Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chess Lessons

My son Max is learning to play chess, so I'm playing again, after thirty years' absence. Chess teaches me important lessons, rank amateur though I am. 

The most important lesson is to focus on a goal. The rules prevent an easy win by accident. You must plan ahead and avoid distractions. This is hard to do. It's much easier to keep the false score: how many pieces have you taken? Once you start paying attention to this side issue, it's almost impossible to remember the goal. The goal is to pin your opponent's king, not to take his other pieces or protect your own. A good player projects his mind to the end of the game, then calculates backward to see which move, now, will get him closer to victory. 

Life is even more distracting than chess. We find ourselves planning just to get by. We only want to keep our job or get a promotion, without thinking of our longer-term goals. Where do we want to get in life? Will this job will take us closer or further away? What will keeping this job cost us, and what do we plan to do with the time, energy and money we have left?


Chess also forces the player to act. You can't stand still and hope for the best. You may not be able to think of a brilliant move, but you will move, brilliantly or not. 

This part of life is tough. Because mistakes are costly, we learn to fear them and hold back from acting. Is it better to move forward, even if your actions backfire? In most cases, I answer "yes." Often the only way I can come up with the right plan is to try the wrong plan first. 

I had a friend who didn't like her job, or the city she lived in. She got an internship in another city, moved there, and hated it. She worked through her contract, thinking hard about where to go next. She ping-ponged between coasts, and today she lives in New York and loves it. She might have ended up where she started. She might have discovered that her dissatisfaction had little to do with the place she lived. But in my experience, there is no discovery without action. 

You shouldn't rush in blindly, of course, but make the smartest moves you can. And yes, doing nothing can be the best option, but make it a conscious choice, not a surrender to fear. If you move and your first move turns out badly, realize it was probably necessary, nonetheless. In the long run, doing the wrong thing is usually better than doing nothing.

The last important lesson I get from chess: almost every position has unique advantages. Even a weak position can be worked to enormous advantage. This statement is counter-intuitive, but the game demonstrates its truth continually. If your opponent stomps across the board and takes half your men, he often opens up a corridor to his king. The king is now easy to pin, because his escape routes are blocked.  

In life, a weak position enables a bold move toward your goal. I can't stop myself from quoting Kris Kristofferson here: "Freedom's just another word for 'nothing left to lose.'" My country, the United States, owes its success to our ancestors' bad luck in their mother countries. If the Puritans had prospered in Europe, they would never have braved the long journey and harsh conditions to settle in the New World. 

I was able to move to San Francisco because I failed to get a life together in Dallas. That failure made it a reasonable risk to leave, even though I had no job, no apartment and almost no contacts here. If I had landed a good job in Dallas or bought a house there, I might never have risked giving them up, no matter that I liked San Francisco better. 

Benjamin Franklin wrote about the game of Chess:

The game is so full of events, there is such a variety of turns in it, the fortune of it is so subject to vicissitudes, and one so frequently, after contemplation, discovers the means of extricating one’s self from a supposed insurmountable difficulty, that one is encouraged to continue the contest to the last, in hopes of victory from our skill, or, at least, from the negligence of our adversary, and whoever considers, what in Chess he often sees instances of, that success is apt to produce presumption and its consequent inattention, by which more is afterwards lost than was gained by the preceding advantage, while misfortunes produce more care and attention, by which the loss may be recovered, will learn not to be too much discouraged by any present successes of his adversary, nor to despair of final good fortune upon every little check he receives in the pursuit of it.

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