To see chess as just a game does not do it justice. To think of it as the narrative around which an award-winning Netflix series was built definitely sells it way short and to think of chess as Dullness Incorporated misses the mark entirely.

Remarkably, some people do think of chess that way. However, as this game has been around for millennia - it's one of the world's oldest board games, clearly, it cannot be dull. Otherwise, why would people have played it through the centuries?

Besides being a time-honoured form of entertainment, chess helps build cognitive skills as well as focus and concentration. It even serves as a livelihood for some players. Not just for World Chess Champions and grandmasters; chess hustlers can turn a hefty profit if they're good, too.

That's quite a lot for what most consider a pastime or an elementary form of entertainment, don't you think? And these are just a few faces of chess; let's discover others.

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Chess as a Form of Mindfulness

Every morning: a good cuppa, a bit of quiet time and then, a quick glance at the news before starting work. This week, on the BBC: how mindfulness could make you selfish.

That's a decidedly different note than the past five years' worth of articles touting the benefits of mindfulness, isn't it?

Chess is a way to build your mindfulness
Chess players have a knack for focusing on their game, to the exclusion of all else. Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash

To understand why any headline about mindfulness is odd but these two are particularly discordant, you have to know what mindfulness is.

If mindfulness devotees stay true to the Buddhist practice, their mindfulness means being fully focused on the current moment, with neither judgment nor commentary - that annoying inner dialogue from whence judgment spews forth.

With that understanding, it's hard to see how selfishness could result. However, it's easy to see how chess qualifies as a form of mindfulness. 

Chess players are renowned for their ability to focus on their game without getting distracted. Witness the uncountable film scenes of chess players in the park or at the beach, completely unfazed by the hubbub around them. That's not just movie magic; consider the degree of concentration in chess players competing in tournaments.

Granted, there's not much conversation during gameplay but the subtle clacking of pieces on dozens of chessboards and the muted click of the chess clocks; the sounds of the invigilators walking around and the idea that people are watching you play... and your next opponent is somewhere in the room.

All of that, aside from the players' competition fever and stress over whether or not they'll raise their Elo rating could be quite distracting but, somehow, chess players are unflappable when playing.

If we embrace the definition of mindfulness as being wholly focused on the activity at hand with no judgment, there's no other possible conclusion than chess players being mindful - of their game, not their surroundings or inner dialogue.

Thus, whatever modern-day forms of mindfulness possibly foster selfishness, chess is clearly not one of them.

Chess as a Sport

With the Olympic Games just behind us and the Paralympic Games currently underway, the concept of sport as strictly a physical activity is firmly cemented in our minds. But did you know that the International Olympic Committee acknowledged chess is a sport 20  years ago?

Indeed, chess is not a physical sport. Sitting in front of a chessboard and contemplating strategies to advance your representative army to victory is much more of a mental exercise than a physical regimen. That doesn't mean that chess players don't have to be physically fit to engage in their sport, just like any other athlete.

After all, if your body isn't well, your mind suffers, doesn't it?

Many other aspects of chess are comparable to athletic contests. For instance:

  • both sports and chess are competitive activities
  • both sports and chess require massive brain power
  • both sports and chess demand significant focus and discipline
  • both sports and chess are played in every country around the world
  • both athletes and chess players must follow rules, norms and customs

Furthermore, athletics and chess each have a set of ethical standards that, if violated or breached altogether, usually results in disgrace - at the least, or being banned outright.

Smart chess players know that cheating will cost them dearly
Every chess player knows that cheating will see them banned from competition. Photo by Michal Vrba on Unsplash

Cheating is the #1 reason that athletes and chess players are banned from competition. In athletics, taking performance-boosting substances, a form of cheating, will result in the guilty athlete being banned from their sport.

In chess, rare instances of cheating have forced tournament managers to ban phones from competition because a few players were caught using their devices to give them an edge in competition. Cheating in tournaments results in players being stripped of their grandmaster title and earnings, just as any other athlete would be stripped of recognition and financial rewards.

If you're a fan of rugby, football or basketball - or an athlete, you might not yet be convinced that chess is a sport. You might need a deeper dive to see those parallels...

Chess as a Science

As we (or our kids) get ready to go back to school, primary schools in Russia are making headlines around the world because of a new addition to their curriculum: chess.

Yes, you read that right. Starting this school year, every primary school student in Russia will take a course in chess - not as an elective, either. Those chess classes are compulsory.

You might think that Russian kids have to learn how to play chess because Russia and chess have enjoyed a longstanding, mutually beneficial relationship. After all, Russia gave us some of the world's greatest chess players and, during the Soviet era, chess was that regime's path to glory.

But that's not why chess is now compulsory in Russian schools. The reason is science.

Playing chess helps develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. An adept player will approach the game with the same processes a scientist uses to make new discoveries.

First, the chess player (and scientist) will study the body of existing literature - and, when we say study, we don't mean just read it over or skim for highlights. They will look for gaps in the knowledge and formulate theories, which they will then test.

Often, scientists and chess players will use a part of a theory as a jumping-off point and go in a completely different direction than the original hypothesis, or in several different directions all at once, like Mendel did by cross-breeding peas. And chess players...

If you know anything about chess, you know what an Open Game is: any game that starts with 1. e4 e5 - both White and Black advancing their kings' pawns two squares for a confrontation at the board's centre.

From there, the game affords each player a host of openings, gambits, responses, attacks and defences, all of which were tried and retried, tested and found to have merit. Thus, they were given names - the Philidor Defence, the Ruy Lopez and many others, and added to the chess canon.

If chess (and science) were just about replicating past masters' moves/experiments, we wouldn't have an ever-growing body of knowledge. There'd be no new discoveries, no new move combinations and no advancement of either discipline.

Isn't it good, then, that chess is considered a science?

Every chess player studies past games to improve their own strategies
Chess players study past games and play out different scenarios to improve their playing abilities. Photo credit: Seth Capitulo on Visualhunt.com

Chess as an Art

Pattern recognition is one of the less-talked-about cognitive skills; it's one that both creators of art and chess players use to advance their technique.

Pattern recognition isn't just a matter of finding patterns and recognising their significance, it entails using detected patterns to determine what might happen next. A sculptor might visualise how their piece would look if a few more millimetres were shaved off here or there while a chess player would calculate their opponent's response to an unexpected move rather than the likely anticipated one.

Visualisation is another skill chess players and artists work assiduously to hone.

To the casual observer, a painter chooses their tones and hues arbitrarily, unaware that the artist is trying their best to commit what they see in their mind's eye onto the canvas. And anyone watching an artist at work selects the brushes used to apply the paint probably thinks the choice is based on size or utility, with no idea that each brush creates a different on-canvas effect.

That same observer might be just as befuddled by watching a chess game.

Why move the rook only two squares when sweeping it across the board could capture an opponent's piece? Why pull a piece back when the object of the game is to attack?

Because duelling chess players do the same thing that artists do. They have a vision of how the game should play out and they execute every strategy and deploy every tactic needed to make that vision a reality.

Except that, for chess players, the canvas is constantly shifting and the already-applied paint remains fluid, so they must perpetually adjust their mental picture to the current status of their canvas - the chessboard.

For all the traits that artists and chess players share, still, no one could rightly call chess an art. There is a connection between art and chess, though. Would you care to discover it for yourself?

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