Since I am no IM or GM I can't show off instructive games or discuss the finer nuances in some Opening lines. Yet chess is a passion of mine and I have been thinking of writing a small piece on it to show my appreciation for it. I have played the game for over a decade, never with enough vigour to break through to a higher level and really improve but it has grown on me and has touched my life in some way.
Chess clearly has a grip on me but how does a game achieve that? Are there any parallels to chess and the universe around it? Are there any lessons that we can take from the game and apply in our everyday life? The problem solving in chess is very abstract and simplistic- do this, do that. Very deterministic and clear. No, I think the problems we face in real life are too chaotic, too convoluted to have any relevance to our chess thinking and experiences. Maybe chess is this intellectual endeavour that makes us richer people from the inside? Well the drunk degenerates who can not even sit down at the board and thus play blindfolded chess at a very solid level beg to differ. Chess is just a game like any other that you get better at.
I think there is one very good lesson chess teaches us that can be applied to everything. I also think it is a skill and aspect of chess that is very often overlooked when talking about the game and that is focus. The ability to sit down at the board and to put on pause and shut out the rest of the world is one of the most crucial skills. It is a lesson that I have recieved many times before and get punished by every time I stray away from it. So what do I mean by focus? Does it require you to enter a meditative state and turns your face red while your brain focuses and runs on 120% of its normal capabilities until it starts to steam? No. To focus is to simply take conscious control of your thoughts. If you play a game of chess and you start to think about the result of the game you are walking on very thin ice.
I want to give you an example of a game I played at a local chess club I recently started to attend. I had attended already a few times and I usually lost by a small margin. This week I was playing some old man and the game started off great. My opponent brought out his Queen too early, which I managed to bully around, I managed to play very strong in the centre and soon I had a very comfortable lead- a winning position. I was excited and happy- finally I will win my first club game.
And of course my happiness was rewarded with a heavy slap to the face. I played one weak move followed by another. The position was now a draw and might have been even winning for my opponent. I was lucky enough to come to my senses before all was lost. I was tired as it was already near the second hour of play by that time. However, the good play that secured me the early lead returned and I managed to squeeze out a win.
The lesson was well illustrated. It is not over until the fat lady sings and until then nothing else deserves your attention. Do not let your mind be polluted with irrelevant thoughts. If you walk on a high rope you want to think about each step you need to take and not think in advance of the relief of getting to the other side or the embarrassment of falling into the net bellow.
Focus is about being aware of your goals and striving hard for them. It is not even about blocking out emotions as they can be a very powerful driving force for us. Focus to me is about recognizing your thoughts. Then deciding which ones are beneficial and organizing them. Realize that there is just one reality and that is the present situation, be it a position on a chess board, a difficult problem on your exam, a nerve wrecking conversation with your boss. Only the present situation is real the consequences and fears are not and only exist in your mind. Get rid of them and never be scared of the outcome because the fear itself can manifest into failure. Don't be overly happy about things that are to be because the lack of attention and presence can snatch it away from you and the loss will be even more bitter!
What I am trying to say is that our minds are a quite a complicated mess and chess is like a prism that allows us to look inside it from an angle. Make sure you always focus on the thing itself and only on it. Not on its consequences and implications. More often than not our minds set unnecessary barriers for ourselves to protect us. While evolutionary this makes sense, it is very annoying when we are in fact safe. Take direct control over your thoughts and direct them in a positive and constructive direction. It is not easy to do so always and it takes practice but as a result you should lose less games to significantly weaker players by being cocky and complacent, you will also play at a higher level against stronger players since you will be less susceptible to pressure and negative thought of losing and finally I believe the same mentality and approach will also benefit equally much outside chess.
This is probably the most relevant lesson chess has ever taught me and one of the reasons why I have never completely forgoten chess. It is a beautiful game and for those who are willing to look I am sure it carries many more secrets and lessons.