Stoic Soup for the Chessplayer's Soul
Lessons for Chessplayers from Stoicism

Stoic Soup for the Chessplayer's Soul

FM NiranjanNavalgund

After a long gap, I decided to resume with the blog posts here. While I was having a session with one of my students, I realized that the stoic ideas could serve as a great markers to chess players.

Some of you may already know what Stoicism means. I'm sharing an extract from an article-

"Stoicism got its name because Zeno of Citium (c. 334–c. 262 BC), the founder of the school, did his teaching in a public colonnade or porch (“stoa”) overlooking the Agora of Athens. Stoicism was known on this account as the Philosophy of the Porch, as opposed to the Philosophy of the Garden (that of Epicurus), or the Philosophy of the Academy (that of Plato), or the Philosophy of the Lyceum (that of Aristotle), with each name referring to the place where the teachings of the school were imparted". -

Marcus Aurelius's Meditations is a book I wholeheartedly recommend. Let me begin by his quote -

If any external thing causes you distress, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your own judgment about it. And this you have the power to eliminate now.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.47

As chessplayers, we come across different challenging situations which are not always in our control – including our opponent’s moves.

  1. On Losses

Like a few players, I have also lost three straight games in my life after crossing the 2200 barrier on two occasions. With a string of losses, it is not easy to stay motivated to play and continue the event. Some of my colleagues also asked me to withdraw from one of the events. I had no health problems and felt I could use the remaining games as an opportunity to learn. Keeping this in mind, learning a new opening and experimenting it seemed like a good way to keep myself occupied. I did so and eventually won the game in the next round.

In another such four-losses-in-a-row situation, I accepted that my chances to fight back for a prize in an event were over. After that, I prepared my mind to add an internal importance to it - “If this were the last game of my life, how would I play?”

The underlying theme is found in Memento Mori – a concept in stoicism which means “remember that you will die”.

Adversity may be viewed as training or an opportunity to learn, like I did when I experienced straight losses.

  1. On Preparation & Practice

Of all that is written by stoics, I have felt that the most powerful mantra for me has been Amor-fati. It means ‘love of fate’. The idea is to love and embrace whatever the outcome is. If you are wondering how to amor-fati, here are some basic ideas -

a) Challenge yourself consistently, especially to the things you averse. Learn that opening you have been avoiding for a long period. Switch to those main lines you have been wanting to do. Finish studying the Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual you had on your list.

b) Perceive change as an opportunity to grow. For instance, let’s say you are leading the event by half point and things change in the penultimate round. Now, you are in a must-win situation to win the event. In that case, instead of cursing yourself for the bad play in the previous game, focus on the task at hand, (easier said than done, but it is possible) and accept the new change in the situation. There was this instance in my life where I prepared a lot for an opponent. I woke up early to revise before the game to see that the whole database had become corrupt, which meant no access to my opening files. When Thomas Edison’s factory burned down, he told his son “Go, get your mother and all her friends. They will never see a fire like this again”. I remembered Thomas Edison’s quote and went to the game with the thought of Amor-fati.

 c) Be mindful of the present moment (Zen) - Live in the present, don't fret over the bad move made on the previous turn. Focus on what is within your reach in this moment.

  1. Hupomnemata (Notes to oneself)

Hupomnemata is a greek word, which means a notebook/ journal in its simplest definition. The stoics maintained a journal, they wrote their thoughts on a consistent basis. The habit of journaling has been recommended by psychologists too. 

If there are a few things you would like to remember, write them down in your journal and read them before going to your game. You could also consider jotting down your thoughts after the game, may not be moves and variations – but, just the thoughts.

You could also use the journal to keep track of your training sessions, what did you do and how much of it was useful and what was the level of your focus and so on.

I’ll end this article by sharing a game from a state championship. I was leading the tournament by half a point along with another player. I blundered quite early in the opening, the rest is for you to see!


To sum it up, here are the most important ideas of Stoicism. [Mentioned by Ryan Holiday]

  1. Summum Bonum- virtue is the most important thing. Do the right thing!
  2. Amor Fati- The stoic loves everything
  3. Premeditatio Malorum- have low expectations
  4. The obstacle in the way is the way
  5. Ego is the enemy  
  6. Sympathea- we are all interrelated
  7. Memento mori!

I hope you liked this Stoic soup I served you! 

Suggested further reading:

1. Obstacle is the path by Ryan Holiday
2. Ego is the enemy by Ryan Holiday
3.Stillness is the key by Ryan Holiday
4. The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
5.The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth


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