Obsession

In my youth, I knew another chess player who was absolutely obsessed with the game. While I had my music and other interests, my friend was only interested in chess. As time passed, we saw him less and less. He preferred the company of his chess set to that of his friends. Eventually, we didn’t see him anymore. He became a recluse whose only ambition was to unlock the deep mysteries of our game. We completely lost touch and years later I heard that he had been committed to a mental health facility. While I seriously doubt that chess was the cause of his problems, his obsession with the game serves as a cautionary tale for those of us that love the game. Too much of anything can be unhealthy.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a bit obsessed with chess, but its a healthy obsession. By healthy, I mean that I have other interests and, more importantly, I know when to take a break from my playing and studies. Its no secret that getting good at something requires practice. We build our chess knowledge base by studying the game and put our new found knowledge to the test on the chessboard. We find the balance between theory (study) and practice (playing) and improve our skill set. The serious student of the game sets aside a time each day for their studies. This students knows the limitation of their attention span and sets a realistic limit on how much time they spend hitting the books. Then there’s the all out student.

The all out student puts much of his or her free time into studying the game. They think that if thirty minutes a day of study produces a good deal of improvement over a year, then three hours a day will in turn lead to the same improvement in far less time. The problem with this is that the untrained mind can only concentrate for so long before it starts to lose focus and wander. Putting three hours a day into your chess studies sounds great but if your mind can only handle 30 minutes of complete focus, you’re actually wasting the other two and one half hours of your study time. Building your mental muscles is similar to building your body’s muscles, you increase your exercise regime slowly. Now there’s the obsessive student. The obsessive student lives only for chess.

The obsessive student ignores all else except for chess. The obsessive student gets up in the morning and studies/plays chess and then falls asleep at the chessboard 10 hours later, repeating the process again the following day. Chess consumes their every thought. While truly chess obsessed people are somewhat rare, they exist. Of course, there is a difference between someone who studies the game and goes on to become a Grandmaster and someone who is simply obsessed. However, even titled players have been known to take it too far. Bobby Fischer is an example of a titled player who was unhealthily obsessed with the game. Yet there was a trade off in the case of Fischer. He became one of the greatest chess players ever known, but paid a tragic price for his success.

I have thought a lot about why people become obsessed with chess, either a slight obsession in which the obsessed has outside interests or a full blown ’til death do you part’ obsession. I believe it has to do with unlocking the game’s mysteries. The one aspect of studying chess that keeps me going is the simple fact that the more I study, the more my game improves. The more my game improves, the greater my calculation skills. The greater my calculation skills, the better my combinations. Of course, better combinations lead to winning games. But what about the mysteries of chess?

When you first start playing chess, the entire game seems a mystery. However, as you diligently study the game, you start to unlock some of it’s mysteries. Of course, at the beginning of your training the mysteries revealed to you are small in stature, such as proper development during the opening. However, as your skill set improves, the mysteries that are revealed become deeper in nature. One such mystery is calculation. Beginners tend to calculate a single move at a time, their move, which isn’t much in the way of calculative skills. As they improve, they improve their calculative abilities and think in terms of “if I make this move, what is my opponent’s best response?” Now they’re calculating two moves into the future. As time passes, the beginner becomes an intermediate level player and can see three or four moves into the future. The now intermediate player goes back over a master level game that they didn’t understand as a beginner and suddenly it starts to make sense. Moves that baffled our beginner now become clear. This is an ‘unlocking the mystery’ moment.

There is a great natural high to making such a discovery. Sure, other players have made the same discovery during their studies. However, this discovery is new to the discoverer and often has the effect of driving them further into their studies. This is a good thing but too much of a good thing can be problematic. You should never drive yourself to study past the point of losing concentration. When your concentration is lost, time is wasted. You’ll also face the possibility of becoming burnt out which will destroy your game.

I have a textbook addictive personality so I have to be careful, be it in life or in chess. I could easily become a completely obsessed chess player. Fortunately, I balance my chess with other activities like playing music. I also don’t go overboard with my studies. I break my study time down to small increments of three, thirty minute segments, five days a week. Because I’m 54 years old, I don’t have the ability to concentrate for as long as I used to, with the exception of music. Rather than try and force myself into long study sessions, I break my sessions up into manageable blocks of time. I also am weary of becoming burnt out from too much chess so I take vacations from playing. Because I teach chess full time, I spend a great deal of time around the game. Sometimes, when I have a break of a few days to a week, I grab my binoculars, journal and go bird watching. Sometimes, I take a day off and play guitar. In fact, some of my best chess ideas have come to me while the playing guitar. The point is to know when to take a break. Not doing so can lead to terminal burn out. Take it slow and take it easy. That is a sure fire way to improve your game. Balance your studies with physical exercise. Speaking of games, here’s one 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).