The human element, the human flaw and the human nobility – those are the reasons that chess matches are won or lost.
Chess is a game of the mind. Not just because it is game of logic, memory, and analysis, but also because chess tests your very character. Chess is played with 32 pieces and pawns on a board with 64 squares, but it is also played in our heart and soul. To me, this is what is beautiful about chess – that it is an expression both of our intellect and reasoning, but also of our creativity, desire, and determination.
In this article, I want to discuss four character traits that I believe are essential to becoming a really good chess player. In addition, I offer suggestions on how you can enhance and develop these.
The first quality that you need to cultivate as an aspiring chess player is desire. You need to want to improve. One of my favorite motivational speakers Eric Thomas says, “You need to want to succeed more than you want to breath.” Maybe that’s a little extreme for the average amateur chess player, but you need to want to improve enough so that you will do some chess study rather than say watching some television or a video game.
A good question to ask yourself is why you want to get better at chess. If your answer is something external like winning prize money or impressing your friends, then it is unlikely that you will sustain the necessary dedication to succeed.
However, if your desire to become better at chess is derived from an internal motivation such as trying to improve your mental capabilities or a deep appreciation for the logic and aesthetics of the game, then that combined with some of the other character traits I will mention may help drive you up the chess ladder.
To improve or stimulate this quality within yourself, I suggest you write down the reasons that you want to get better at chess on a piece of paper or index card. You can make it a short essay or perhaps a few bullet points. It can also be a simple sentence.
After you’ve done this, review it regularly. Doing this will do one of two things. It will either increase this desire for improvement within you…or you’ll realize you don’t really want to improve that much at chess and you’ll cease this exercise.
Your desire to improve will drive you to make positive decisions about your chess.
However, desire alone isn’t enough.
Perseverance means sticking with something despite delays and difficulties in reaching it. This quality is especially important for chess players as becoming really good at chess takes a long time (for most people). Even if you are particularly talented and pick chess up very quickly, it might still take you at least five years to become a master.
I started “trying” to become really good at chess about 20 years ago. During that time, I’ve gotten married, had three children, a couple career changes, as well as the other struggles that life brings. A couple times, I’ve stopped playing chess altogether for several years at a stretch.
However the call of Caissa is a sweet one and once you’ve heard it, it is hard to turn your back on her forever. I’ve returned to playing chess and my desire is back stronger than ever, so now I have to back it up with perseverance.
How can I do this? I think it is important to examine your beliefs because what you believe will affect your attitude and your willpower to persevere. Consider the following questions:
- Do you believe you have the potential to get better or do you think you’ve reached the highest point of your chess ability?
- Is mastering chess is a matter of talent alone or the result of a long process of improvement?
- Does your age factor into your ability to improve? Is getting really good at chess for young people only? Can you guess that I’ve been mulling this over lately?
Your beliefs about yourself and about the reality that mastery takes time is key to your persevering through the struggles of life as well as struggles at the chessboard.
Finally I suggest that you simply refuse to give up. Although life may happen and you may need to take a break from the game, remember that you can always come back. You only fail if you don’t come back.
While perseverance is about sticking with it for the long haul, consistency is about the regularity and frequency of your training.
Each time I came back from a layoff from chess, it took a little while to get back to where I left off. I had to brush up on my openings as well as sharpen my tactical skills. This could have been avoided if I had stayed consistent.
Developing consistency is essentially making chess training a habit. As I write in my article Developing Good Habits for Life and Chess, there are a few steps to create a new habit:
- Identify the habit you are trying to develop.
- Break down the habit into smaller parts or behaviors.
- Progress slowly and gradually increase the frequency, intensity, or volume of the habit.
- Keep it easy – e.g. increase the habit gradually enough that your perceived effort is similar to before.
Developing consistency is also understanding that shorter training sessions done over several days is more effective in general than one long training session every once in a while. A problem I in my early days was trying to keep up a schedule when I trained or studied for 4-5 hours per day. Other parts of my life suffered as my daily activities were out of balance.
Now, I do an hour or two a day and on the busy days, I get in 20-30 minutes of tactics or studying a mastery game. I realize that eating an apple a day is much more effective for keeping the doctor away than trying to eat seven apples in one day!
The final ingredient that I will discuss today is resilience. Resilience is bouncing back from set-backs. Similar to perseverance and aided by desire and consistency, resilience brings you back to the chessboard after a disappointing performance or frustration with your progress.
Like the other traits I mentioned, I believe that this can be improved. Here are a few steps you can take:
- Keep a positive view of your chess abilities. Like I mention in my article on game analysis, it is important to note not only your mistakes but the good moves you made. Review these whenever you feel frustrated with your progress.
- Keep things in perspective. Remember that a loss is but one game of hundreds or thousands that you will play in your lifetime. Use a loss or set-back as fuel for your training.
- Stay in contact with your chess friends or perhaps your coach when you are feeling down about your play. They will help you keep things in perspective and a coach can help you find any systematic or regular mistakes you may be making.
- Embrace mistakes and losses as a chance to learn and grow. As Capablanca said, he learned a lot more from his losses than he did from his wins.
One great example of resilience was Kasparov’s comeback after going down 4-0 in his 1984 World Championship match where he challenged the champion at the time Anatoly Karpov. Despite a crushing deficit in which Karpov only needed to win two more games, Kasparov held on, playing to sixteen straight draws before losing again! Kasparov finally won his first game of the match in game 32. He also won games 47 and 48, bringing the match to 5-3. Unfortunately, the match was controversially stopped due to various reasons. I believe Kasparov would have eventually won, and in the return match he edged out his rival to become the World Champion.
Here’s the score of the 32nd game – Kasparov’s first victory in the 1984 match.
Today’s article was about character traits. Some people believe that you either have these or you don’t. After studying the topic and observing others, I tend to believe that although you may gifted with an abundance of one or more of these traits, that you can develop them.
The beautiful thing is that once you develop these traits with regard to your chess improvement, you can apply them to other parts of your life (and vice versa). Understanding the power of desire, you an foster these in your work and family life. Similarly, developing consistency as a habit need not be limited to your work on your chess. Finally, life is full of set-backs. The greatest stories are those of people overcoming their set-backs in life through resiliance and perseverance.
In a way, chess becomes a training ground for life, and our life experiences can contribute to our chess success as well. Combine this with some tactical skill and strategic acumen (and perhaps a solid opening repertoire) and you’re well on your way to success in chess and life!