Life is Like a Game of Chess?

I used to be a high school chess coach.  I’m no chess guru or grandmaster.  I enjoy the game and I am a fair, if average, recreational player. When I had an active rating as a player, I hovered around 1600. Nothing special.  In fact, when the best players on my team were regularly beating me after a year, I used our budget to bring in a master player to give lessons to the advanced players and I worked with the beginners.  Again, I didn’t take on the role because I was the best qualified. I took it on because the situation came calling.   I was the one on the faculty who stepped forward when some students wanted to start a chess club.  After the first year, I encouraged them to join a high school league.  

Eventually, the members of the team got student memberships with the United States Chess Federation and began to play in rated tournaments.  When I took the team to tournaments, I played too. I was going to be there all day with them and during each round of play they didn’t need supervision, nor is there in-game coaching in chess, so I figured why not have fun and play myself.

One winter at a tournament, my first round opponent was an eight year old boy.  I was intimidated. And I should have been. It wasn’t his age that I found worrisome, but his rating.  He had a rating somewhere in the 1900s.  I knew enough to know that the difference between my 1600 rating and his 1900 rating was substantial. A quick look at the U.S. Chess Federation web site as I write this confirms that currently, an eight year old with a 1900+ rating would be one of the top three players of his age in the country.  A rating of 2000 gets a person into the category of Candidate Master.  Again, if you don’t know much about chess, know this – the difference between me and this eight year old was like the difference between a professional sports team and a high school team; it was the difference between Julia Child and the fryolator  operator at the Whataburger.

I emphasize this because you need to know I had absolutely zero chance of winning this chess match unless the eight year old made a catastrophic and unimaginable blunder.  Hey, if any player with almost a master rating was going to make a silly mistake, it’d be a little kid, right? Not a chance.

There he sat, almost looking like a doll in the plastic chair in the high school cafeteria. He was an Asian kid with bright, big, friendly eyes and a smile only 8 year olds can have.  He happily introduced himself and while he took out his score pad and pencil and examined the game clock, he told me briefly how his family was going to get pizza for dinner that night after the tournament.  His dad, a man of a more serious but polite demeanor, made sure his son was okay, smiled as the kid talked about the pizza, and then introduced himself and shook my hand.  His dad walked away from the board and the kid’s face got as serious as eight year old faces get. The announcement came to start clocks.  He looked at me and asked by nodding towards the timer if it was OK to start my clock and begin the match. I nodded back at him in affirmation and we began.

I remember I had the fortune of playing white and moving first. I remember that I remembered to play my usual opening, the Ruy Lopez, and I remembered to play the board, not the player.  None of it did much good.  We weren’t ten moves into the game when it was obvious I was going to lose. I had made a mistake very early. I could tell when the kid broke into a huge grin when I made the move.  I played the game out. It was a rout.  The eight year old shook my hand and said two things I have always remembered, not for what was said, but for what lasting reaction I have had to them and how much they have been cause for reflection over the years. The first was, “There’s lots of time left before the next round. If you want, I can show you what you did wrong, so you can play better next time.”

Sometimes I look back in amazement at my response to his offer.  “Sure,” I said, looking up at his father who had reappeared and who was nodding his approval, “I would appreciate that.”  I was enthralled as the young boy, replaying the moves from his scorecard, showed me where I had made each mistake and also where I had done well and made the correct moves.  After one of these instances, the kid looked up at me and said, “This move was good, it was your best chance at trying to make a comeback, but…” Then he looked down at his lap and back up at me and said, “but you only get one mistake in chess when a player  is…,” and he hesitated to finish, “stronger than you.”

Over the years since this chess game, I have not behaved at times as I did that morning.  When I’ve made mistakes in my life, I tended to want to hide them, not acknowledge them, as if my not recognizing the mistake would lessen the chance other people would think I had made a mistake or think I was incompetent or, heaven forbid, wouldn’t like me. When I’ve done my best in life I have jumped in with an open and inquisitive outlook, ready to learn, especially from my own mistakes.  Almost fifteen years down the road from this chess match, I can say that I tend to be a person who learns from mistakes and doesn’t fear making them.

One of the things that kept me from learning from my mistakes as much as I might have been able to was my almost unconscious belief that life was like playing a very good chess player where you only get one mistake.  All a good player needs is one mistake and there is just about no way you can recover the game.  In chess this is all too true, but in life it is not.

Life isn’t a chess game.  Yes, some mistakes can be costly indeed.  Some mistakes can cost you a relationship, a job, or financial security. Some mistakes can take away your freedom and send you to prison.  Some mistakes can take away your self-esteem, your self-respect, and your self-confidence.  Yes, some mistakes are quite costly, but unlike chess, the game of your life doesn’t end until you stop playing, whether by chance or by choice.  Until you die, you can always change the game.  Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult and requires extremely hard work.  Sometimes it requires a faith and a hope in yourself, in others, and in life itself that you just may not seem to be able to muster.

And here is where life is like chess again – just because you make an incredibly costly mistake and get blown out of the game, you can keep playing if you want to…there will be another game, another tournament…and you will make mistakes again. Sometimes you’ll make the same ones over and over for a while, and you will make some new ones, but you will also learn some things and make some better moves, and you just might win a game. You may lose the progress you’ve made and have to re-learn some of your lesson, but  in the end your chess life, like life in general, isn’t over until you stop playing.

Maybe life is a bit like chess, after all.

2 thoughts on “Life is Like a Game of Chess?

  1. I spent a few years crazy about chess, during the years immediately following the Fisher-Spassky match. I was 13 years old and I wanted to be Bobby Fisher. But alas, no matter how much I studied and practiced, I never broke out of the 1400 range. That’s just as good as I was ever going to get.

    I have drawn some life lessons from chess, though. Pawns can’t move backwards, but they can turn into the most powerful piece on the board if they make it all the way through. In life, like chess, there are rules that help it make sense (meaning rules that nature obeys, not human rules that we are forced to follow). C.S. Lewis liked to use chess as a metaphor when discussing the problem of evil. Etc.

    I really enjoyed this post. Love the story of your experience with the 8 year old.

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