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On Chess, Art and Philosophy

Updated on August 20, 2016

Words of Wisdom from a Chess Player

In my ten or so years of taking chess seriously (that is, actually studying the game in the hope of getting better), I have learned a few things.

Here are some of them:

The Odd: It Takes One to Know One

First, chess players are an unusual bunch. I'm aware that others have likely noted my own peculiarity in chess circles...and elsewhere, and I mean this more in humor than anything. Continuing though, I don't know if it's something that comes with anything containing competition, but a good portion of the chess players I've come across are idiosyncratic to say the least. The main difference between the kind of cerebral competition of chess and other sports is that chess is less popular, at least on any local scale, so the odd behavior associated with "jocks" is more socially accepted. I tend to notice both forms of peculiarity, hence my writing this, and I'm sure the "sane" half of chess players have picked up on this also; but because chess ability is associated with intelligence (likely somewhat wrongly), the game has the effect of breeding a new kind of tactless and egotistical behavior. Chess having taken trashing-talking to a new level, as surprising as it may sound and infrequent as it may be, is only one aspect of my point.

A Short List of Chess Life Lessons

Secondly, the lessons learned in order to play good chess are otherwise useful and informative. Let's see; the things I've learned that seemed to be more of a life lesson than a chess one are:

  • Don't be too materialistic; it's easier to attack than defend, and initiative is key; play to your strengths; don't take unnecessary risks; there are multiple aspects of time, and time is of the essence; there can be creativity within a predefined and logical universe, and individuality can exist in that commonality; and there are often multiple ways of going about the same thing.
  • Also, all that matters in a moment is the position at hand; chess is similar to poker in this way in that what is already in the pot (material sacrifices) is no longer yours, and you must act accordingly; there is also a parallel idea within chess and poker, and this is the idea of "leveling." Leveling is the term used in poker to describe the act of trying to outwit your opponent by determining what they intend to do and taking the thought process one step further. This also occurs in chess while calculating variations; often you want a variation to look good to your opponent on a relatively superficial level but which actually benefits you.
  • Getting back to the list though, good players are good at making their opponent's possible bad options look good to their opponent, and they make their opponents overly optimistic until it's too late; psychology and subjectivity matter, but there is a transcendent objectivity that everyone strives for; computers and their hard-calculation are impressive, but human intuition and its ease are more so.
  • Furthermore, take actions that leave you with the most options later on; and if stuck for something to do, do something that can always be undone, as the permanent can haunt you for a long time; but don't fear that last one, as another lesson is that there's always another opportunity to set back up the pieces and to redeem yourself. One last one, I promise: You almost always learn more in failing than succeeding.

These are just a few of the lessons I have learned that I was able to recall relatively quickly. Needless to say, there is much to the game, and this is what I mean by chess, music and math being emblematic.

Do You Study Chess Theory?

How long after learning the rules of chess did you begin to study chess theory, specifically opening theory?

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"Unlearning" Through Experience

  • Also, due to the fact that youth is a plus when it comes to learning chess and learning generally, you quickly realize what it means to begin to slow down cognitively as you lose to younger and younger players, and all of this without needing to have kids of your own. I haven't played in enough tournaments and my local chess club isn't large enough for me to have lost to too many kids in person (over the board). That isn't to say that there aren't kids whupping me every day online, but in my experiences with chess youth, I have definitely perceived their clarity and focus, speed and fearlessness. If you give a young chess player a chance to make an unclear chess sacrifice and they see it, they'll often take it.
  • The game is still a game with most kids, and we adults can all admit that there have been times where the game has gotten the best of our emotions, at least while in the moment; so children can remove themselves from the ego bruises that we adults associate with a blunder or loss - not to say they aren't affected, and this allows them to immerse themselves, take chances, and learn. Part of the reason why my chess opening choices narrowed as I got better (though I hardly knew anything about openings several years ago) and why I'm only now beginning to expand it is because I was often "afraid" to lose to a player whom I considered to be worse than me. I never used to play 1.d4 or the double king's pawn opening with black, though when I started, those were nearly all I knew. I suppose it takes some growth and experience to feel comfortable in unfamiliarity and to feel comfortable losing. On that point, sometimes the only thing that keeps me in the game with these young kids is that experience often trumps ability, which is another point to add to the life lessons section.

The Saavedra Position (white to move and win)

This is the Saavedra Position, named after the Spanish priest who discovered the outstanding win in this once-thought-to-be-drawn endgame. It is one of the most famous puzzles and endgame studies there is. See if you can solve it.
This is the Saavedra Position, named after the Spanish priest who discovered the outstanding win in this once-thought-to-be-drawn endgame. It is one of the most famous puzzles and endgame studies there is. See if you can solve it. | Source

Chess: More Art or Science?

  • Next, there are experiences you can have while playing chess that you just can't have doing anything else, both emotional and aesthetic. To make my first chess and music comparison, the experience of playing a serious (tournament) game of chess is akin to performing a solo with a musical instrument in concert. There are very few experiences where you are completely on your own, where there's no time to discuss what's currently occurring, and where any observers may watch you perform without your knowing their opinions until it's all over (though perhaps there is the occasional uncontrolled grimace or sigh).
  • Apart from situational experiences, there are the aesthetic and artistic ones. There are patterns and puzzles and their solutions that can only be described as art and which can only come from the geometry and order created by an eight-by-eight board and the unique laws which govern chess pieces. I've had moments where I've been reminded of and have mentally pictured the typical kingside castling structure (no moves or combinations, just the structure), and I can genuinely say that I enjoyed it; I don't know why I enjoyed it, but I did, and I can still remember it five years later.

Click here for a link to a series of videos entitled "Beauty and Entertainment" by GM Roman Dzindzichashvili, where amazing chess compositions and real-game positions are discussed, primarily for their aesthetic quality.

Community: The Humanity in Competition

However, one of the greatest things I have discovered about chess is the openness of its community, in that people who are fierce competitors and who may be facing each other in a high-stakes tournament the following day will freely discuss chess ideas and positions. Imagine an active football coach at the highest level writing books and revealing secrets that may be used against him in the future, at least in his opponent's awareness and avoidance. This may seem to contradict the first bullet point above somewhat, but that aforementioned point is of particular instances of unpleasantries I have experienced, while this point is general and abstract in the same sense as what is meant when a pop star says, "We can all work together..." This is the humanity in competition, as it's ultimately only a game and it's only money, but people who love the competitive games we play will often do things that are personally inadvisable but which further the game as a whole.

In closing,

There's another small lesson: That all of these games and sports we play are lessons or are made for lessons to be learned - some large scale and some minute and momentarily personal. People who love chess seem to love to talk about chess, sometimes to a fault, and I hope to do this on Hubpages into the future - the talking bit, hopefully falling short of any major fault. So I'll apologize for the additional lessons that I added after saying the one was the last one, and I'll hope that you enjoy my future Hubs. I'll be making chess education and news posts, and I'll also be discussing music, specifically jazz and rock from the 50's through the 70's.


Thank you for reading.

What did you think? Any suggestions? And what life lessons has chess taught you?

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