I’ve played chess all my life, but it wasn’t until I volunteered a few times helping to run tournaments specifically for kids that I realized the real importance of this game.
Like most competitive situations, chess offers a litany of positive learning experiences. We’ve all heard the buzzwords – cognitive abilities, logic, strategy…yada yada. Tons of games and sports help improve all that stuff as well. So big deal right?
But there are some elements of chess so rich in value that aren’t found in any other competitive environments – the type of stuff that really changes a person for the better. And oddly enough, no one seems to ever talk about them.
Well, not anymore, and this is why every child should learn to play chess.
1 – ACCOUNTABILITY
Many environments encourage accountability – chess promotes one that is entirely pure, and this is the key difference.
No where in sports nor nearly any competitive environment does there exist a situation where 100% control of the outcome is completely within your hands. In games like poker you are somewhat at the mercy of the hand you’re dealt. In sports like tennis, golf,or track & field, course conditions and things like wind can influence the quality of your results.
In chess, the entire competition is internal. There aren’t any elements that can influence this outcome outside the realm of your own mind. You either make better, equal, or worse moves than your opponent – there are no external factors.
This is not to say that skill is not the major force in other competitive environments – quite the opposite. Yet in nearly every competition imaginable, it is not the only force. It is in chess.
Chess, for all its complexity, is entirely at the mercy of your brain. You make the moves, and no amount of wind, noise, or random elements can affect the move you make if you don’t permit it.
To paraphrase Bobby Fischer. “There is no psychology in chess, only good and bad moves.”
There simply isn’t any reasonable way in chess to justify bad play other than taking responsibility for it personally. No kid can justifiably complain or rationalize his mistakes – chess doesn’t permit it.
Kids who absorb this lesson in chess are more likely to recognize its value in all facets of life – an attribute that can never be overstated.
2 – CREATIVITY
Many chess battles are defined by electrifying moves that abruptly change the dynamics of the game. Often the most unexpected moves are the most potent.
When an imaginative idea ends up rescuing a seemingly lost game and turning it in your favor, the feeling is exhilarating.
Few competitive environments promote imagination as a resource for handling seemingly inevitable defeat. Yet paradoxically, a little imagination is the solution for many of life’s issues – and even novice chess players learn to appreciate this very quickly.
As Ben Franklin once put it,
“We learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favorable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources.”
The more imaginative a child is in the face of hurdles, the more apt he will be to persist when faced with difficulties. Persistence, perhaps the core element of any great success, is born not from merely pushing ahead, but from pushing ahead where most others would not. And what better idea could encourage this trait than to be in the habit of pushing your creativity when things look grim?
The more a child becomes accustomed to the idea that surprises are inevitable and dealing with unexpected moves is the norm, the more she will readily be immune to distress when facing unexpected turns in life.
Thinking outside the box won’t always work, but a habit of persistently considering options that others might ignore inevitably leads to some unexpected successes – and this is where the magic begins. Kids quickly realize the value of resourcefulness in place of discouragement.
Once children recognize that some difficulties can be handled entirely based on their approach to a problem, they gravitate to things that produce inspiration rather than despair when facing difficult situations – perhaps the root of real genius.
3 – PRECISE FAILURE
Learning from failure tends to be an exhausted cliche, yet its overuse doesn’t make it any less accurate. Assessing what doesn’t work is one of the core elements of improvement. Yet in few other places do you get to experience the process of learning from precise failure as you do in chess.
You literally get to go back through your games and see exactly what move or series of moves caused you or your opponent to fail. What you take from this is the ability to recognize instantly what you did wrong and avoid doing so in the future – often in the exact same or very similar positions.
Yet this is only the beginning. You have access to all the best players’ games throughout history. You can do all the same analysis on each and every move that every top player has made in the last 100+ years – and should you find yourself in the same or similar position, you can do exactly what they did or should have done.
Imagine how this would translate in other competitive environments. You could analyze the exact moves LeBron James or Lionel Messi made in every game of their careers, yet you will still never be able to emulate them perfectly. With chess, you can play exactly as the top players have –regardless of their size or physique.
Make no mistake, there is nothing about this process that is easy or circumvents hard work. It is the availability of learning from every explicit move in chess that distinguishes it from most all other environments.
Few competitive training atmospheres put a lot of focus on learning what not to do. The notion is considered somewhat negative, perhaps even taboo. Yet not in chess. Kids who recognize the value of learning from mistakes are more apt to reproduce this habit in other facets of life – something that better prepares them for genuine success.
4 – INDIVIDUALITY
There are many competitions outside of chess where individuals battle each other directly, but few that take place entirely within your mind.
The tennis player can hear from her coach during a match. The golfer receives input from his caddie while playing. In chess, when you are playing the game in a competitive environment, there is no external assistance, its entirely you and your thoughts.
No matter what prior instruction you have received, when playing the game of chess you are forced to rely entirely on your own thought process. Realizing you have the power to do some pretty sophisticated thinking is empowering. When this leads to victory, you develop confidence in your ability to solve problems using your own mind rather than external sources.
These attributes, promoted so effectively in chess, are the roots that support self reliance and independent thinking in all walks of life. Children who learn to rely on themselves rather than external forces build self-esteem.
Kids who learn to value their own individuality ultimately live life on their own terms rather than by someone else’s ideas or agenda. In a world where conformity is often the norm, lessons of this nature are invaluable.
5 – PATIENCE
In a world where exciting offense is all the rage, the value of periodically offsetting aggression with patience is often overlooked. In chess, particularly at the beginner levels when propensity for blunders is high, avoiding your own mistakes can win you a lot of games.
Sun Tzu once hit upon this idea in his famous quote,
“The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”
At higher levels of play, the importance of balancing patience with initiative is much more apparent, yet you can never reach those levels until you learn how to consistently avoid defeating yourself.
In other venues this is known as the unforced error. The difference in chess is that errors are reduced by developing patience rather than technique – a focus on introspection rather than repetitive practice.
Sometimes your best option is to strike and seize your opportunities – knowing when in the key. Stanley Kubrick may explained it best when he wrote:
“You sit at the board and suddenly your heart leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.”
Neither strategy is all encompassing – and therein lies the lesson. What children discover is that sometimes there are viable alternatives to an all out offensive, and identifying the balance is the genuine wisdom.
This requires foresight which comes naturally as players progress in chess ability – which has lasting effects on children who hope to formulate winning strategies by balancing the value of patience with aggression.
In chess, the role of patience in not limited to reducing mistakes. Many games are decided by slowly converting small advantages into overwhelming positions. This requires considerable mental endurance, but fosters the notion that sometimes the value of patience supersedes even quick tactical blows.
There is more to life than long term plans, but ignoring long term consequences often comes at a cost – one that chess players are less apt to make.
6 – WISDOM
At its core, chess is a lot like life – a series of choices that produce outcomes we must live with. Garry Kasparov famously observed that,
“A single, simple rule holds true: make good decisions and you’ll succeed; make bad ones and you’ll fail.”
Could a more applicable message be found that applies so fittingly to life?
In what other competitive environment are the lessons of accountability, creativity,independent thinking, and patience so well entwined together? These traits are the backbone of every good decision you make.
Any child learning the values of chess will be well suited to handle life. I’ve witnessed it myself. The kids committed to learning and improving at chess tend to translate these same attributes in other parts of their lives.
There is much to love about just playing a game of chess – but never overlook the value that it also offers in terms of life lessons.