When to Walk Away

Professional poker players, as the old song goes, “know when to hold them and when to fold them,” meaning that the seasoned card player knows when to stop playing and walk away if lady luck is nowhere to be found. They know when to cut their losses, step away from the poker table and come back to play another time. This is a lesson all chess players should take to heart. Chess players, from beginner to professional, should know when to take a break from playing and come back refreshed and anew, no longer burnt out. It is much easier to burn out by studying and playing too much chess than you might think.

People who really get into the game of chess can easily become obsessed by it. It’s a bit ironic that you can learn the basic rules of the game in an afternoon yet spend a lifetime trying to master it and in the end, never truly master the game. Yet we, who are fully invested in the game, still travel the often rocky road on our journey towards mastery, cherishing every obsessive bump and roadblock. Some people can play the game casually, such as playing when on holiday or a couple of times a month with friends. Then there are those who fall into the blinding allure of the game’s complexities. We are the chess obsessed or near obsessed. For us, it’s an all or nothing love affair!

Of course, everyone who works to get better at chess through study and practice isn’t obsessed. However, it is very easy to fall under the game’s spell to a point at which it’s all you do. Case in point, myself! I’m an obsessive personality. While obsession can be unhealthy, it’s worked to my advantage(so far). When I find something of interest, be it chess, music or language studies, I throw myself into it full throttle. It’s an every waking hour love affair! Becoming consumed with something allows me to make great strides towards mastering that something. Of course chess mastery is still a long ways off but I get closer with each passing week. I suspect my tombstone will read “He was so close, sort of…”

People who master chess have to put a great deal of time or effort into reaching their goal, mastery. This means that they’re studying during every waking hour. While this gets you from point “a” to point “b” fairly quickly, the side effects of constant studying can be terminal burn out which leads to losing interest in the game. The problem with burning out is that you might burn out to a point at which you simply stop playing chess altogether. Even if you still play when burnt out, you’re apt to start losing games because your heart (ability to concentrate) isn’t into it as it once was. Either way, you’ll want to avoid burning out. Therefore, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to avoid being in this situation.

First off, maintain another interest that keeps you from spending all your time at the chessboard. Physical activities are an excellent choice because physical activity, such as anything that provides you with exercise, actually helps your chess playing. This means that you’d be avoiding burn out while helping your game. How do physical activities help your game? Simply put, anything that provides exercise helps to get your brain functioning at a higher level due to your body’s biochemistry. If not a physical activity, try something that takes you away from the chessboard such wood working or any other craft that has your working with your hands and brain. The key point here is not to engage in another interest or hobby that is similar to chess, such as playing Go. If you decide to play Go as your outside interest you’ll be putting yourself into the same frame of mind required for chess and probably still manage to become burnt out (probably three times as fast). Taking up the game of Go while trying to master chess is akin to deciding to stop your obsessive pulling out of scalp hair with your left hand by using your right hand instead. Find a another hobby that isn’t like chess!

If you’ve reached the point at which you’re starting to burn out by overplaying chess, walk away immediately. You don’t have to walk away forever, just for a period of time long enough to regroup. Only you will know how long that is. It could be a month, it could be a year. However, it’s better to take break than loose all interest in the game!

It’s tough to walk away or take a break from something you’ve put so much time into. After all, you feel as if you’ve come this far and giving up now means you loose the ground you’ve gained. However, you’ll loose even more ground if you continue to play because your heart and, more importantly, your mind won’t be into your game. You’ll get extremely frustrated and fall into the downward spiraling void of no return. More often than not, by taking a break from playing, you’ll come back to the game stronger than ever because you’ve relaxed!

Because teaching and coaching chess is what I do for a living, I cannot take long breaks from the game. Therefore, I take short mandatory breaks from playing so I can regroup or re-energize myself. I absolutely take the month of August off, with the exception of writing this weekly column. It doesn’t matter if I’m feeling great chess-wise going into August. When August rolls around, I’m on a chess vacation. During the rest of the year, I take a week off from playing and studying here and there, even though I still teach and coach. Just taking this time off, here and there, keeps me from getting burnt out. Trust me, when your life is consumed by chess it is easy to get burnt out! You really need to take breaks regardless of how you think mastery is achieved!

We often think of the chess player working towards mastery as an individual hunched over the chessboard day in and day out, an image created via the mythology of mastery. Any film or book about the road to mastery will depict the master to be as an individual who has literally sold his or her soul in an effort to reach their goal. Yes, we have to put more time into our journey towards mastery than someone who just wants to casually play chess. However, even the master in training needs to step back from time to time. There are countless examples of chess players who have literally lost their minds in their quest to master the game. While a little obsession is key to mastering any endeavor, you have to be careful walking along the edge of the cliff. One wrong step and you’re over the edge!

When I first started playing guitar, I was obsessed. On one side of the coin, I was able to be performing in clubs a lot faster than those who took a casual approach, I literally gave up everything else in my life. As a teenager, it worked. As an adult with responsibilities, this kind of obsessive thinking would have left me homeless! When you’re an adult, you have to consider other factors such as earning a living and paying your bills. Balance is the key here.

Slow and steady really does win the race. It’s much better to approach your studies in a slower manner, not trying to mentally digest everything at once. Key ideas and complicated concepts are much more easily mastered when you take on one idea or concept at a time. Master a single idea then move onto the next. Take your time and you won’t be apt to burn out. I know it’s been said that it requires 10,000 hours to master something but setting a goal to do 40 of those 10,000 hours each week is unrealistic. First off, if you’re an adult with responsibilities, you’ll not be able to keep this schedule up (although I hear they have great chess in debtor’s prison). Even if you don’t have to work, you’re brain will not be able to concentrate for long periods of time. You have to build up your ability to concentrate, slowly. It’s like going to the gym. You won’t be able to lift the heaviest weights until you build up your muscles on the lighter weights. Take your time. Take breaks. Avoid burning out. 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).