Some Additional Thoughts on Losing

Those of us who are part of Western culture know all too well the high premium placed on winning. It seems that everywhere one turns, the message of “winning is everything” appears like a frightening apparition. Even if you don’t buy into this notion, it leaves a faint impression deep within the emotional seat of your brain. While adults have an easier time shrugging this notion off (most of the time), children are another story altogether. The idea of winning becomes a very stressful point for them, often at a time during their development when negative emotional experiences are very raw and painful. Watch a children’s league soccer game, for example, and you’ll see children becoming devastated over the mistakes they make, often ridiculed by both teammates and parents alike. Winning has become an all consuming contest that can leave a wake of long term emotional pain in its path.

As with an earlier article, I want to address the issue of losing and how we can turn this seemingly negative experience into an experience of enrichment and enlightenment. While I’ve touched on this topic before, it is an important issue to revisit. The relationship between winning and losing in no longer balanced but is weighted in favor of the “victory means everything” mentality. Will the generation of children I teach equate success with winning? Not if I can help it! For my students, their first experience with winning and losing often comes from playing chess. Chess serves as an ideal environment for learning about life.

The lessons learned on the chessboard are more often than not lessons that can be applied to life. Therefore, children can learn some very important life lessons through chess. I don’t spend a great deal of time, talking about the need to win with my students. While their goal is to become better chess players which will allow them to win more games, it’s their losses that concern me. How they look at their losses early on in life will have a great bearing on their future. This is why we examine losing in greater detail. Fortunately, children have the ability to shrug problems off easily. However, if they’re put under too much pressure, a loss that might otherwise be shrugged off and forgotten may become an event that bonds itself deep within their memories. Therefore, we have to redefine the meaning of the words losing or loss.

I teach my students that losing can be a very good thing! A hand will always go up in the classroom after I make this statement, with someone countering with “losing is bad” or “only winners get a trophy.” Here’s where we have to clearly define the positive side of losing. I ask some of my seasoned young players what they can tell me about the last game they won. Nearly all of them have nothing concrete to say. However, if I ask them what they can tell me about a game they lost, most of them will say something like “I hung Rook which led to my being checkmated” or “I got my King behind the passed pawn and the game ended in Stalemate.” These types of statements tell me something important. They tell me that these losses have left a lasting impression on those students. I ask my students how they feel about their losses. Of course, I have yet to meet the student that jumps out of his seat and says “I love my losses!” On the contrary, my students don’t like losing and why should they?

At this point, I have an opportunity to turn things around. I ask my class a question. What if every game you lost could become a stepping stone that allowed you to get better with each step forward you take? I usually have to rephrase this question a few times to make sure my students are grasping the question correctly. However, once this idea of a lost game becoming a step towards better chess sinks in, my students are excited about the idea. A loss can be turned into a winning plan of action that leads to improvement! Loss is an outstanding opportunity to learn from our mistakes. However, you have to clarify a few things from the start.

The first thing I do is to talk about my own losses and how I dealt with them. I tell my students that my biggest improvements have come from games I lost. I go on to explain that in the games I lost, I made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, from beginner to master level player. I also make a point of telling my students that the only difference between me and them is experience. I play better chess because I’ve been playing a lot longer than they have. I tell my students that with hard work and time, they have the ability to become a better player than myself. We then look at one of my worst losses and I walk my students through it, one painfully bad move at a time! Students often look puzzled as I laugh during a discussion of a particularly bad move I made. I tell them I’m laughing because that move, once painful, is no longer so devastating. It is no longer so devastating because I made the decision to look at my losses in a positive way.

We all eventually face loss at the chessboard. With the idea of winning having such an exalted stature within Western society, it’s no wonder people become discouraged when facing a loss be it on the chess board or in life. The secret to dealing with loss is choosing to travel the path towards enlightenment. In chess, this means using a loss as an opportunity to improve one’s skills. I ask my students if they would rather throw their hands up in the air and give up, leaving them unhappy and frustrated or if they want use their loss as a pathway to improvement, one that leads to happiness? Being happy always trumps being sad!

With that said, we get down to work. My students, having seen one of my terrible losses presented to them, present one of their lost games. I work with each student semi privately because they’re not at a point where they’re comfortable with presenting such a game to the entire class. The student presenting his or her game grabs a pencil and paper.

Starting with the game’s first move, we examine that move to see if it adheres to the opening principles. Does that first pawn push gain control of a central square? Does the opposition’s first move do likewise? During the next few moves, I ask my student if they are developing their minor pieces to their most active squares. If not, we address the issue by looking at the move in question. I’ll ask the student if moving the piece in question to a better square would have improved the position. During this process, my student will takes notes, writing down the better move(s) as a variation to the original game’s moves. When transitioning from the opening to the middle game, we examine moving our pieces to more actives squares in preparation for middle game exchanges. This process continues throughout the entire game.

The initial sting of a lost game starts to hurt a lot less when my students discover better moves from our analysis session. I always tell them, during our analysis, that this is their chance to turn things around by learning from their mistakes. A lost game now becomes a challenge to find better moves, a game within itself. There’s no magic to it! We simply turn a losing game into a winning opportunity to learn. In the end, I hope this way of thinking will help my young students deal with loss away from the chessboard, a worthy and extremely helpful skill to have. 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).