Body and Mind

Twenty-eight years ago I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, leaving me fighting for my life. I happened to be working a part time job (having been at this job for just one week) as a cabinet maker in an industrial complex. Unbeknown to us, there was an illegal fireworks factory on the floor below our shop. One Friday afternoon, the individuals making the fireworks mixed the wrong chemical compounds together, blowing the building apart and causing the deaths of nine people. I suffered third degree burns on 35% of my body, a shattered right ankle and a fractured back. I also required reconstructive surgery on my face and hands. I was in the hospital for four months and had to have eleven surgical procedures. My ankle was considered so badly damaged that I was told I would, at best, have to use a walker or cane to get around. Today, I am able to walk for miles, box and practice Tai Chi. What does this have to do with chess?

Chess is a martial art of the mind or intellect and like martial arts, it requires training and dedication. As a student of this great game, I put a great deal of time into my studies. Fortunately, as a chess instructor, I’ve developed a good program of self study. I did this by following the advice of teachers such as Nigel Davies, Andrew Martin and Bruce Pandolfini, using their DVDs and books. I commit time each day to improve my game. However, even the seemingly best plan of action can fall short if it is not a truly complete plan. While my plan appeared to be solid, its success being reveled through my own improvement, it was lacking something extremely important. In fact, in retrospect, I now see that my initial plan was lacking immensely. It wasn’t that I was lacking the correct material to study or that I wasn’t putting the time into my studies. I had the mental part of my studies covered. What I didn’t have covered was my physical studies! I fed my mind but not my body!

Wait a minute; didn’t I just say that chess was an intellectual endeavor? What does feeding one’s body have to do with chess? It has everything to do with chess. Mind and body are directly related. When I say feeding your body, I don’t mean that literally. When we feed the mind, we do so through learning and through learning we challenge ourselves which keeps the mind sharp. When I say “feeding one’s body,” I’m not talking about feeding your body by ingesting food. I’m talking about exercise. A healthy body makes for a healthy mind and a healthy mind functions at higher levels which is what all chess players should want.

One thing that plagues most chess players is fatigue. Unless you’re a professional chess player, you most likely have to go to work or school every day which can be tiring. When you’re tired, you’re prone to making mistakes. I play my worst chess when I’m tired. Many players will resort to caffeinated beverages to give them an extra boast when they need it. However, what goes up must come down and eventually the caffeine wears off, leaving us in a greater state of tiredness. A good healthy diet can help balance you out but will not completely give your brain what it needs to run at maximum efficiency. This is where exercise comes in. Many people hear the world exercise and run the other way because they visualize themselves in a gym for hours a day, sweating and in pain. It was this type of mental image that kept me away from exercising during the early part of my life. However, after the accident, I had a choice. I could either accept my fate and hobble around for the rest of my life or fight back and exercise with my physical therapist. I chose to fight back and regained most of the use of my right leg. Yet, like many people, I stopped exercising when I felt I was in good shape. Thankfully, chess steered me back in the right direction.

Here’s how chess played a crucial role in my physical well being. While my game was improving through mental studies, I felt fatigued while I was playing or working on my game. I never felt quite on top of things, missing moves because my concentration was not optimal. When reading chess books, I always had to reread sentences over and over again because I was in a state of perpetual tiredness. My adopted father, a martial arts instructor, suggested the problem was with my body and not my mind. Therefore, I started pushing myself physically through a combination of walking, light boxing and Tai Chi. Before you panic, I’m not remotely suggesting that you have to do these three things to improve your mental abilities. However, it should be noted that physical activity really does help the mind. Therefore, I’m going to recommend a couple of things you can do that will help your brain function a bit better and reduce your fatigue.

The first thing I recommend is walking. Walking works wonders for both mind and body. Walking improves cognitive function and reduces age related brain deterioration, especially as you grow older. It also works wonders to reduce your stress level which leads to clearer thinking. As with all endeavors, set realistic goals. If you haven’t been on a walk in three years, don’t start out by trying a three mile jaunt. Start with a fifteen minute walk each day, building up to a thirty minute walk after two weeks and so on. Walking helps expand your lungs so you’ll be taking in more oxygen. The more oxygen you take in, the better your blood flow, leading to better brain function. Of course, there’s more to it, physiologically speaking, but page space is limited here. You’ll be surprised that, after a few weeks of walking, you’ll feel sharper at the chessboard.

The other thing I recommend is putting on a pair of wrist weights during part of your day. I use two pound wrist weights. Why put weights on your wrists? As you move your arms up and down during the course of the day, you’ll be getting a light conditioning of the upper body. You’ll be getting a bit of exercise and you’ll hardly know it. Start with a set of light weights (8-16 ounces). Both walking and using wrist weights are a good starting point for improving your physical stamina. Remember, body and mind are directly related to one another. This means if one suffers so does the other.

Small steps taken towards improving your physical state will bring you closer to achieving your goal, a better understanding of the game we all love. Remember, body and mind are closely related and to deny one is to deny the other. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Go take a walk before playing through it!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).