Learning to Play Chess

February 25th, 2008 by Steve Pavlina

I recently decided to learn to play chess. While it may not be the sexiest undertaking and probably wouldn’t make for a very exciting 30-day trial (don’t worry — I’ll spare you!), taking up chess as a hobby appeals to me for several reasons.

In November I posted an article called Discover Your Strengths, which is about an online test you can take to discover your core strengths. Your strengths are innate abilities that you may not have developed yet, but if you do develop them, you’ll tend to achieve results that are far superior to most people.

As I mentioned in the strengths article, my top 5 strengths are:

  1. Strategic – good at strategic thinking and planning.
  2. Input – can efficiently process and integrate large amounts of information.
  3. Learner – good at acquiring new knowledge and skills.
  4. Focus – able to concentrate well and tune out distractions.
  5. Significance – drawn to work on important things and avoid succumbing to trivialities.

Developing an awareness of my strengths helps me identify other activities I might be good at. My strengths of strategic thinking, input processing, learning, and focus suggest I may have a natural aptitude for chess. This doesn’t mean I’ll be good at it right away, but it does mean I could potentially become very good at it if I make a reasonable effort to do so, and I may have an easier time learning it than most people. Chess looks like the kind of challenge I’m naturally wired for.

The only negative is that my fifth strength (significance) holds me back a bit, since I don’t consider chess important enough to devote much time to it. I have a hard time seeing chess as anything more than a mild diversion, something I might try while taking a break from more serious pursuits. That may be an accurate impression, but in this case it doesn’t really serve my goal of learning to play. Fortunately my strength of significance has plenty of other food to keep him well nurtured, so I think I can convince him to play along for a while.

Being a chess newbie

About the only thing I know about chess is how the pieces move, and I learned that when I was a kid. Before last week I probably played about 5 games of chess in my life total, and I think only one of those games happened when I was an adult — I lost too. So I’m really starting as a complete beginner. My only knowledge of a gambit is that he’s one of the X-Men.

I decided the best way to begin was to simply dive in and start playing. I have the chess program that came with Windows Vista, so I tried playing a game. It was set for level 2 difficulty out of 10 levels. I lost badly. I tried playing again and lost badly again.

A couple days later, I tried again, this time at level 1. I lost again, but I began to figure a few things out. I discovered that using the King as my primary attack piece was probably a bad idea. At first I figured he should lead his troops into battle like Captain Kirk, but apparently the chess King is more of a Captain Picard. He likes to send in the red shirts while hanging back with the Rookies in Ten Forward.

I finally won my next level 1 game, and after that I was able to beat the computer at level 1 pretty consistently, as long as I made liberal use of the undo function that is. At first I was winning just barely, but after a few more games, I was able to win by a landslide. I noticed that the computer player made some really dumb midgame moves, so it obviously wasn’t a very deep-thinking player. I pretty much always got checkmate the same way — by trapping the King along the edge of the board with a Rook and a Queen (or a promoted pawn that achieved the same effect). I just had to make sure I didn’t screw up and end the game with a draw instead of a win by trapping the King on a single space without checkmating him.

The next time I play I’ll try level 2 again. Once I think I feel ready to move beyond this kind of ignorant practice, I might progress to some chess reading or try to find a decent tutorial. In fact, if you happen to be a chess enthusiast and can recommend a good beginner chess book or some other decent way to get started learning, I’d be grateful for any advice. I don’t want to play too much in the dark because I’d rather not install bad habits if I can avoid them.

Although I’ve played less than 10 games so far, I’m already starting to enjoy it. The first few games were a bit tedious, but now that I’m more comfortable with the basic play, I’m already starting to think more strategically. The main problem is that I don’t have a good sense of how to use low-level tactics to implement any kind of overall strategy, so I’m only able to play opportunistically, gradually picking off the low hanging fruit while trying to trap the computer player into giving up pieces. At my current skill level, chess is basically a war of attrition.

Since I know some people will bring it up, I’ll mention that I also considered learning to play Go, but for some reason it just didn’t interest me as much. I might try learning Go later, but for now chess just seems more appealing.

Another reason I settled on chess is that shortly after I told Erin that I was thinking about learning it, I received an absolutely ridiculous abundance of synchronicities about chess. It would pop up like a half-dozen times a day. Even Erin noticed it and said, “Alrighty then… I guess you’re supposed to learn chess.”

I think what I like most about chess is that it’s competitive. Although I’ve only played against fairly dumb computer opponents so far, it’s fun to play against another intellect that’s trying to outsmart me. I don’t feel I’m ready for human opponents yet, but I know there are websites where I can play online, so that will be a fun step to take.

My goal right now is simply to develop basic competency. I’m not investing a lot of time in this (30 minutes a day at most), but I’m curious to see how far I might progress over the next few months and whether my natural strengths give me an advantage as I predict they will.

One final thing I like about chess is that doesn’t require me to write anything. With my book project, keeping the blog going, keeping up with email, and doing occasional speeches, I always seem to have a ton of writing on my plate. It’s refreshing to balance writing with something that allows me to think without having to write about it afterwards. Hmmm… I just wrote about it right now though. Doh!

I realize this isn’t the most insightful article I’ve ever written, but after editing my book for 14 hours straight, it’s the best my overtaxed neocortex could deliver.

Wish me luck!


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