The game of chess is one of man’s great creations. The rules can seem arbitrary to a beginner, but are actually the product of over 1000 years of tinkering and refining. The modern game—essentially unchanged now for about 500 years—is perfectly designed to stretch the human mind to its outermost limits, but not beyond. The board is just the right size, and the moves of the pieces have just the right amount of variety, to offer the tantalizing but never attainable possibility of mastering the game with enough time and study.
Moreover, chess is a mirror of life, rich in metaphors for human experience. It is a pitched battle to the finish between opposing armies, yet completely non-violent, with no injuries ever reported from playing. It is a testing ground where we can experiment and act out personal dramas with no consequences other than wiping the board clean and starting over. A blend of primitive instinct and sophisticated calculation, it lets a player directly engage the mind of another human being—learning from experience, memorizing common patterns, methodically building a position, setting traps, analyzing variations, and finally moving in for the kill. And it is a canvas whereupon great players create masterpieces, like famous paintings, that can be enjoyed by generations to come.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about life by playing chess.
1. Women are powerful, men are essential.
The queen is the most powerful piece on the board, the king by contrast is plodding and slow. Yet the game can continue for dozens of moves after the queens are off the board—but once the king dies, the game ends. As in real life, women are often the centers of attention with their dazzle and flash and drama, but in the end, it is individual male leadership that decides the outcome.
2. The threat is stronger than the execution.
This is a common saying among chess players. The idea is that by threatening an action, you can nudge your opponent in a certain direction, but actually carrying out the threat may cause as many problems for you as for your opponent. The parallels with human relationships are evident.
3. Chess is 99% tactics.
Another favorite maxim. While carrying out long-term plans, you have to constantly be on the alert for immediate dangers or opportunities that can radically change the game. You may become a master player, build a strong career, and have a solid physique, but if a moment’s inattention causes you to swerve into the oncoming lane on the way home, it may be all for naught.
4. Different phases of the game require different skills.
It took me a long time to realize that chess is really three separate games—with common tactical themes and goals, to be sure, but requiring very different skill sets overall. The opening requires a lot of experience with common strategic and tactical themes, and yes, quite a bit of memorization. The middle game involves imagination and creative risk-taking. And the endgame demands exactitude and mathematical calculation.
Personally, I’ve always had the hardest time with openings—both in chess and in approaching women. The game is literally wide open at this point and can go in a myriad of different directions, so you have to make strong, general moves that cover a wide variety of situations. At the same time, you need to study a lot of previous games—both your own and those of others—to be prepared for different responses.
5. Latent talent in ordinary people can become obvious after years of hard work.
Pawn promotion can be seen as a metaphor for the way in which ordinary people sometimes have unusual talents that only become apparent to others after years of diligent effort.
6. The best defense is a good offense.
A cliché in sports, this principle applies equally in chess. Even if all you want is a draw, playing passively is seldom effective against a strong opponent. You must actively work to keep the other player off-balance and create “counterplay” to distract him from his attacking plans.
7. A weakness is not a weakness unless it can be attacked.
Another way of saying, perhaps, that your limitations are self-imposed, and that something you perceive as a weakness on your part may be completely irrelevant in a given context. Thus, fixing your inner game—eliminating psychological insecurities—may be more important than addressing the weakness itself.
I could go on and on about chess. I could talk about the theories of force, space, and tempo; the way pawn structure gives shape to a position; the different styles of play; the cautions against resting on one’s laurels (“It is not enough to be a good player—one must also play well”); and the social connections you can make and the influence you can acquire by playing. Suffice it to say now, I believe chess should be a part of any serious man’s education. So who’s up for a game?