Chess – How I learned to play to play
Chess is a win or lose game, psychological warfare. As the wonderful saying puts it, ‘There’s no such thing as a friendly game of chess’. You crush your opponent or your opponent crushes you. There is no ambiguity or wriggle room. There’s a loser or a winner. Occasionally a stalemate or a draw. But unlike in a cricket test match or a football league game, a draw is not felt to be satisfactory and chess competitions are played to conclusions with blitz games – where players move at such speed that a definitive result is more likely.
And so it has been for centuries, certainly up to when I learned the moves, beat my father and brother, then lost to all my more intelligent friends. As it happened I was blessed or cursed with a disproportionate number of brilliant friends. They all got scholarships to Oxford or Cambridge, where one is now master of his college. The exception was my girlfriend who did teacher training at Sussex University, and was much sweeter than the clever guys. She didn’t play chess.
As a competitive perfectionist, I gave up playing for many years, keeping a connection with the game only by reading the occasional newspaper column about a tournament or watching documentaries about Bobby Fischer or Gary Kasparov. When Kasparov lost to a computer, it seemed like something out of science fiction. Humanity felt duly diminished. Thank goodness that although cleverer than us in certain narrow fields (chess!), they were hopeless at other things that any child could do, such as balancing and walking. If they had made both Deep Blue and Kasparov walk around the room between moves, Gary would I’m sure have had the edge.
I returned only recently when in an idle moment I noticed that my phone offered a pre-loaded free chess app. I suspected (correctly) that I’d soon be longing for the days when phones were tethered to walls in buildings, or at least when their primary use remaining phoning people. Because of course I was quickly crushed by the New Master. Until I realised you could set the level at which it played. I put it to looking only one move ahead and registered several confidence boosting victories.
I found my level at the 2-3 moves ahead setting, and we have some good games. The best bit is that if I make a real blunder or the computer surprises me with a move to which I have no answer, I simply take back my move – and have another go. My winning ratio has improved dramatically.
Some might find this shocking or feel that I’m cheating. But there is no one suffering. The computer doesn’t care. I’m playing to play, and I’m learning more by experimenting and untangling complicated positions right at the edge of my ability, without any psychological ramifications such as losing painfully.
That seems to me to be a good example of productively shifting my mindset from ‘play to win’ to ‘play to play’ and ‘play to learn’. What do you think?
A nice test of whether there’s more to be learned from this method than from getting beaten time after time by a computer would be to set up a research experiment. One group under each of those conditions. I bet the play to players would learn more – and have a lot more fun while doing so.
Paul Z Jackson
The Improvisation Academy
+44 (0) 7973 953586
My latest book EASY: Your LIFEPASS to Creativity and Confidence is now available to download from Amazon.
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