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Chess and the Skill of Seeing
I didn’t think that I would enjoy chess. I assumed it was a slow-paced game designed for the kinds of people who are good at cryptic crosswords, sudoku, logic problems and maths puzzles and whose stratospheric IQs are due to their brilliance with numbers and their cool-headed ability to plan strategic campaigns of Byzantine complexity by visualising the positions on the board twelve moves ahead.
I would never be able to play such a game. After all, had I been locked in the dungeon with the two brothers, one of whom always lies while the other always tells the truth, I would have simply died there, my dusty skeleton a tribute to my brain’s absolute unwillingness to untangle logical knots. I am the rat lost in the maze, squeaking sadly.
I give up quickly on projects that require intricate, practical problem-solving. I once half-assembled an IKEA chest of drawers and, finding that I could neither complete nor work out how to dismantle it, spent hours on the phone shouting at their overworked staff, insisting that there must be a vital piece missing, until someone agreed to come and disassemble and remove it for me. That night, a new boyfriend stayed over for the first time and in the morning, while I slept, quietly took it apart and put it back together correctly. “I was laughing so much I was afraid I would wake you up,” he told me when I opened groggy eyes to an immaculately constructed piece of furniture. “How did you manage to get it so wrong?”
So does my incompetence at strategic planning disable me from playing chess? Or has playing chess helped me develop better long-range strategic vision? No and no. This is partly because, at beginner level, you win or lose mostly based on simple tactics and on recognising immediate threats and opportunities, rather than executing an intricate, sneaky plan of coordinated attack.
However, chess provides an ideal means of improving certain skills because in chess, there are no excuses to hide behind, no unfair circumstances to blame, always the same starting position of almost complete equality (white’s move order advantage is minimal at this level). It also provides simple, fast feedback on the wisdom or folly of your choices.
In a conversation Helen Pluckrose and I had with Heather Heying on my podcast, Two for Tea, Heather recommended engaging with real-world things as an antidote to the kind of self-indulgent musing to which academics and writers are especially prone. It’s always tempting to simply play with words and judge your arguments and speculations on how persuasive or eloquent they sound to your own ear or how delightfully surprising and yet intuitive your chosen analogies are. But you can’t rationalise away the fact that your cake hasn’t risen, that your car won’t start or that you have strayed off the hiking trail and are now lost in the bush. In chess, too, if your opponent is competent, your moves are rewarded or punished depending on how good they are in themselves, not how good you are at explaining them.
Playing chess is also a stress test of your emotional control. It’s odd how quickly my ego became invested in winning. There is nothing whatsoever riding on the results of my chess. I have no skin in the game. No one will think the worse of me if I lose every single time, nor will it affect my life negatively in any way. And chess is not the kind of thing I pride myself on being good at. Quite the opposite: it is exactly the kind of thing I expected to be utterly pants at. Yet the little beep from my computer that signals that I’ve been matched with an opponent instantly triggers the heightened arousal state of competition. The battle is on: there is no square on the board on which your pieces can peacefully wait out the fight. Everything is potentially under attack. And, as soon as you detect your opponent threatening to take a piece, or spot a potential weakness that you could exploit, it’s tempting to move at once. It’s surprisingly difficult to look at the entire board, to slow down and survey everything that is going on, to tally up all the threats and opportunities, before making a move.
I’m talking only about beginner level chess, not the kind of grandmaster level game in which people may spend many moves quietly and discreetly shoring up tiny positional advantages, preparing an ambush that will be sprung twenty moves into the future. I’m not talking about long-term vision, but simply about assessing what is happening right now, in the pattern laid out on that tiny black-and-white grid. You can be staring at the chess board intently, but still not seeing that your bishop is under attack from his queen or that your king and queen are vulnerable to a knight fork. Noticing these things doesn’t require specialist knowledge (beyond the basic rules) or expertise. It doesn’t require genius. It simply calls for a long, calm, careful look.
In life, as in chess, I often feel that the solution is there, if only I could see it. If only I could distinguish, amid the sun-dappled stones, leaves and undergrowth, the trail of breadcrumbs that marks the path, the skein of thread, meandering through the dust of the floor, that indicates the way out of the labyrinth. Perhaps if I looked harder, if my attention weren’t so completely captured by familiar patterns, if my responses weren’t so heavily steered by my feelings, if my rational mahout had more control over the elephant of my emotions (as Jonathan Haidt might put it), I would notice the man in a gorilla suit among the basketball players, I would perceive the pitfalls and opportunities life offers, moment by moment. I would be less liable to be checkmated.
Chess is complex, of course, given the number of combinatorial possibilities, but visually, nothing is hidden, camouflaged or disguised. The fact that we miss the obvious so often in chess reveals that one of the most difficult skills to cultivate is, paradoxically, the ability to simply look and see what is there.
My book Our Tango World (two volumes) can be found here, here, here and in Kindle format here. My book on eighteenth-century essayists, Anxious Employment, is available here and can be ordered for libraries. A selection of my political writings can be found here.