Chess as a Guide to Life

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.