10 Things I Learned Playing Chess ♟️
SimonSays #10 - "Chess is life in miniature."
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Like a lot of kids, one of my first extracurricular activities was the school's chess club. I have few memories from that time, only that of losing at a tournament and claiming that I had mistaken a piece's position on the board. A few years ago, I had a chess craving. So I bought a chess book, a board and challenged my siblings and parents on holidays. That eventually faded…
Then there was the Queen's Gambit: Netflix's super successful TV Show portraying Beth Harmon's rise from child prodigy to World Champion. While I didn't restart playing chess after watching the show, many people around me did. My brother and friends joined chess.com, and chess even made it to casual discussions and my Youtube suggestions. Last Christmas, my brother challenged me to a game. We played 3 games. I lost 2 and drew the last one. That's when my enthusiasm for chess resurfaced. I joined chess.com and started playing.
One of the reasons chess has been around for thousands of years and remains an extremely popular activity (650M+ active players worldwide) is that the rules are extremely simple, yet the games can be remarkably complex. In brief: white start, pieces can only move and capture other pieces in a certain way, and the goal is to capture the other side's king.
There's something pretty awesome about playing chess: you're competing against another player, and both of you are using intuition, strategy, brainpower and pre-seen moves to beat the other.
Here are the 10 things I learned by playing chess, at the risk of sounding cliché:
Start by Focusing on the End Goal
“In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else, for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame.”
José Raùl Capablanca, Cuban World Chess Champion (1921 - 1927)
As stated by Capablanca, to win, you have to know what position makes you win so you can understand how to get there. Too many people play with only a few checkmates in mind (when I was young, I remember only knowing how to checkmate with two rooks). Start by understanding the endgame, and you'll become much better at the game.
Anticipate & Surprise
The worse chess players are, the more the outcomes of games are determined by blunders and lack of concentration. The better these players become, the fewer mistakes they make and the more they come to anticipate their opponent's move and strategy and respond accordingly.
It's easy to anticipate an opponent's next move or two moves ahead, it's harder to anticipate unconventional moves. Surprise moves can be game-changers as they can destabilize your opponent and help reverse the game's dynamic. This appears particularly true for gambits, moves where you sacrifice pieces to open up the board and/or gain a tactical advantage over your opponent. I find it particularly powerful at the beginning, where players are used to very standardized opening moves. Playing different moves might force your opponent to rethink his strategy and waste time and confidence in the process.
The Power of Momentum
A key concept in chess is momentum (known as tempo or tempi in its plural form). A player gains momentum when he takes the initiative, progresses on the board and on some occasions captures his opponent's pieces. Psychology plays a significant role in chess. You don't play the same way if you're confident, feel like you're winning, or losing etc. Thus sometimes, it might be worth taking risks to gain momentum and reverse the confidence level. Indeed like in many other disciplines, in chess, attack is the best form of defence. In other words, if you are the one putting pressure on your opponent, then you might have to worry less about protecting your king. Many chess games are entirely one-sided, with one player continually exercising pressure on the other and eventually winning the game.
The power of momentum and taking the initiative is perfectly illustrated in this incredible video below where Kasparov sacrificed his knight and queen to win! (The amount of calculations he makes is just unbelievable, a point about that below…)
Actions have Immediate Consequences
Chess is often praised as an excellent game to teach kids (and adults). One of the most recurring reasons why is that it confronts them to the consequences of their actions like few other activities. Indeed, once a player makes his move, he will face the consequences of that move and will be at the mercy of his opponent's next move. In most cases, players will get immediate feedback on the quality of their move as they'll be able to tell whether it's placed them in a better or worse position.
It’s Not Over Until You’ve Lost
“Nobody ever won a chess game by resigning.”
Savielly Tartakower, Polish & French Grandmaster
Sometimes chess can be super-frustrating. You're down by a couple of pieces, you don't have many left on the board, and there are very few winning possibilities. Worse, your opponent might be playing with your powerlessness and slowly eating all your pieces while threatening your king with a checkmate. I've been tempted to rage quit or resign. Yet, I realized that by resigning, I made it too easy for my opponent and that I could still draw or, in certain exceptional cases, win.
Here's an example below where I am badly losing (I'm playing white), yet I imagined one of the only ways in which I could win and won 🙂 (Re-open the email or reload the page if the GIF has ended)
Failure is your Best Teacher
Every chess player has already lost a game. Even Magnus Carlsen, who's been the highest-ranked chess player for the past ten years (minus a few months in 2011), has lost about 15% of his total games. You don't have to be a sore loser to feel deeply frustrated when you lose. I have to confess that many times I've felt the urge to rage quit and insult my opponent. Just like in any sport, losing is the best way to improve. Arguably the most beneficial effect playing chess has had on my behavior has been that it's transformed the way I see failure as it forced me to acknowledge that if I ever wanted to beat opponents such as the one I had just lost to, I had to understand what they had done well and what I had done poorly.
Healthy Competition is the Best Motivation
There's no better incentive to learn than to know that it will help you beat your opponents. Indeed, there's a lot of chess theory out there focusing on openings, specific pieces, past games, chess styles, etc. Except for chess history and Youtube videos, which make the topic more entertaining, I've found chess literature challenging to consume. However, I've recently found some motivation to learn by understanding that these could be applied to real games. I, therefore, started reading a chess book, watching some Youtube videos, and whenever I play a game, I try to re-run through it and analyze (as much as a free chess.com account can get me) where my opponent and I made mistakes or game-changing moves.
Freedom is Priceless
One of the worse feelings in chess is powerlessness. This arises when your king is under check. In such a case, your moves narrow down to only three possibilities: capture the opponent's piece, block the check with another piece or move your king.
Pieces protecting your king from check are referred to as pinned, meaning that they cannot be moved in a different direction than where the check is coming from as they would leave the king exposed. (In the picture below, you can see that the black knight is pinned as moving would expose his king to the bishop’s attack).
Both situations can be extremely frustrating and dangerous! So to be free to play any move you'd like, start by making sure that your king is well protected!
Constantly Train your Brain
To become better at chess, you have to become better at calculating a series of moves to see if that sequence's outcome can give you an advantage over your opponent. Thus, the faster you can calculate, the more likely and quickly you will find the best move. As seen in the You will undoubtedly benefit from this improved computing power. This is especially true for most online games, which are timed and where the first person with 00:00 left on the clock loses.
Focus on the Big Picture
Many people I've played against have appeared focused on material gains. All chess websites display each player's captured pieces, allowing them to visualize who's leading in the game. Too many players seem to equate material gains with an advantage over their opponent. While this often does constitute an advantage, one shouldn’t forget that the goal isn't to capture all your opponent's pieces but only to capture their king. Thus sometimes, it might be worth taking the risk of losing pieces to gain strategic positions on the board.
Bonus: Never Underestimate
While most checkmates are made with queens and rooks, pawns, bishops, and knights can also make you win 😀 Here are some examples from my online games!
Note: I mistakenly played Pawn to h5, which could have allowed him to delay the mate by playing Knight to e4, yet the mate appeared inevitable a few moves later!
♗ Bishop checkmate
♞ Knight checkmate
I’m always up for a challenge! Challenge me for a game on chess.com 😀 My username is johnpastora ♟️
I hope you enjoyed reading this! If you have any suggestions or feedback feel free to leave a comment below or contact me on Twitter @the_simonpastor 🙂
Also, feel free to check out my new website 🚀