For most people, chess is a fun and great hobby. If done right, it can be so much more than that. As I’ve written in my retirement announcement, chess has been the most incredible school of life I could ever imagine. I learned to:
Be ambitious, plan ahead, reflect on my own actions, make decisions under pressure, manage my limited time, cope with defeats, take the best out of every mistake, give my body & mind time to recover, and focus on the process, not the results.
Yes, that’s a lot! And those things came to mind after a 2 Minute brainstorming session. I’m sure I could fill a full page with the benefits of chess improvement.
In this article, I want to show you how I benefit from my chess improvement background every day. Leave the big rating benefits, my GM title, and a career as a chess player aside: chess has so many more benefits for your daily life! Then, you will learn how to benefit from the same benefits, regardless of your chess level. Let’s go!
Improve Chess, Improve Anything You Want
I know many GMs that say being a Grandmaster doesn’t help in real life. I agree; knowing that doubled pawns aren’t great or that a knight on the 6th rank protected by a pawn is a super strong piece doesn’t help you in real life. But the meta-skills I needed to improve chess can be re-used for anything.
Whether I want to learn a language, improve my tennis game, or learn a new skill, I will use the same principles I teach my chess students. Today a blog reader sent me a link to a chessable thread where a chess friend complimented my quick improvements in Tennis. He said, “High IQ stuff, I guess.”
Thanks for the compliment Renato, but the reason behind it isn’t my IQ. The reason is the systems I learned while getting better at chess. If you want to improve any skills with little time (I played approximately once a week), you need to:
- Avoid giving up. If you burn out, you won’t be able to improve anymore. So avoid injury and lossofmotivation. How?
- Start small. Trying to fix five games a week would overwhelm me and make Tennis feel like a chore, not a hobby. So I start small, create a habit and see if I can do more later.
- Understand what matters most. Ever heard of the Pareto principle? It says that 20% of efforts lead to 80% of outputs. This applies in business but also sports. So I had to understand what cost me the most points (unforced errors!) and invest a lot of time in solving this leak.
- Focus on the process. Some days it seems like I can’t hit a proper shot. That’s annoying, but there is no merit in slurring on the court or throwing your racket on the ground. I try to keep my cool, ask myself how to improve, and do my best.
- Cope with defeats and learn from your mistakes. Just like I explained above, defeats will inevitably come. The question is: how are you reacting to them? I usually only get more motivated to put effort & time into my improvement.
The nicest part about this is that I do this on autopilot. I don’t sit down in my diary and write down “how to improve tennis.” Through my chess improvement experience, most of these principles became second nature. Now I just have to realize that I need to switch to that autopilot whenever I try to improve anything. And voilà, results will follow.
How Life Imitates Chess
You might have heard of Garry Kasparov’s Book “How life imitates chess.” Although I don’t agree with all of Kasparov’s conclusions, I certainly agree that Life & Chess are very similar. In Chess & Life, you must constantly make decisions under time pressure without perfect information. The better the quality of your decisions, the better the outcome will likely be.
Sure, a certain inequality in life does not exist in chess. After all, in chess, we all start from the same position. But in chess, you will also end up in positions that suck (through your own mistakes). The key to those positions is to make the best of them and avoid making things worse.
Does that ring a bell? Sounds very much like a real-life situation you hate but need to go through. My thought process for these situations is similar to my approach to bad positions in chess.
3-Step Process In Bad Situations
Whenever I end up in a position that sucks, I try to get into action mode as quickly as possible. After all, thinking, “Why did I mess this position up” does not help.
One must quickly focus on what you can do and spend your energy wisely. Otherwise, your time runs out, and you decide on a move just out of intuition and emotions, not rational thought. What does this action mode look like? It is a simple three-step plan:
- Analyze the position: what are the issues at hand?
- Come up with possible solutions.
- Compare the solutions and choose the best one.
I use this approach with simple daily stuff like my car breaking down or me destroying a water bottle at home. Some years ago, I would spend a lot of time whining about my being so unlucky, why this always happens to me, and how much this really sucks. Sometimes, to my surprise, in most cases, I skip this step now. The light for a motor problem goes on in my car, and I immediately think: What could be the issue?
When I understand the problem, I can make a qualified decision. If it seems decently safe to drive until the next garage, that’s the best option. If not, I have to call a friend or a tow truck. Does it suck to pay a shitload of money to get my car towed? Absolutely. Do I have any alternatives? Sometimes no. So there is no merit in feeling bad, slurring, or wishing this did not happen.
The only thing that helps is gathering information and trying to make the best decision for my next action. Just like in chess, it might be that the decision I took at this moment was not the best in hindsight. Again, that sucks, but as long as I did things to the best of my abilities, I have nothing to be upset about.
Don’t Talk About the Problem All The Time
Recently I was eating dinner with my Fiancée Alessia (she’s also a chess player) and two friends. We had a great time until we asked them about their flatmate. In the past week, they had some annoying encounters with this flatmate, and they started talking about every single incident. Alessia and I looked at each other after roughly 5 Minutes of listening and thought the same thing: don’t focus on the problem; focus on the solution!
We tried to both intervene and ask things like, “But why don’t you just move together” or “Did you ever tell them how you feel?” but they kept going back to the problem, listing just one more annoying fact about their flatmate.
This huge focus on the problem will be mercilessly punished in chess improvement. Once something has happened, you can not change it anymore. The only thing that remains to be done is understanding and learning from this problem and moving on.
I know sometimes we need to get something off our chest. But then, as quickly as possible, one should switch into the driver’s seat of one’s life again. Just as during a chess game, ask yourself: “What is the best thing I can do now?” Or, as the stoics would say:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5
Why Only Chess Improvers Get These Benefits
You might say: “Well, that’s cool, but why don’t I feel the same benefits in my life?” I have a guess. You are playing chess but aren’t using the underlying methods one needs to really improve chess with a plan. Your autopilot is most likely not set up well right now. You might dwell on your losses, tell your friends all your unlucky defeats (without thinking about a solution), spend your time in training and the game on unnecessary things… the list goes on and on.
The bad part about playing a little without aiming to improve is that you will make these unhealthy autopilots even more anchored deep down. That will make it much harder to change them a few months or years from now. So, the best time to change your approach is now.
Chess improvement forces you to understand your bad habits and belief systems and helps you improve them.
As change does not happen easily and without effort, you can only do this if you really take your life & chess improvement into your own hands. Step by step, you will build your meta-skills and become a master improver. Not only in chess but anywhere you want to improve.
How To Become A ‘Real’ Chess Improver
Want to harness the benefits of chess improvement? Here is how:
- Take a principled decision to be a chess improver. Change comes from within and is easiest done by changing your identity. If you see yourself as the person who writes training plans, doesn’t whine about losses, and continues training even in tough times, it is much more likely you will actually do these things.
- Give yourself proof every single day. Change doesn’t happen in words but with actions. Here and now, take an action a ‘real’ chess improver would take. Even if you aren’t 100% convinced yet that you are mentally there, you can fake it until you make it. Whenever you take an action, ask yourself: “What would a real chess improver do now?”. Then do it.
I won’t lie to you and tell you this is easy. I started improving my chess when I was 8 and struggled for 15 years. Even now, I’m not at a place where I say, “All my autopilots are amazing; I can just enjoy my life.” Improvement takes time and real hard work. But it is so damn worth it.
The success of this blog, my ability to cope with a very limiting brain injury, and quick improvements in Tennis, Poker & language, and much more were because of the systems and skills I learned in chess improvements.
It is no exaggeration to say that learning how to improve my chess has helped me become more financially successful & happier. Chess is so much more than just a game!