Using Chess To Learn About Yourself

Art imitates life. We all know this, especially if you are creative in any way. You’ll experience something, be it a cascading waterfall silhouetted by a sunset or two dogs chasing a ball and their owner’s attention, and you’ll be inspired to take action. Maybe you sketch an image or write a poem or construct a story. However you do it, the process is the same: experience something, get inspired, create something.

The same is true in reverse. Life imitates art. You see a painting, watch a movie, read a poem and something clicks. You get a fresh new perspective. Maybe you get inspired enough to take action, to do things different, or maybe you just sit back and think new, deeper thoughts. In either case, the very way you see reality has changed. Shift your perceptions and what you perceive shifts as well.

I find this interesting, as I’m a chess player. Chess is a game, but it has artistic qualities. Moreover, it’s a thinking game. It’s a direct portal into your own mind. If art imitates life, then chess definitely imitates life as well.

It’s not called the Royal Game for nothing.

In GM Smirnov’s latest book, he mentioned how chess can be a self-portrait of our minds. Our thoughts play out on the chessboard, and if we have the same thoughts over and over again, then we’ll have the same games over and over again. Yes, the individual moves may differ, but the overall trend will largely stay the same.

Look at the average club player, especially his blitz games. Blitz really points this out, because you don’t have to think differently. You default to what comes naturally, and your games follow a theme. Most club players like to attack and have complications, and they always seek such moves. Play eight games and at least seven will feature attacks and complications. You can’t guarantee that, though, because your opponent has a say in it as well.

Indeed, chess is unique in this respect. Art is always created alone. If you write a poem, you write alone. If you draw, you draw alone. You may draw a portrait of someone else, someone right in front of you, but at that moment they are an object. You alone do the work. If someone else came over and put paint on your canvas, you’d be livid. This exact thing happens in chess every move.

You want to attack. You place your Knight aggressively on the Kingside. Your next few moves seem preordained, ready to sac, sac and mate … but wait! Your opponent has a say. Perhaps he defends meekly; he’s passive, but your immediate sacrifice no longer works. You need something else now. Perhaps he counterattacks, and now you wonder if your own king is the real target. Maybe he completely blocks the centre, leaving neither of you with any obvious subsequent play.

Or maybe he just stares at you until you wilt under the pressure and resign. That’s a valid strategy as well. Worked for Tal.

Every game, every move, is a clash of ideas. I have mine, you have yours. If I have better ideas, I win. That seems simple, even obvious, but that’s not the whole picture. Chess is art, but it’s also an intense competition, an intellectual sport. There comes a point in every game where the struggle reaches its zenith, where the two opponents clash like two warring generals, and here’s where things fall apart for one side or the other.

I was always good up until this moment. I could think of ideas and strategies, and I greatly enjoyed seeing the two sides manoeuvre to the best positions possible … but then I froze. This was it. This was the big moment. There are no more normal moves. Something decisive is needed. It’s go big or go home, find the winning combination or slink away in defeat.

I struggled so much here. I knew this was the critical moment, and I knew my opponent knew as well. He was pushing back, wanting to win just as badly as I did. I needed to overcome him… and I couldn’t do it. My brain stopped working. I moved three times slower. I inevitably lost the thread.

Why? Because this is my personality. I love seeing the big picture, whereas I only put up with the small details. I’m very diplomatic, avoiding outright confrontation with others. If someone pushes back against me, I invariably yield. That’s just who I am, and that’s exactly how I played chess.

If my opponent just say there passively, avoiding confrontation himself, then I usually won. That’s how I earned most of my wins, actually. If he made an obvious mistake, sure, I can catch that and exploit it, but that’s trivial. I’m looking deeper. If my opponent had counterplay, real counterplay, then I usually lost. If I limited counterplay, I usually won.

It’s not just winning or losing either, but it comes down to comfort level. I’m not comfortable in confrontations. If someone is aggressively pursuing a point, I get anxious. I yield. Even if I’m right, I’d rather not face such a scene. The exact same is true for chess. I’m not comfortable facing an onslaught. Maybe my opponent sacrifices a piece for the attack, completely unsound. I could win fairly easily, but I’m not comfortable. My mind rallies against this. Often, I’d decline the sacrifice, not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s more mentally comfortable.

Comfort is a terrible way to make decisions, by the way.

Chess is a psychological struggle, seeing who comes out on top, but it isn’t all about winning, not necessarily. It could be about not losing. There’s a difference. More than any other sport, chess has draws or ties. Neither player wins. There’s a difference between someone who hates losing (draws are okay) versus someone who loves winning (draws are not okay).

I preferred winning, obviously, but I had no problems with draws… assuming the other person was my strength. If I thought I was the better player, then I needed to prove it. Draws were unacceptable, and I would push to the point of unsound sacrifices to avoid that… which is hilarious, because I often lost trying to win. Against opponents stronger than me, I had no problem accepting that equal position.

The same is true in life. I rarely get into arguments, but I do like discussing issues and topics. Against someone I view as less smart than me, I have to win. Period. I must prove they are wrong. Against people as smart or smarter than me? No problem in submitting, or even staying out of the discussion at all.

Now, the above was definitely true of young me. As I’ve grown and matured, I’m much less likely to enter arguments just for the sake of winning, and similarly, as I’ve matured as chess player, I’m far less likely to throw games for the sake of winning. It took a long time, but it’s still progress.

I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface here. There’s so much that chess translates to life. I’ll make another post soon that really dives deeper into this issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.