Lessons that I Learned about Life Through Chess

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Growing up, I have always been a bit of a philosophical child.  I owe this to being exposed early to philosophy when I would enter the neighboring book store after I attended my Kung Fu lessons.  Over time, I had learned through my mentors and readings on Zen, Taoism, and Buddhism about the universality of the arts and spirituality.  What I mean is that your engagement with an art or religion is a reflection of your life and a microcosm of your triumphs and struggles.

In the book Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Hegel, the author, who is a German philosophy professor, sought to learn the lessons of Zen Buddhism through the art of archery.  Through his practice with the art and interactions with his master, he slowly unveils the deeper essence of his life and struggles with his self (and the parts that place obstacles in his path to the sublime – not letting himself, or the ego, shoot the arrow but rather letting “it” or the “qi”/energy  or universal force guide the arrow).

In addition to this book, there are other pieces of work that treat this matter in a very special way, and the movie Star Wars is another piece of work.  The movie works under the premise that there is a universal force that connects all beings and that through rigorous training the Jedi can overcome his/her  own personal obstacles and demons and let the “force” guide him/her.

It is a rather romantic notion to think that engaging in a game, activity, or art can bring one closer to a higher sense of being.  It is my experience in theory and in practice that if you practice an art long enough and sincerely enough, over time,  the art becomes you and you become the art.  Any problems and inner resistance you face in the art is a caricature of your problems in your real life – through solving the problems in the art you then better yourself and reach a higher level of self-mastery.

Now moving on from the long and verbose intro, I’ve been playing the game of chess quite seriously for about 6 years.  I started the game by teaching children and middle schoolers the basis – I decided that in order to teach them more effectively I had to play more in the “field” or in online games.  After losing two weekends in a row, I became hooked.  During my Thanksgiving holidays, I would huddle alone in my room and play for 14 hours straight.  During the weekends, I would play 5 or 6 hours at a time as all the week’s stress slowly melted away in captured pawns and castled rooks.

However, after playing for 4-5 years I still felt the “spiritual” or “sublime” levels of consciousness and the integration of the art into my psyche and soul still escaped.me.  Chess was still a cerebral game that I played 3-4 times a week to relax and relieve stress.  Slowly, I did see some parallels in my life such as my making simple mistakes is a reflection of my rashness in making decisions at times or my temper flaring when I lost a major piece or a game also became apparent.  Chess was reflecting upon my personality’s flaws and shortcomings.

It was only into my 6th year that I had finally began to experience a sense of peace, total absorption, and  spontaneous creativity that I had associated with the deep participation of any game or art,  I have slowly become “renewed” or “reinvented” every time I played the game and the more I played the greater the lessons.

Recently, I had underwent some intense losing streaks in which my normal floating score of 1150-1200 (think SAT scores; 1600 being a high level club player, 1200 being a decent beginner, and 2000+ equals master and eventually grandmaster levels) had dropped down to lows such as 920-1030.  It had remained that low for about a year, and I chose to “invest in loss” as the Tai Chi masters discuss – this means to eat the bitterness of defeat in order to improve and reach mastery in the long run.  I ate a lot of defeat  and learned from each loss, and definitely lost to some less reflective and simpler players.

Finally, about a week ago, over night I had jumped from low 1100s to low to mid 1300s. While struggling with 900 and 1050 level opponents for the past year, I was suddenly knocking out 1300 opponents, and even drawing or besting some 1400 level opponents.  All my struggles and hardships and lessons finally surfaced and I reached a breakthrough.

So what have been my latest lessons?  Well, I’ll bullet point some of my best lessons which apply very aptly to life:

–  Take your time when making a decision, see the angles, don’t rush, and when you decide, go forward with full conviction

–  Don’t get angry or mad when you lose or make a major mistake; learn from the lesson and if the game is not over then try to see how you can make your loss an advantage.  If nothing else, play to the end to practice perseverance and tenaciousness – half the time I win a losing game on that quality alone.

–  Don’t play to get a higher score or to beat the opponent, but play to learn whether you win or lose.  Also, never forget that enjoying the game is the first and foremost important principle

–  Let the game meld with your personality and don’t play based on “memorized” moves or other people’s favorite moves but pay through what feels most “right” in your heart.  Let the pieces reflect your personality and my game includes: taking chances, playing to win as opposed to not lose, playing with boldness, not shying from a challenge, not being afraid to lose, allowing rivals to help me raise my level, and not cheating myself nor my competitor with empty parlor tricks or desperate moves for the sake of a single victory (internal Chinese Martial Arts Master Wang Xiang Zhai said: “It is better to lose correctly than to win incorrectly.”

–  Practice good manners and good sportsmanship whether you win or lose.

–  When someone is disrespectful or impolite, don’t take it out on them but take it out on the board – play with greater ferocity.

–  The more you practice, the better you get.

That’s it for now.  If you reached the end of this article, then you must be really bored or have the attention span of an Oxford scholar!  Have a great day!  😀

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