Life Lessons and Chess

One of the chess related jobs I am most proud of is my program that teaches chess to incarcerated teenagers in the juvenile correctional system. In my youth, I was a bit of a juvenile delinquent but was able to change my life in a positive way. Many kids locked up in juvenile facilities today don’t have the options I had, which is why I work with them. My ideal student in this program is the worst of the worst, the teenager least likely to succeed! I take the students everyone else has given up on and teach them how to use chess to aid their decision making process. If I can get a single troubled teenager to alter his path in life through chess, I feel I’ve been successful.

What gets these young men into trouble is the way in which they make decisions and how those decisions affect their lives. Chess is the perfect medium for learning how to make good decisions. Many of my students come from families in which criminal thinking is a multi generational way of dealing with life. I don’t judge them for their past behavior. When they come to me they are equals, they are chess players (or soon to be chess players). I don’t try to impress them with my wayward past life because their new lives start when the first pawn is pushed across the board and there is no room for the reliving of a tragic past when a brighter future awaits them.

I decided to write this article because I realized that there is great benefit to be found in improving one’s decision making abilities in life through chess. This idea can be applied to everyone’s approach to life. We all face decisions in our lives, making many during the course of a single day. However, how we approach the decision making process makes all the difference in the world. I will go into the lockdown facility’s common room and make an announcement: “Alright gentlemen, you have a decision to make. You can watch a grossly outdated and unrealistic film on bettering your lives, write an essay for your counselor on how you’re going to change your ways, which requires at least two hours of tedious scribbling or you can rise to the better challenge and play some chess!” At this point, the facility’s staff is starting to think that I’m a trouble maker. Needless to say, everyone opts for chess. Here’s a typical day in my program:

Ninety five percent of my students in the juvenile system already know how to play chess. After a quick review of the game’s rules, to make sure everyone is on the same page, we talk about decision making. In this type of environment, you have to lead by example, so I start off by talking about some of the less than stellar decisions I’ve made in my life. Often, we’re all laughing after a few minutes because of some of the really dumb things I did in my youth. I am always the first to laugh because in hindsight, I cannot believe how ridiculous some of my youthful ideas had been. Some students share their experiences with bad decision making which leads to the general consensus that we’ve all made some bad choices and perhaps we all might want to rethink the way in which we make decisions in the future.

Next we look at a few basic chess openings. I use chess openings to illustrate my point about good and bad decisions because they provide an excellent example of how a single decision, one bad move, can create a snowball effect leading to disaster. The snowball effect is simple. A bad decision is like a small snowball rolling down a mountainside. As the snowball builds up speed, rolling towards the bottom of the mountain, additional snow builds up around our small snowball, making it larger and larger until it’s a force to be reckoned with. Decisions are like our snowball in that their outcome becomes bigger and bigger. Therefore, a bad decision will get worse and worse as time passes.

We start our journey by applying the opening principles of chess to our lives. Controlling the center of the board during the opening is akin to getting a handle on our immediate future. My students want a successful life, not one spent in a cell, so they pay attention. The center of the board is their life at this moment in time. We push a pawn to e4, gaining control of the board’s center or taking the first step towards controlling our life. Of course, life is going to fight back and on our chess board life pushes a pawn to e5. We now face an important choice, our next move. We look at a couple of moves and relate them to life and the decision making process. If we push a pawn to d4, we’re taking a risk since Black can simply recapture is with 2…exd4. Then we must decide whether or not to recapture with our Queen. We talk about the big chance we’re taking by recapturing with the Queen since after 3.Qxd4 Black (or life) can play 3…Nc6, attacking our Queen. This brings up the concept of tempo. We discuss the idea of losing time in our lives because we take chances in order to receive the “immediate” reward (in this case, a pawn). I ask if there is a better move. Someone always suggests 2.Nf3.

While anyone who plays chess might say this is the obvious move, in our classroom there’s more to it. Our Knight on f3 attacks the e5 pawn. However, it does something else I want my student’s to consider. It gives them greater flexibility on the board. It also protects against an attack by Black’s Queen on White’s Kingside. It also brings us closer to castling. In discussing this move, my students see that by carefully positioning their pieces, rather than going in for an all out attack, they have greater opportunities in the game’s future. In chess and in life, it’s best to make moves that give your greater options. The rewards may not be instant but slow and steady often wins the race. We continue through our opening game discussing the idea of carefully considering each move before committing to it. Life works in the same way. We have to weigh each decision we make before committing to it.

After the first class, I give everyone their first “chess and life” homework assignment: Before making a move on the chess board, they have to come up with three possible move choices. That’s the easy part of their assignment. Now the hard part: When faced with any “life” problem, no matter how small, they have to come up with three possible ways in which to address that problem. Then they are to choose the solution that solves that problem in the most (legally) effective way. If my students are uncertain of how to deal with a problem or decision to made, I have them approach it as if it were a chess problem. Students are very surprised that they can take a serious issue in their lives and approach it like a chess problem. Through chess they learn that they don’t have to make snap decisions such as the ones that got them into trouble. Chess also creates bonds between young men who would be mortal enemies out on the street. I’ve watched rival gang members sit down at a chess board and face off against each other like true gentlemen. Chess is a valuable tool to these young men, one that can and does change their lives.

Of course, to really understand the way I approach my program would take an additional twenty pages of writing. However, I hope this provides a brief glimpse into how I teach chess as it relates to life. Have a great holiday everyone and here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

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).