What Chess Can Do For You

Chess is thought of in many ways. To some, it’s merely a game to be enjoyed occasionally, used to pass the time on a rainy day. To others, it becomes a lifelong passion, a mental challenge that can be both satisfying and maddening at the same time. It’s an art, a blank canvas upon which serious players try to create a lasting masterpiece. It’s also a science, slowly revealing its mysteries to only those willing to wade into the deepest of its waters. However, it can also be employed as a method of rescue for those suffering both mental and physical ailments. It can offer hope to people who feel hopelessly lost in the world.

I got the idea for this article after reading Franklin Chen’s last wonderful article and a comment made by International Master Andrew Martin. The article used a recent highly publicized game between Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen and Microsoft founder Bill Gates as its focal point. Andrew had commented that the game (not the article which was wonderful) did nothing for the image of chess. Again, Franklin’s article was fantastic. It got me thinking about the image that people have of chess and how off the mark many people’s image of the game has become. A good piece of writing is meant to get you thinking and Franklin’s article did just that!

People who don’t play chess tend to think of the game as just that, a board game. This same group of people tends to think that those who play it and take it seriously are a bit off kilter. After all, how can anyone spend countless hours each and every day pushing little plastic or wooden pieces across an over glorified checkerboard. This is also the same group that thinks that all chess players are rocket scientists. The image of chess has been used in countless story lines, be it in novels or film. How many times has a movie villain said “checkmate” to denote that the film’s hero has lost his or her battle. Film and television shows often have a chessboard set up in a scene to let us know that the character is smart. He or she must be. After all, there’s a chessboard in the scene so they must play chess which makes them smart!

Chess is so much more than just a game! Chess can change your life in a plethora of ways. I know this from firsthand experience and wish to share with you exactly what chess did to change my life. When I was a young man, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. As a boy, I dreamed of becoming a guitarist in a rock and roll band. As a thirteen year old, I would jump up and down on my bed, playing air guitar with my friends. Eventually, I graduated to a real guitar, starting practicing and at the age of seventeen was playing professionally. By eighteen, I had two singles recorded and was touring. Being a seventeen year old, touring the country and playing night after night in clubs was a dream come true. However, after a decade and a half, I had developed some bad habits. Eventually, my life fell apart and I hit rock bottom. When I decided to pull myself up by my boot straps and try living life again, it was chess that got me through the hard times. When I felt as if I had completely ruined my life and had nothing to look forward to, there was always the chess board. Many a night, I sat with a chess book, playing through games to fight off depression and despair. Fortunately, I was able to get back on track and rebuild my shattered career as a musician. One thing chess taught me during those dark times was how to make sound decisions. My thinking, once muddy and tattered at best, became clearer. This led to being able to play music with some of my childhood heroes. Through those chaotic times, I felt adrift in a sea of uncertainty and chess served as a beacon that guided me to safer and better shores.

With my music career back on track, I felt on top of the world. I continued to play chess, even when in the studio recording. I even brought a chess set to shows and would play backstage to curve my stage fright. It seemed that everything was going gang busters (you kids will have to look that term up). Then I noticed a small lump on the side of my neck. At the time, I was singing in two bands as well as playing guitar so I thought I might have strained a muscle in my neck. It turned out that I had cancer. I went from being given a 50% chance of surviving to a 12-20% chance of survival. Of course, I was determined to fight back. I signed up for the most aggressive Radiation and Chemotherapy I could get. Needless to say, the treatment wasn’t fun. The one thing I feared the most was being alone with my own thoughts. Our own thoughts can be wonderful when our lives are going well. However, they can be downright detrimental to our well being when things are not going well in our lives.

I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. I didn’t want to have to wander through the dark landscape that had infested my normally happy mind. Once again, chess saved the day. As sick as I was from the treatments, I could manage to play chess and did so online. Rather than sit each day, counting the passing hours, I played chess. Of course my game was terrible (it hasn’t gotten much better) but that in itself was good because it made me want to get better, sick or not. I purchased some chess books and used my down time to study the game. Somehow, I managed to beat the odds and roughly three weeks after getting my first clean bill of health, I got my first job teaching chess.

I share this personal experience because I want you to know that chess is more than just a game. It saved my life. It can be used as a tool to help children improve their ability to problem solve. It can help people with addiction problems learn how to make good decisions. It can help those faced with grave illnesses stay out of their darkest thoughts, and yes, it can even be a great way to spend a rainy days indoors.

Here’s a bit of homework, which I thought I’d throw in after reading Richard James’s last article for The Chess Improver: Having read this posting, write down three things in your life that need improving. Think about how chess can help you improve in those areas and write it down. Take this information and adhere it to your refrigerator. Read what you wrote down each day, play some chess and watch your life change. Chess can change your life for the better and I’m living proof of that. Positive change comes from within and chess can offer you a hand in making that change. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Author: 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).