Musashi courtesy of andy.clark through CC BY 2.0 via Filckr   From One Thing, Know Ten Thousand…

Chess, when it was first invented in India and Persia, was thought of as a war-training game, and the functions of the pieces mirrored the functions of the various soldiers and palace officials who served under the king (aka “shah”). However, its abstract nature meant that even then, it was only a metaphor for war, not a direct training aid as such.

Still, the general who mastered the game was probably made more skillful at war as a result. The concept of strategizing and reacting to the moves of one’s opponent is employed both on the chessboard and the battlefield.

The modern chessplayer doesn’t think of the game in the same terms as those long-ago players did. For him, the game is usually just an amusement, albeit a very complex and challenging one. The question I’d like to explore is: what chess skills might translate to the modern world and its challenges? If we learn how to mate with king, knight, and bishop, does that concretely help us with anything in our lives?

We have a limited amount of time in our lives and therefore must endeavor not to waste it. Many people get caught up in not only chess, but other games such as chess, poker, computer games, golf, tennis, etc. etc. Many “fanatics” seem to have made this choice to the exclusion of all other activities. Certainly, there have been obsessive chess masters (and ordinary chessplayers) who have married themselves to the game, to the point where they seem a bit unbalanced.

So does the time we spend at the chessboard have any intrinsic value other than amusement?

We could look at some of the other games people play. Golfers and tennis players, for instance, do get exercise and fresh air. People who do crossword puzzles increase their vocabularies and analytical skills. Similarly, in playing chess, we are “exercising” our brains.

Myriad studies have shown that our cognitive abilities increase as we exercise our minds. It appears that the brain, just as our muscles, becomes stronger the more we use it. Neurons grow more connections with other neurons, increasing the speed and efficiency of our mental computer, our mind.

The key here is that since chess is highly abstract, the exact tactics we learn, like how to execute a knight fork, aren’t going to be useful in many other specific endeavor.  Still, chess is very very similar to a high level negotiation, and advancing ideas (pawns) or using your marketing skills (bishop) to tie down your opponent’s accounting points (rook) can be just as crucial if you can make a metaphoric leap.

Exercise—physical or mental—is an intrinsic good, and can boost our general abilities to deal with daily life in addition to being rewarding in their own right.  As Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s most famous swordsman said, “From one thing, know ten thousand things…” — meaning that a depth in knowledge in one skills adds insight to your whole life.

 
image: “Musashi” courtesy of andy.clark through CC BY 2.0 via Filckr

 

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