I have always supported the idea of making chess part of school curricula everywhere. Although I don’t play anymore and was never all that great at the game to begin with, it’s not hard for me to imagine all the good that can come out of it. Go to any chess website promoting this idea and you’ll get all the arguments you’ll ever need. Chess is a great way to develop a mind. It’s not the only way, but, according to retired chess champion Garry Kasparov, it’s hard to beat. Here is Kasparov (a hero of mine for almost two decades) on a Brazilian talk show talking about a whole host of chess-related topics. He gets to the chess-as-education issue at around the 9 minute mark and begins extolling the benefits of chess at 9:54. Among his list of chess benefits is that the game promotes discipline, self-esteem, confidence. It also increases one’s ability to deal with problems and succeed, and not just on the chess board. Kasparov ties chess into computer education as well. He is most convincing, however, when he cites a study in which two similar math classes were given additional lessons, one in chess, the other in mathematics. At the end of the year the chess class outperformed the math class in mathematics. I believe the study to which Kasparov refers is this one from 2008 by Markus Scholz and others. Read here and here for more information on scientific studies that demonstrate the benefits of chess in education. While I agree with Kasparov and would never dare contradict him on chess matters, I do believe he omitted one very important benefit of playing chess. And since I have never seen it mentioned anywhere else, I will mention it here. Humility. The most important thing chess has given me is humility. When I tell people that I used to play chess, they
often ask, “How good were you?” My answer is always, “Good enough to know how bad I really am.” Since I have not played a tournament game since 1985 when I was in eighth grade, I really have no exact record of my skill level. I can estimate however, given my rate of success in the late 1990s against tournament players in casual games, that my highest skill level was between a 1600 and 1650 in United States Chess Federation rating points. So 15 years ago, when I would study chess for at least an hour every night, I was little more than what the USCF called a Class B player. To put things in perspective, you’d need a rating of 2000 to be an expert, 2200 to be a national master, and 2400 to be a senior or international master. So I was, in chess parlance, a fish, a wood-pusher, alas, a patzer. In some weird way it was something to be proud of. Another story goes thusly: A friend and I were having at it over the board one evening, hurling our armies at each other amid a riot of kibbitzing, as usual. We were in the Skylight Exchange, our favorite chess hangout in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I don’t remember the games, except that they were always sloppy, fast and thrilling. Out of the blue, this college kid came in and challenged me. I duly accepted and after a few moves, it was evident the kid really didn’t understand the basic tenets of the game. I crushed him easily. Two times. I could have played five opponents of his caliber at once with the black pieces and still had my way. Anyway, the kid could barely contain his frustration and said he wanted to analyze the games to figure out where he went wrong. When we were done, he got up and declared through clenched teeth that, “Every time I lose, I get better!” He even included a dramatic pause in the middle. “Every time I lose…(beat)…(beat)…I get better!” His intensity was so precious, I had to choke back a laugh not to be rude. But I couldn’t resist leaning over and asking my friend if he gets better every time he loses. My friend smiled, shook his head, and said, “Nope. If did I’d be a grandmaster by now!” By then I had about lost it, laughing at this poor kid’s expense. He didn’t stick around, and I never saw him again. I really hope the little thrashing I gave him made him realize how rare it is to have real talent at chess, and how wrong it is for one to presume they have such talent when they really don’t. When I was 25, I started playing chess again after a 12-year layoff. I had heard about the chess club at the Skylight Exchange. I thought I could do well against the players there. I didn’t. I thought I was something special, someone who could re-learn the game and start winning. I wasn’t. It doesn’t mean I didn’t try like hell. Back then I didn’t have a career, didn’t have a girlfriend, didn’t have much of a life. All I had was my “poetry to protect me”, to quote Paul Simon. That, and piles of student debt, which, I am pretty sure, Paul Simon didnâ€™t sing about. So with little to lose, I bought every chess book I could find and studied. Sure enough, I got better. It was a long, painful process, but I managed increase my standing among the players there. Among the lower half, I started to go about 50-50, maybe even a little better than that. Among the stronger players I graduated from being busted within the first 7 moves to being able to achieve perfectly playable middle games before eventually blundering and going down in yet another ignominious ball of fire. And it hurt. It hurt. See this picture? This is of me as a division I college wrestler getting my ass kicked by Michael Stokes of NC State in 1989. I’m the guy on the bottom. I remember that match very well. Stokes pretty much threw me around like a rag doll. Did whatever the hell he wanted. It was all I could do to keep him off of me. He tech-falled me in the second period, meaning he obtained a 15 point advantage, after which the match was stopped. State was awarded 6 points in the dual meet, and my team got nothing. It was as if he had just pinned me. And who is Michael Stokes? He was the 126 lb. runner-up in the NCAA wrestling tournament that year. He succumbed 5-2 to a wrestler named Kendall Cross from Oklahoma State in the finals. And who is Kendall Cross? Gold medal winner in the 57 kg weight class at the summer Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia, 1996. Watch the match here. That is the gulf between me and greatness. I never had any pretentions of being a tough guy, because I knew what tough was. That doesn’t mean I was a wimp, of course. I had the ligaments torn in my left knee during one match (which I won). Re-sprained my right ankle in another (which I also won). I had been slammed so hard against the mat that I saw stars and didn’t know where I was for a few moments (That one I didn’t win). I had completed matches so exhausted that all I could do was fall on my back and writhe. Wrestling is a hard sport. If you don’t give it your soul it will abuse you. And it hurts. It hurts. But I assure