It’s Your Move: Life Lessons From the Game of Chess

Author Peter DeHaanBy Peter DeHaan

My cousins taught me how to play chess when I was in third grade. My parents, doubting I could grasp the complexities of the game, urged caution and tried to lower my expectations. Yet I forged ahead. My oldest cousin patiently taught me the names of the pieces and how they moved. He gently quizzed me to gauge my understanding. Soon we played a real game. Despite novice errors, it was great fun. We played until he grew weary. Then I begged his siblings for a few games. But they had less tolerance for my sloppy play; by midafternoon we moved on to other things.

The next morning I challenged my instructor to play again. Before the day was done, I won my first game. He rallied, winning the next two, but I sensed I was beginning to challenge him. Seeking to avoid another loss, he feigned boredom and retreated to a safer activity. I then asked his brother to play. Discerning I’d advanced enough for it to not be too demeaning, he condescended to pick up where his brother left off. By the time their visit was over, I was hooked.

Practice Makes Perfect: Although my desire to play chess was strong, opportunities were limited. I asked family members, but each had a reason not to learn the game. My neighbor wasn’t much help either, having only passing interest. So I played against myself. Sometimes I would play the white pieces (which moves first and takes the offensive); other times I would take the black side (which responds and defends). Sometimes, I’d switch sides midway through the game, giving up a superior position to assume a lesser one.

These exercises may not have been the best way to improve, but I did get better. When it came time for a real game, my practicing paid off.

Study: Although enjoyable, playing against myself became wearisome. So I turned to books. First, I learned some esoteric rules, like en passant, which is seldom used in a real game. Then I studied opening moves and their recommended defenses. I also learned techniques, like the pin, the knight fork (a personal favorite), discovered check (a great way to confound your opponent), and gambits, as well as endgame tactics.

Having consumed several books, I zeroed in on one titled, “How to Beat Bobby Fischer.” The premise was that it was statistically more probable to beat Fischer than to force a draw – of course, he was nine times more likely to win than lose. I actually read, studied, and reenacted many of the sixty-one games he lost in Grandmaster tournaments. I reasoned that to improve, I needed to study the master.

Don’t Give Up: The unspoken credo among my chess-playing buddies was that you never conceded. No matter how dire the situation, we would never quit, playing to the end. Resigning a chess game was for those of lesser character. This perspective taught me two things.

First, I learned how to be a good winner, to be gracious to the other player as a person, all the while dismantling his army and backing his king into the corner for an acrimonious checkmate. I wanted to win but desired to not belittle my opponent in the process – after all, I would want to play him again.

Playing to the end also taught me to remain dignified in defeat. That’s much harder – especially when the vanquishing conqueror is relishing his impending victory too much. Yet, these moments perfect character.

Play it Again: Losing is never fun, especially when you deem yourself the superior player, but it does happen. I learned to accept defeat as part of the game and to grow in the process. It’s true that you can learn more in defeat than in victory.

It’s also important to not wallow in self-pity when setbacks occur, but to shake off disappointment and forge into the future. Regardless of how close I came to winning or how big the loss, my first response was invariably, “Wanna play again?”

Change the Rules: I sometimes played during study hall, where I could count on a worthy opponent being present. Once we organized a chess competition, complete with round-robin play and capped off by a single-elimination tournament.

My track buddy, Spencer, was in study hall, too, but he didn’t play chess. Still he was attracted to it like a magnet. The variations of pieces and moves intrigued him. I tried in vain to teach him, but his attention span was too short. Tired of watching, he one day blurted out, “Let’s play checkers – all-kings-jump-your-own-man.” I’m not sure if he made this up or not, but I was willing to try. Lacking checkers, we used my chess set, arranging the chessmen like checkers. Since every piece was automatically a king, they could move forward and backward. Also, you could jump your own piece (though you left it on the board) to catapult yourself into enemy territory to capture your opponent’s pieces. It was a wild game and Spence played it with great abandon.

Playing all-kings-jump-your-own-man checkers with a chess set would elicit snide comments from casual observers, but we didn’t care. Spence changed the rules so he could participate and I was happy to oblige.

React Quickly: We would sometimes play “rapid chess,” where you had to move within five seconds. With no timer, it was self-policing. It taught us to think astutely and react quickly. I had a knack for it, able to assess a situation and make a snap decision, sometimes on intuition or pure reaction. Games only lasted about five minutes and were so intense that it only took a couple to give me a headache.

I sometimes adopted a “rapid chess” strategy in a regular game. Although my hurried moves were not always ideal, their unending swiftness would unnerve my opponent, causing him to get flustered and make blunders. From his perspective, it was always his turn and he was always intently concentrating. I, on the other hand, was relaxed and having fun. I learned it was often better to make a quick decision that was good than to take time to make an ideal move.

To imply that life is like a game of chess is a shallow metaphor. However, just as a good game of chess requires a thoughtful approach and sound strategy, so does running a successful business or living a worthy life.

It’s your move; what’s it going to be?

Peter DeHaan is a magazine publisher by day and a writer by night. Visit www.peterdehaan.com to receive his newsletter, read his blog, or connect on social media.

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About editor

Wordsmith Peter DeHaan shares his passion for life and faith through words. Peter DeHaan’s website (www.peterdehaan.com) contains information and links to his blogs, newsletter, and social media pages. Peter DeHaan is the president of Peter DeHaan Publishing, Inc., (www.peterdehaanpublishing.com) the publisher and editor of Connections Magazine and AnswerStat, and editor of Article Weekly.