Give Chess a Chance

By Michael Korvyakov | Monday, September 27, 2021

I began learning chess about ten years ago and immediately fell in love. The game was so simple — just six unique pieces — and yet so complex. I played hundreds of games online, each one distinct from the other. In fact, there is a number, the Shannon number, which represents the total number of possible chess games. This number is 10 to the power of 120 —  more than the number of atoms in the universe! I loved the game so much that I decided to give tournaments a shot. Staring at a board and calculating moves for up to four hours a game is perhaps the worst nightmare of every child. But the captivating nature of the competitions, and the uniqueness of each game, made it so enjoyable to play.

So I decided to spread the joy of chess to the community. I hosted a total of four series, comprised of 23 lessons in total — each one going over an important concept of chess. As a tutor, I have had the pleasure of exploring many topics, from pre-calculus to English, but the topic I have enjoyed teaching the most has been chess. It’s great to see so many students get excited about the game, and experience the delight of finding a good move or solving a puzzle. And in all of the fun that the learners were having, they didn’t realize that the skills they developed over the board would serve them well in their day-to-day lives. Here are just a few:

Develop Concentration and Calculation Skills

Chess pushes the limits of your mind. It forces you to think longer and more intensely than is expected of you normally. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t see chess players sitting with their hands on their heads and their faces scrunched up as they consider their next move. Players are expected to look many moves ahead, considering how a game would likely end with each possible move. And with 400 possible positions after just the first two moves, this is no easy feat. Bobby Fischer put it simply: “Chess demands total concentration.” It requires you to look at the entire board and guess what your opponent is thinking simultaneously. What makes it harder is that there is someone sitting just two feet away from you, who has made it their mission to complicate things for you. Not to mention, with the time controls in major tournaments, players of all levels and ages are expected to sit at a board for hours at a time.

Learn to Win Honorably, and Lose Gracefully

Throughout my six years of learning chess, I have won many games and lost just as many. Chess is an excellent lesson in winning and losing. Coaches of the game incessantly remind their students to not celebrate a victory in the tournament room. As the saying goes, “move in silence. Only speak when it’s time to say checkmate.” Chess may not seem like the most exciting game to watch, but it sure is exciting to play. And maintaining humility through the chaos is paramount to becoming a good chess player.

Though winning is more fun, there is much to be learned from losing. For a few full years after I began playing competitively, I would cry after every loss. It was disappointing to put so much effort into a game and have nothing to show for it but a small “0” next to your name. Even worse is when you’re in a bad position, and your impending loss is looming over your head as you continue to look for the best move. You can resign, but that’s against the spirit of the game. You have to persevere and play to the end. Regardless of the outcome, you must shake your opponent’s hand and say “good game” —  not the easiest thing to do when they just beat you. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, you now have to go announce to your team that you lost, only to have your coach insist upon going over the game, and showing you where you went wrong. But this tradition of analyzing the games is not without rhyme or reason — it’s a way to identify your mistakes so you can grow as a player and as a person.

The game teaches you that you can’t win ‘em all. But what you can do, is look back at your errors, and try not to make them again. Just as in life, you won’t always win. But win, lose, or draw, there is something to be learned from every game.

Improve Your Health

But how do these benefits materialize in your life? Study after study has shown the immense physical and mental health benefits of playing chess. A 1985 study tested 8th graders before and after they studied chess in a multitude of categories. They saw improvements in memory, verbal reasoning skills, and creativity. A similar study in 1992 found that students with a standardized math curriculum performed worse on standardized tests than students who supplemented their math curriculum with the study of chess.

Chess also goes in a long way in preventing serious conditions in aging populations. A New England Journal of Medicine study found that people above the age of 75 who regularly engaged in mentally strenuous activities, such as chess, were far less likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease than those who didn’t. But this doesn’t mean you have to be 75 to see these benefits of the activity. Dr. Robert Freidland, one of the people behind the study, found that unused brain tissue leads to loss of brainpower in people of all ages. The same is true for many other degenerative mental conditions, such as dementia. These benefits can be summarized in one fact: chess expedites and contributes to the growth of dendrites which are responsible for receiving information from other cells and carrying that information to the cell body. The more you engage in mental activities, the more dendrites grow.

How Can I Start Playing?

“But how do I start learning chess?” you might be asking. Just looking at the board, it may seem like a daunting task to learn, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t started earlier. There are a few ways to start: is always a great option to learn for free (check the “Experimental” tab for possible upcoming chess sessions). Chess is ultimately a social game — you can’t play it alone. So if you have a friend or a relative who knows the game, ask them to teach you. The chess community is passionate about their game and is always interested in getting more people involved. Finally, there are plenty of online resources which could teach you not just how to move the pieces, but how to play at a high level (with practice and time, of course). So as you begin your chess journey, keep in mind this Irving Chernev quote: “Every chess master was once a beginner.”

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