The Biggest Obstacle to Chess Improvement

The biggest obstacle to chess improvement is not the innate difficulty of chess, at least not in my experience. Without exception, whenever I have spent a few weeks studying hard, and then played in a few tournaments, my game has shown noticeable improvement. That formula has always worked for me, at least so far. The biggest obstacle to chess improvement is what I might almost call a non-chess factor: maintaining your focus on chess for a sustained period of time—weeks, months, years, however long it takes to reach your chess goals.

As Shakespeare and many others have observed, there is an ebb and flow in everyone’s life. There are times when school is the most important thing, when sports are the most important thing, when work is the most important thing, when family—especially a newborn child—is the most important thing, when writing a book or engaging oneself in a creative project of some kind is the most important thing. Sometimes health is the most important thing, sometimes romance is the most important thing. According to Freud, work and love are the two central problems of a man’s life. No one, to my knowledge, has ever cited chess as one of the central problems of life. The reason, of course, is that chess usually must take a distant back seat to other more pressing issues, for all of us except perhaps a few monomaniacs or a special few whose lives have been arranged around the issue of chess improvement. One immediately thinks of Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, as two prominent contemporary examples of individuals who have family and professional helpers to ease their respective paths. Even Magnus, however, shows signs that he is beginning to tire of the grind.

It seems to me that it is easier for young people to stay focused on chess improvement. Everyone talks about youthful plasticity of the brain, but also young people have fewer distractions. When you get older, and you have been exposed to the wide world and its many facets, it will forever after be harder for you to shut yourself in your room and limit your focus to the 64 squares. I am reminded of the famous lines from a song, popular in the U.S. after World War I, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm/After they’ve seen Paree?” Bobby Fischer himself instinctively understood the threat to his concentration posed by the world beyond chess. He once famously demanded of a hotel clerk, “Give me a room without a view.”

If you think about it—and maybe you shouldn’t—there is a tremendous opportunity cost to hunkering down over the chessboard for 10,000 hours. During this time, which equals about three hours per day for 10 years with no days off, you aren’t traveling, you aren’t reading books, you aren’t playing a musical instrument, you aren’t learning languages, you aren’t learning math, science, or history.

You aren’t playing sports, you aren’t going to parties, you aren’t having conversations, you aren’t going on dates, you aren’t hanging out in cafes, you aren’t going to the symphony, you aren’t seeing movies, you aren’t going to plays.

You aren’t going hiking, you aren’t going camping, you aren’t climbing mountains. You aren’t going to the beach, you aren’t going swimming, you aren’t taking photos, you aren’t painting a picture, you aren’t writing a book, you aren’t composing music. You aren’t going for a run, and you aren’t running for office.

You aren’t having kids and raising a family. You aren’t fixing things or making things or building things. You aren’t making society better or safer, you aren’t working for social justice. Although Pascal did say, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” so perhaps we should give chessplayers more credit.

I hope I’ve made the point that there are many interesting, fun, and worthwhile things to do in this world besides play chess. (Some people may argue that chess is not supposed to be fun, and of course de gustibus non est disputandum, but for me and I do believe for the vast majority of chessplayers, playing chess is largely about having fun.)

I’m not going to go so far as to say, as has been said about pool, that playing chess well is the sign of a misspent youth, because I believe chess is a valid interest just like any number of other valid interests. Chess is not for everyone: it is only for those able to appreciate it. But that could also be said of knitting, pinochle, and crafting lifelike wooden duck decoys.

Chess can be fun—for most of us, it is more fun when we are winning—but includes far more than just fun. Chess opens for us a profound world of abstract intellectual beauty. It offers us puzzles and endless roads for exploration. It is also a venue for self-discovery and a wide range of social interplay, from whimsy to stern combat.

Perhaps we have to be older to understand just how rich chess is, and in how many ways it can enrich our lives. Paradoxically, the older we are, the more difficult it is for us to find the time and focus to appreciate chess. We older players understand how much bigger the world is than our favorite game. Just yesterday I had a conversation with my younger son, in which he compared his love of playing music to my love of playing chess. Ben said to me, “I can use my music to meet people, just like you have used chess to meet people.” I replied, remembering some of my trips to Europe, “Yes, I was able to meet many people through chess. But, you know, your music may be even better for that.”

Tim Hanke