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5 things the game of chess can teach you about life

Other than science, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein had one more thing in common. They both loved chess. The great mathematician, Newton, played chess to keep his mind sharp and focussed. Nobel-Prize-winner Einstein, on the other hand, honed his rational thinking through chess. It is not just scientists, however, who saw chess more than just a game.

In an interview, two-time Oscar-nominated actor, Will Smith, revealed, “My father taught me how to play chess at seven and introduced beautiful concepts that I try to pass on to my kids. The elements and concepts of life are so perfectly illustrated on a chessboard. The ability to accurately assess your position is the key to chess, which I also think is the key to life.”

This ability to assess our position comes from a deeper understanding of life—an understanding of the lessons we learn from our choices, decisions, mistakes, and failures. Chess, too, is about discipline, planning, strategising, and dealing with winning and losing. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that scientists, actors, authors, and people from all walks of life play chess to keep in touch with life. In this feature, Soulveda explores various life-lessons one can learn from an army of pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, a queen and a king.

Learn the art of planning

Consider this. A player has lost both of his knights, bishops and a handful of pawns; leaving rooks and queen to fight against an army twice the size. The clock is ticking. What will the player do? How will he turn the game around? The player needs to either take recourse to one of his well-thought-out plans or come up with a new one soon. To win a game of chess, players need to have a plan or two up their sleeves, ready for any unforeseeable circumstances. Without a plan, a player would be shooting in the dark.

In life, too, we often find ourselves in a similar situation—cornered by failures, overwhelmed with doubts and embroiled in negative thoughts that sometimes drive us to quit midway. For a student, it could be scoring poor marks in an exam; for a professional, it could be missing a deadline or losing a job; and for people in relationships, it could be arguments or insecurities. How does one face such situations? A game of chess can teach us how to turn the tides in our favour—through careful planning and quick thinking. Most importantly, it imbues the never-say-die spirit, which is the foremost lesson of chess.

Spot opportunities in the darkest of corners

The attitude of never giving up keeps us on our toes and urges us to spot opportunities even in the darkest of times. However, identifying a break and then acting on it is easier said than done. Some people may spend all their time procrastinating about the possible paths ahead of them or even try a few to see where they lead. But such random strategies are as good as The infinite monkey theorem, which says that a monkey on a typewriter can type Hamlet if the animal hits the keys for an infinite amount of time. But time is a luxury that many of us don’t have.

Chess requires foresight and agility which enable us to spot opportunities quickly, even if they are disguised as obstacles. Whether we are looking for a new job or planning to invest in shares, we need foresight and precision. In the history of chess, professionals have often created something out of nothing that eventually led them to victory. But to achieve that, they had to be alert and agile. If people can apply the same rule in their lives, they will hardly ever miss an opportunity.

One step back is two steps forward

In 64 spaces of a chessboard, every piece, except the pawn, can move backward. Stepping back is an integral part of the game. Grandmaster and amateur alike retract their pieces should the situation demand. Why do they do so? Because, in chess, one step backward is two steps forward. By retreating, a player can find new alleys to advance or confuse the opponent.

In life, as well, it is okay to step back once in a while. It will allow us to identify repetition of mistakes, introspect and see the bigger picture, or create new strategies to move forward. Take the case of an author who has a writer’s block. Instead of scribbling repeatedly only to toss the paper-ball into a dustbin, he takes a step back—by breaking away from writing altogether. He indulges in other creative expressions and returns to the blank page, rejuvenated and with clarity.

Turn mistakes into strategies

The biggest lesson a game of chess can teach is the importance of faltering—which is an outcome of our decisions and actions. Chess teaches people to learn from mistakes and revise their strategy for the next steps.

In the game of chess, there is only one winner. The defeated will have to learn from the experience and analyse their mistakes. In life, we experience failure or disappointments almost every day—missing a flight, getting a speeding ticket, scoring below average in exams or being rejected. But every setback comes with a lesson. Through a game of chess, we can learn how to read those lessons and see failures as a stepping stone to success.

Patience becomes a virtue

The Indian chess grandmaster and the former World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand devises complex tactics in seconds but uses them patiently—slowly building his defence and planning an offence. When his back is against the wall, he suspends his judgment and takes extra time from the clock to plan his next moves. In life, we can do the same when we are faced with multiple challenges and things aren’t panning out the way we would like them to. For instance, a difficult phase at work or in a relationship can both be dealt with patience and calmness. We need to take a few deep breaths to let go of the frustrations, and patiently resolve the situations.

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