Chess is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it’s simply a game to pass the time while to others it’s a way of life. Chess is a battle in which we use our brains as our weapon. I tell my students that chess is an intellectual martial art, Kung Fu of the mind. As a student of both Tai Chi and Wing Chun, I see great similarities between chess and the martial arts. In fact, chess and martial arts are the two things that make me who I am. Without them, I’m not whole and I’m not happy. Let me explain:
Western society places a high premium on winning so many people study chess to get better at it so they win more games, demonstrating to themselves that they possess the superior mind. Wrong! Our goal in life should not be one of winning but one of improving our minds and bodies to their greatest potential. How you feel during your day depends on the state of your mind and body. When we’re sick our bodies ache and we don’t feel very well. We drag through our day looking forward to sleep. If we live a life without exercise, when we do have to do something physical we feel the wrath of a sedentary life, a life spent in front of our computer. If we watch television all day and then have to use our brains to solve a problem, our brain strains under the pressure and we become tired. Our lives become dreadful and we physically and mentally shuffle from one day to the next. I was this person, having the worst physical and mental habits you could have. I was dying a slow death each and every day. I wanted nothing more than to sleep because at least while I slept I felt no pain!
I’ve written about chess having gotten me through addiction and a life threatening disease which it did by strengthening my mind to battle the mental demons that manifested themselves in both situations. So chess holds a special place for me, not because I want to be a winner but because I want to maintain a healthy mental outlook. I also suffered all my life from dyslexia, something chess was able to eliminate from my life. How did chess do this? By forcing my brain, through pattern recognition, to visualize things correctly. Chess also helps one’s memory, something that weakens with age. Because chess has helped my mind so much, I view it more in Eastern terms as a way to balance my internal life which also aids my external life. While I enjoy winning my games, I take losses with a grain of salt, as something that is part of the journey. Losses are simply a reminder that we can always improve.
Of course, there are two components to one’s being, the mental and the physical. You have to have a good balance of both if either is work. For decades, I walked with a limp using a cane. A small flight of stairs was a painful obstacle. Doctors prescribed pain medications, a dangerous drug in the hands of a recovering addict. Fortunately, I knew enough to have my wife dole them out. However, I didn’t want to be enslaved to medication, not to mention the medication took away from my mental abilities. When faced with such a dilemma, you have to be proactive. I decided to try exercise but became bored easily when at the gym. I turned to Tai Chi and it was a game changer. It was slow and difficult at first because I felt as if I was getting no benefit from it. However, one day realized I was walking around without my cane and had no idea how long I had been doing so. People started commented that my limp was gone as well. The noticeable break through for me was that my chess playing got better because my mind was clear.
Over time, I started to feel more balanced, both internally and externally (with the world around me). I started talking on challenges I never would have in the past. This led me to wanting to study Kung Fu. I knew that I still had physical limitations due to the many reconstructive surgeries on my right ankle so I talked to a number of different martial artists who suggested I try Wing Chun. I found a teacher by accident. He was filling in for his brother driving his cab and I was a passenger. He said he always wanted to play western chess. When I found out he taught Wing Chun we decided to trade lessons. I look at the set of circumstances that led to this chance encounter, not as chance, but as an opportunity that presented itself because I was being proactive in my life. I opened my mouth and engaged in conversation with this man which led to a great opportunity. If you sit at home and wait for opportunity to knock, you’re apt to wait a lifetime. Opportunity presents itself to those who seek it.
As my body’s condition improves so does that of my mind. This means that my chess improves as well. If you want to attain your maximum potential as a chess player, you have to look at the bigger picture which includes your physical state. The physical and mental go hand in hand.
I now teach my young students that chess is a way in which they can strengthen their minds. Of course, they’re kids so they have a desire to win. However, by teaching them that there are lifelong benefits to playing chess, I remove some of the Western competitive thinking from their thought process. I’ve been restructuring my teaching program to approach chess from an Eastern point of view, treating the class like a martial arts studio. Students spare with one another on the board, learning to appreciate good moves made by each other regardless of the outcome. When a good move is made by one student, his or her opponent will compliment that move. I also encourage my students to engage in physical activities and teach them the balance between body and mind.
So my fellow chess players, play to improve your mind not just to win. Anyone can win but the person who can lose and learn from that loss is the true winner. Take care of your bodies because you only have one. Trust me when I say that a little bit of physical exercise will go a long way towards making you a happier person and a better chess player. You don’t have to go crazy and take up kick boxing. Try walking. My journey has taken me from very near death to feeling pretty darn good. I do suggest avoiding the near death part because it’s not much fun but take a cue from me; good mental and physical health makes for a better life and better chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Take a healthy walk, then play through the game!