serves a purpose to the human race. It comes down to finding the right symmetries in life, the human race, a person, other people, collective mind sets,the environment, and chess. I'm hoping this is the right place to continue my work, look forward to some replies. Please be sure to keep your comments constructive.

  • 5 years ago

    k-NiGhT_MaGiCian

    Very well written.I enjoyed it.Thank you.

  • 5 years ago

    mzirino

    Very interesting.  Please more articles exploring the strategic, moral, and philosophical ideas in chess.

  • 5 years ago

    Muhammad333

    I am pretty sure, Paul Morphy said"A pawn is the soul of chess." Not Andre Philidor. Nice Blog!

  • 5 years ago

    unu

    Great article! Bravo!

  • 5 years ago

    Grafman

    Very interesting and inspirational. A kind of Kasparov "how life imitates life" article... Thankz

  • 5 years ago

    Penthesilea

    This article is inspirational. I have consequently forwarded the link to my team, in case they, like me, usually omit to have a look around the chess.com homepage in their haste to get to their games.

  • 5 years ago

    Omganesha

    interesting

  • 5 years ago

    Genghis_McCann

    Thank you for a thoughtful article.

    "Successful people are quite often those who live a goal-directed life.  Most of us know others who go through life having no goals."

    A number of years ago a study was done in Britain (sorry I can't give you the reference) of new BA (Bachelor of Arts) graduates. 60% of them, with diplomas in their hands, admitted that they had no idea what they were going to do in life. 

  • 5 years ago

    Mr_Awesome00

    nice!

  • 5 years ago

    Muhammad333

    Perfect Blog!!! I liked it! Very well written

    The moral was good, too.

  • 5 years ago

    joeboz

    It really happens...I like it very much....

  • 5 years ago

    SHiNKiROU

    I wish reincarnation exists and I can start my next life with my previous experiences.

  • 5 years ago

    Agathoklis

    Excellent, well done and thanks!

  • 5 years ago

    middleman3

    Hmm, with all this in mind perhaps our politicians as a pre-req should be forced to attain the level of at least a C player before taking office?

  • 5 years ago

    tdprater

    Thanks for this.  Very well done!

  • 5 years ago

    Dio

    Certainly worth publishing! Great work!

  • 5 years ago

    SonofPearl

    Beautifully written Kurt.  One of your best blogs.

  • 5 years ago

    rubygabbi

    Nice analogies. I suppose, then, that the equivalent of checkmate would be overcoming life's obstacles and succeeding in obtaining your goals.

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