you, it never hurt more than when I lost a game of chess I should have won. I don’t know why, but physical beatings were nothing compared to the stabbing pangs of hate that would riot in my mind for days whenever I had to concede a wholly unnecessary defeat to someone who didn’t deserve to win. The contempt. The disgust. The regret. The bile. The effort to keep all these volatile emotions bottled up was almost more than I could handle sometimes. I realized that from a broken heart there is nowhere to hide. I’m reminded of how General Winfield Scott in 1846 played two casual games against 9-year old child prodigy and future unofficial world champion Paul Morphy. The general fancied himself a formidable player, you see. When he was in Morphy’s hometown of New Orleans, he demanded he face strong local talent. He was shocked when this came in the form an unassuming little boy and was even more shocked when this unassuming little boy crushed him like a bug, twice. With his enormous ego capsizing like the Titanic, Scott sent the boy home and refused to play him again. I didn’t want to be like Winfield Scott. We were both sore losers, yes. But I wanted to get my ass kicked honest, like a man. And it hurt. It hurt. But I kept coming back for more. I wanted to get better, and one only gets better by playing his betters. Especially in chess where you can objectively measure a player’s worth. There is little room for subjectivity or opinion or luck in chess. Either you win, lose, or draw. Anyway, the Chapel Hill players gradually accepted me, and with a group of friends to hang out with a couple times a week my life got a little more interesting. But I always knew that there were at least a couple guys in the group I could never beat on a regular basis. They were just better than I was, and there was nothing I could do about it. Sure, I could work hard and gain experience. But I felt I could study three hours a day for months on end while they could sit around and do nothing and they still would have beaten me. Or, given my disastrous tendency to blunder in endgames, they’d have a hell of a chance. How could I be so certain? Because what they could do without effort required much effort from me. For example, there were a couple guys who could watch a game being played and then afterwards effortlessly reconstruct a position on the board from almost any point in the game. I couldn’t dream of doing such a thing without tremendous sweat and effort, and still I would probably get something wrong. There are no books that teach you how to do this. This is not something you learn how to do. This is something you know how to do. Either your brain has the machinery to do this, or it doesn’t. Mine doesn’t. This I just got used to. Over time, as I became a better player, I also became a better loser. I began to forget the losses and cherish my victories. I learned how to enjoy the spirit and elegance of the game. I learned how not to take myself so seriously. I also learned to take pride in whatever improvement I could muster. This is the humility I was discussing earlier. Note the lack of arrogance. Note the more balanced and reasonable perspective on things. Note the accurate assessment of oneself, that one quality lacking in our hapless college kid as well as in the great Winfield Scott and many others, I would imagine. As Kasparov points out, the benefits you get from chess translate well to life too. I became a more humble person because of chess, not just a more humble player. And if the testimony of my Chapel Hill friends is worth anything, I became more likeable as well. But don’t get me wrong, if you take chess seriously (like I did) but lack real talent (also like I did), chess will break your heart. And it hurts. It hurts. But everything I did, I would do again without question, without hesitation. Because what I got out of chess in the end was totally worth it. As a postscript, I’d like to share one of the sweetest moments I’ve had as a class B chess player. In our little coterie of guys, the alpha male was without question an international master from Germany. I believe his international rating at the time was something like 2250, which was astronomically high compared to mine. Anyway, he was a genuinely nice guy who never minded wasting his time with us patzers. The way he would so effortlessly crush us all was breathtaking to behold. He also never took it hard on the rare occasions in which we managed to beat him. I must have played him 80 to 100 times over the course of 3 years in the late 1990s. In all those games, I believe I earned maybe 3 draws and only 2 wins. The rest were just dreadful beatings. Of the wins, the first really shouldn’t count because he and I were playing at a restaurant while he had his arm around his girlfriend. He was consuming his second beer of the evening and ordering dinner when the game started. He simply misjudged an opening sequence, and I won a piece for nothing. He could have played on (and probably would have won), but, like a gentleman, he resigned. The other time was a legitimate win for me. I forced him to capitulate in the endgame. Later analysis proved that he had played very badly, missing a few key positional moves, while I was in unusually sharp form. Regardless, he never let me come close to a win against him after that. But this isn’t the sweet part. The sweet part occurred when we taught him how to play bughouse. And what is bughouse? Only the funnest, most awesomest, most bodacious chess variant known to Man. It’s basically team chess. Two on two. Two boards. Two clocks. One team member is white, the other is black. If a player captures a piece, he can hand it to his teammate who can then place it on his board pretty much wherever he wants. Time limits are always low, like 5 minutes or less. And kibbitzing is not only allowed, but encouraged. The louder the better. Click here to see what a bughouse game looks and sounds like. Bughouse also has its own set of strategies and tactics separate from chess. There are certain things in chess, like fianchettoing a bishop, which one would never do in bughouse, for it would be plain suicide. This was something I neglected to inform our IM from Germany when I sat him down and taught him the game. You see, I had revenge in mind. Sweet, sweet revenge. And, boy, did I get it. For about 4 or 5 games, I beat the stuffing out of an international chess master over a chessboard. It was a slaughter, a beat down, a blitzkrieg. And I loved every single moment of it. My esteemed opponent was just too classy and could not adapt quickly enough to the cruder barroom tactics of bughouse. Still, he had fun. And he never once grudged me my time in the sun. So, that’s another thing that Kasparov can add to his list of chess benefits. Great memories.