Why Play Chess?

Chess is a bit ironic in that you can learn to play the “Game of Kings” in a matter of a few hours yet spend an often maddening lifetime trying to master its complexity and many mysteries. Those mysteries are elusive and only reveal themselves to those who are willing to dedicate their lives to the quest. However, many people play chess casually and are happy to simply use the game to pass the time of day. Over six hundred million people play chess across the globe, most being casual in their efforts. It’s one of the oldest and most popular games and can mirror real life on the chessboard’s sixty four squares. It’s a mix of science and art with a dash of warfare as well. In the hands of masters, it’s a dramatic battle of the mind, a theater-like event that would make Shakespeare take note. It requires patience and planning, courage and cunning, focus and deep concentration. These attributes being what they are, why should you play chess as opposed to another game that requires less effort?

Chess seems to fit a number of personalities, from the casual hobbyist to the dedicated seeker of chess’s mysteries. The great thing about learning this game are the benefits it provides. However, we first have to dispel the greatest chess myth, the one that claims chess is played by the smartest of people (not to mention the idea that chess will make you smarter). If you want to make a character in a movie or book look brilliant, you set the scene with that character sitting behind a chessboard playing a game against their arch rival. We’ve all seen countless movies in which the hero outwits his or her nemesis by beating them up on the sixty four square battlefield. James Bond appears to be brilliant because he plays chess! However, you don’t have to have the IQ of a genius to play well!

In fact, Albert Einstein was an average club level chess player. It’s more a question of recognizing patterns within a given chess position (the combination of pawns and pieces on the board) rather than shear brilliance that makes a great player. In the end, we’re born with a certain level of brain function and can, at best, hone the brain we’re born with to function at it’s highest level. This brings me to my next point, honing the brain to function at it’s maximum level of efficiency.

Most of us, myself included, think we solve our day to day problems logically and expediently. The truth is, we often simply do things our way which means we solve problems in a manner that is comfortable within the way in which we think. We believe we’re going from point “a” to point “b” in a straight line but in reality, we’re all over the place. Our sense of logical problem solving isn’t always as logical as we think it is. This is where chess offers much needed help!

Playing chess well requires solving a series of continual problems in the simplest, quickest manner. With each move made by both players, a new problem arises that must be addressed immediately by each participant. If you procrastinate, you’ll lose the game. Therefore, chess can be a valuable tool for those trying the break the bad habit of procrastination. However, the real bonus here is the development of sound problem solving skills and more importantly, exercising the mind. Chess forces you to seek a direct solution to the problem at hand and provides specific game principles to guide you in the decision making process. It also teaches you to develop the lost art of patience (something in short supply these days). However, the real gift that chess provides all players, whether casual or professional, is mental exercise.

As we grow older, we tend to think less sharply than we did in our youth. We may have a greater knowledge base, gained through a lifetime commitment to educational pursuits, but our ability to think quickly with accuracy dwindles as we age. Chess provides a way to exercise our brains. Think of it as a mental martial art. I tell my students that chess is “ Kung Fu of the mind.”

In my youth, I was much more apt to make a decision quickly and execute a solution to the problem at hand speedily. Of course, being a subscriber to that old adage regarding, “the folly of youth,” some of my decisions may have been a bit flawed. Yet I solved the problem facing me with some degree of accuracy. Approaching middle age, I found myself becoming stuck when faced with a problem, not for lack of coming up with a viable solution but because my brain was operating in a slower gear. Thanks to chess, I’ve been able to get back some of that youthful mental speed when problem solving. Combined with the ability to apply logic and reasoning to come up with strong solutions, acquired by studying chess, I have regained some of that lost brain power. This gift that chess has given me can be applied to ever part of my life.

As a professional musician, I have to be able to play very specific jazz lines or leads at the drop of a hat (my punk guitar playing requires a bit less music theory). If playing guitar was a hobby, I could take my sweet time ( I seriously miss those days). However, when someone is paying me a pretty penny to sit in a recording studio and come up with guitar parts, time is of the essence. Chess helps to keep my mind sharp, avoiding that “deer in the headlights” syndrome many musicians face when under pressure in the studio. You can think of chess as the oil that keeps your mental engine well lubricated and running at optimum efficiency. Let’s face it, we need our minds to run well just to face the day to day challenges we encounter. Chess helps keep our minds sharp. Again, it’s mental exercise (watching the History channel doesn’t count as mental exercise).

I say that any fun way to pass the time that also keeps your mind working well is well worth pursuing. You can play the game casually or become a disciple of it’s mysteries and spend your entire life trying to master the game. Either way, the benefits are enormous. We worry about our bodies as we grow older but ignore the general condition of our minds, opting to blame our weak thinking on aging. Exercise your mind and you’ll be a happier more productive person. This is why you should play chess! 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).