A Confession, not a boast
Don’t let 4,000 games of chess fool you. I’m not that good. In fact, I’m no better than I was after 400 games! I’m just obsessive. And I keep thinking that just another thousand games will eventually cause me to begin rising up the chess.com rankings. Practice must — eventually — make perfect!
And that’s the problem: it doesn’t. I have met opponents online with over 20,000 games played who are no better now than they were after 1,000 games. Practice — in chess or in life — does not usually make better. A 70 year old is not inherently wiser than a 30 year old. A 50-year marriage is not usually more intimate than a 10-year marriage. And 4,000 games of speed-chess on chess.com does NOT — I have painfully learned — make you a better player.
I discovered Chess.com in the summer of 2015 — an online community of 2.2 million chess players from Grand Masters to beginners. Tentatively, I cleaned the rust off my sword, and was soon competing against Russians, Bulgarians, Turks, Nigerians, and even a few North Koreans. We competed in a universal language in which cheating or miscommunication was impossible. The battle field here was deadly even. It was brain vs. brain with absolutely no language barriers. And it was addictive. That summer I played over two thousand online games — mostly speed chess. I lost over half of them and achieved a percentile ranking of around 33% (890 on chess.com). As I said, I was not very good — and remained not very good no matter how many games I played. But I was an addict. And I justified the time spent by arguing that chess would keep my now aging brain in shape. (There are few world class players older than 45 in this mentally grueling sport). As an addict though, I have to cancel my account each summer as I would get no papers graded unless I nipped my addiction in the bud before the Fall semester began.
By the summer of 2018 I had logged over 4,000 games of chess on Chess.com, yet remained inexplicably stuck in the 30th percentile amongst my fellow online chess players — never rising higher than the low 900’s. But I kept at it because of this faulty belief that practice would make perfect. I believed that eventually, it would “catch,” I would reach “the zone,” and my latent chess instincts would kick in somewhere around my five thousandth game against some unsuspecting North Korean ranked far above me. But fatigue usually overcame me first, and I often found my ratings sliding further and further down as the summer ended. By this time I was entering my late 50’s, and so I at least had the possible onset of dementia to justify my lack of improvement, as well as the more probable belief that my chess obsession might help stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s.
But in the summer of 2019 something changed. I suddenly started rising in the chess.com ranks for the first time ever — from 867 in June, to 1168 in August — a ranking which placed me in the 62nd percentile amongst active online players.
Still not terribly impressive, yet an improvement of 300 points in just two months is a little unusual, I discovered. When analyzing my opponent’s scores, few of them showed this rate of improvement in such a short period of time.
How then did I suddenly improve from the 33rd to the 63rd percentile in one summer? Though I cannot tell you how to become a really good chess player, I can tell you how to dramatically improve in a just a few weeks or months— assuming of course that you currently suck, as I did. But actually, what I hope to do is show you what chess taught me about Life itself — a far more important game in the long run. After all, I have to do something to justify four summers of failed mental labor. So here they are: the seven most important things chess taught me about life:
- Learn From Your Mistakes — Or you are doomed to Practice them!
If dysfunctionality can be defined as the inability to learn from our mistakes, then I have been a desperately dysfunctional chess player. In losing over 2000 matches, I never once bothered to rewind the game and analyze where I went wrong — something easy to do on Chess.com. It was far more fun to simply vow revenge and launch out on another game — and another, and another. But in the summer of 2019 I decided to slow down and begin analyzing every game I lost. And I was shocked to see how often I kept repeating the same mistakes again and again. Most players don’t analyze their games, and so are often not even aware of their most common mistakes. They therefore reach a certain plateau commensurate to their natural ability, and linger there year after year — undulating up and down without any significant improvement. As in chess so in life: analyze your mistakes — or you will be doomed to practice them for ever.
2. Learn to Recognize Dangerous Patterns
There are billions of possible patterns on the 64 squares of the chess world, and to be a Grand Master (GM) — an elite corp of about 1,680 (Fide) — requires you to recognize the dangers and opportunities hidden within at least the 100 000 most common of them. With a Chess.com rating of about 1168, I have come to recognize less than 20, even though I have played thousands of games over 50 years. I simply am not very good at recognizing either the danger or the opportunities inherent in even the 100 most common chess formations before me — and I therefore repeat the same mistakes and miss the same opportunities again and again and again. This is the fundamental difference between myself (at the 60th percentile online), a competitive club player at about the 90th percentile, and Magnus Carlson, the highest ranked player in history. Magnus can instantly recognize the best moves in any active game you show him — and usually the best amongst dozens of possible “good moves” — given a few extra minutes to think about it. He recognizes the patterns before him like we would recognize a the face of good friend. And even though the greatest human can no longer beat the greatest chess computers, they do not have to think through every possible move — only through the dozen or so best possible moves. And this is because they recognize the patterns before them. As in chess so in life: not recognizing dangerous patterns in our lives — addiction, anger, envy, procrastination — we repeat the same mistakes again and again. And this leads to the third principle chess teaches us:
3. Don’t be Arrogant
In the game below, I was black, and completely dominating. My two knights had surrounded the white king, smelling blood and howling like hyenas. All he had left were 4 scattered pawns on the opposite end of the board. It is his move — and in that single move he destroyed me.
Can you see the move?
While chasing his poor king around the board with my two knights, I had forgotten that his B6 pawn (bottom left) was just two moves away from becoming a queen. All it took was one pause in my attack — and his B6 pawn quickly dispatched my A7 pawn and stood on the edge of greatness. I was stunned. And my frantic attempts at keeping him in check before the arrival of his queen failed (the chess.com computer gave me little chance of it, though I’m sure Magnus could have engineered a win).
4. Put All Your Pieces in Battle
The quintessential rookie roars out of the starting blocks with his queen and a bishop, giddy with the power he feels as he shoots across the empty board, checking his opponent again and again and again. And as his opponent patiently parries the attacks, he is simultaneously developing his army: every parry frustrates the queen, until, exhausted, she retreats back behind enemy lines and sulks — after which the board typically looks like this:
White has only developed the queen and a bishop; black is fully developed: every major piece has been brought into potential action simply by counter-attacking the white’s over-eager queen. Barring a foolish mistake, black should win this game. A successful attack against a capable opponent needs to be earned. Sacrifice is often needed. Blood may be required. Vision is essential; and patience to incrementally increase the pressure upon the opponent without too quickly or eagerly rushing into the final kill.
5. Look Beyond What You Can See
Most threats — in chess as in life — are not easily seen. They require the ability to do what Rafiki in The Lion King calls “looking beyond what you can see!” In chess this requires what is called “x-ray vision,” a habit of seeing through the “harmless” pieces surrounding you, to the threats beyond: the bishop staring you down on the opposite side of the board with just a pawn or two protecting you from an ecclesiastical attack; the castle on the far end of your column — no immediate threat now, but waiting, calculatingly, for a chance to strike.
6. Don’t forget the Metanarrative.
Chess has a metanarrative: the capturing of the king. But in the first half of the game it seems too remote. In order to threaten this well protected monarch from across a vast and complex battlefield, many smaller “pawn battles” need to be waged first in order to even make an attack upon such a remote monarch conceivable.
7. Consider the Ripple-effects of Every Move.
Every piece you move creates a potential vacuum behind it. The knight you move may have been protecting another piece, or blocking a potential threat. Every commitment may also be an uncommitment. Every yes may also trigger a no. Everything we do — or fail to do — triggers consequences in every direction. In life as in Chess, consider the ripple-effects of every move you make.