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How learning to play chess improved my social life and mental health

by Rebecca Solomon 

February 28, 2024

In April, at the age of 26, I learned how to play chess. I’d never played before, but I always thought it looked fun. I thought I’d never be able to understand the game in its full complexity, but I was wrong.  

One day, I noticed people playing in the park, and I mustered up the courage to ask how to play. It took a few lessons with skilled strangers, but I eventually learned how all the pieces move. I realized I didn’t need to know every facet of theory or strategy. I just needed to play. 

 

In endeavoring to learn chess, I learned much more than how to play a board game. Here are some ways chess has helped open up my worldview and change my life. 

Seeing opportunity in failure 

Every time I play a game of chess, I try to take away at least one thing I can do differently in future games. I ask myself, about chess and life, what can I change next time to get a more desirable outcome (i.e., not lose my queen)? There’s usually at least one foolish, face-palm-worthy move I make per game because I’m rushing or simply not zooming out and looking at the whole board, which puts me in a defensive position for the rest of the match. Chess has humbled me incredibly, so if you tend to fly too close to the sun, give chess a try. 

Things exist in relation to other things 

Chess helped me realize that all the disparate elements in my life determine whether I succeed or fail. Things rarely exist in their own orbit. Any chess piece has to relate to every other piece on the board. The moves I make on the board set up each corresponding move, and the pieces on the board all work in unison to achieve the goal of beating your opponent.  

Now, real life isn’t always about “winning.” Most of the time, we’re just trying to get by and put a good position for what’s to come. When I’m playing, I try to ask myself, “What is the best move I can make to maintain my offensive position?” But sometimes, similar to real life, you have to choose the lesser of two wrong moves because you’ve found yourself in a tough spot. 

Over the past few months, I've started moving about the world differently. I think ahead more. Even walking down the street or organizing things around the house, I’ve noticed my regard for space has improved. I feel I’m part of something rather than just a spectator. I’ve become more intentional about setting myself up for success. For instance, I’ll build myself a time cushion if I have an appointment or prep meals days early if I know I’ll be busy later in the week. Chess has made it easier for me to think two and three steps ahead to benefit myself down the road. 

I found like-minded individuals — who are all very different 

Chess is the same in every language. People of all ages play chess. People from all walks of life play chess. It doesn’t matter where someone grew up or what kinds of degrees they have. I've met a remarkable cast of characters through playing games with random strangers at public parks in New York City. 

Chess is the great equalizer and a beautiful way to get to know people you wouldn’t otherwise have encountered. Because of this game, I’ve ended up speaking with people I would never have met. I’ve played with complete strangers at the park and with friends, old and new. When I see someone with a chess set (usually at public parks), I know I have something in common with them, and it makes me feel less alone when I feel emotionally lost.  

I started attending a free chess club in my neighborhood shortly after learning to play. I have established friendships and acquaintanceships with club regulars who give light and dimension to my life. I’ve tried to get involved in group-oriented activities; it helps me feel community, and it’s nice to talk to people.  

The game is never really over

People love comparing life to chess, and there’s some merit to that: everything we do, every move we make, matters. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I can learn anything. There used to be so much that held me back, but through learning this game, I’ve become much more receptive to trusting the process and bringing my zeal to learn to new topics from which I would’ve previously shied away. I still have not waded into the deep waters of chess theory, but it’s on my list. For now, I’m just in it for the love of the game — and I’m happy to be here. 

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