Look… You don’t sit down to play chess with the intention of winning. Yet, I want to win. Badly. In the end, however, I got so much more.
I know not everyone watched ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and then decided they’d take up chess. Clearly, I’m not everyone. I watched the series twice. The first time, I watched it quickly for pure enjoyment, barely stopping for meals. The second, I studied it the way Beth Harmon analyzed the Russian’s chess game.
Obviously, you don’t watch ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ to learn chess. I was studying the storytelling and the character development the second time around. So many of the characters were richly flawed, yet you rooted for them. Well… except for Beth’s adoptive father. I don’t think anyone rooted for him.
But after becoming fascinated with the Walter Tevis story about a Kentucky orphan who became a chess prodigy in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I remembered that my husband was actually a chess champion of sorts when he was a young child. I can’t remember the facts of his success as a chess player as I write this early on a Saturday morning, just that he was.
Since my husband began working from home, we’d begun to have lunch together most days. When I worked from home alone for so many years, I wouldn’t really take a break for lunch, often eating something at my desk while I continued working. But Mike liked to take lunch, and it was a nice moment for us to catch up and talk about the news or the neighborhood happenings. (He looks out our front window while he works, so he keeps tabs on the neighbors. Shh. Don’t tell our neighbors.)
One day after watching ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ I dug out our chess board and began setting it up. Incorrectly, at first. Mike quickly pointed out that the white queen always begins on a white square, and that the chess board must be turned a specific way to accomplish that. He reminded me how each of the pieces moved — yes, he’d tried to teach me chess once before, but it hadn’t stuck. And then we began playing. And he began defeating me. Every single time.
We don’t play every day, but for a while we were playing most weekdays. Sometimes, he would win quickly because I blundered A LOT. And that was usually after he’d saved me from losing my queen at least once.
Sometimes we would have what we call “training matches,” where Mike would point out when I was about to make a huge mistake, and he’d help me think through a better move. I’d still lose, but not as quickly.
Sometimes, I wasn’t very graceful at losing, as the above photo on Instagram represents.
There were also matches when I’d be in a perfect headspace, and I’d make a really good move, making Mike very uncomfortable. In the end, he’d find a way out of whatever uncomfortable position I put him in, and I would lose.
But chess became an escape. A way to spend time with my husband in the middle of what had become fairly monotonous days of working from home. And a way to practice thinking strategically. I would lose myself temporarily in the game. And that was nice given the reality of what was happening in the world on any given day the past several months.
Chess also helped me see my writing more strategically. An article in Healthline, claims that chess elevates creativity.
Researchers at a school in India tested the creative thinking skills of two groups of students. One group was trained in chess playing, and the other was not.
The tests asked students to come up with alternate uses for common items and to interpret patterns and meaning in abstract forms. Students who played chess scored higher on tests. Researchers concluded that chess increased the students’ ability to exercise divergent and creative thinking.
Because I write suspense and thrillers, I’m often working on ways to put my characters in terrible situations, then letting them work their way out of those situations. I don’t always want to pick the first “way out” that comes to my mind. I might come up with a list of five possible ways out, then choose the least obvious path for my character or the path that might invite even more conflict, while still leading to an eventual victory against the bad guy. Like in chess, if I can surprise my opponent (or reader) with a move they didn’t see coming, it makes the experience all that much more exciting and enjoyable.
There are other intriguing health benefits to playing chess, as well. Like warding off dementia. You can explore all of the benefits in the Healthline article.
I recognize all of the benefits of playing chess, and I’m happy that my husband and I have found a new hobby to add to the list of pastimes we enjoy doing together, but when it comes down to it, my ultimate goal is winning. Which means I’m probably missing the point.
Side note: I sometimes post photographs of our chess board on Instagram. If you want to follow along to see if I ever do, in fact, win, follow me there.