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In the Game of Life, Play Chess, Not Checkers

What Chess Players Know About Life and the Books That'll Teach it to You

By William Shelton • December 08, 2020

"In the Game of Life, Play Chess, Not Checkers." At some point we have all heard this droll, and pithy, expression, with varying responses from eye roll to pensive contemplation. For those who are not familiar with the game of chess, the expression probably conjures mysterious stratagems used to psychologically best an opponent. For those who do play the game, they know that it is split second decision making based upon years of experience, more often losing than winning, to develop the linear thought necessary to see beyond this move, or the next.

Is chess ever just a relaxing game, enjoyed between two friends; an idle way to spend a few hours during conversation? For a game whose history spans 1,500 years, and was originally designed around military maneuvers, I don't think that relaxation was ever the objective. For that reason, and others, people who are unfamiliar with the game are often intimated, or bored, by the prospect of trying it. There are a myriad of books about chess games and chess strategy. Many famous champions of the game have written books outlining their approach to endgame victory: Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, My System by Aron Nimzowitsch, The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, Logical Chess: Move by Move by Irving Chernev, and José Raúl Capablanca's My Chess Career are all just a few that will have you a grandmaster in no time. However, I have found that the best introduction to the game is an enthusiastic, yet patient, opponent.

I came to chess as a boy, on a sunny screened porch, at the hands of a father who would never condescend to let any of his children best him at the game. We would never learn to think the way a proper chess player should if our opponent ever lowered their guard enough to let us win, even one game; ran his philosophy. So, my siblings and I suffered spasms of uncertainty under his hawk-like gaze while, in our own minds' eye, we began to see not only our next move, but his, and the paths that each chess piece could lead, down to the cornering of a queen, or toppling of a king. (Perhaps I could have picked up How to Beat Your Dad at Chess had it been around then.)

I've discovered that there is a renewed interest in chess, and that the game has again found another way to transcend a new century, thanks in part to online groups and platforms. I marveled at the ability of my very young nephews to soundly whip me at the game, time and time again. When I asked where they learned to play so well, it was with a nonchalant shrug they responded that they had been playing online for years. I grumbled that if their Grandfather Shelton were still living they would not have such an easy opponent, but they seemed unimpressed.

During recent limitations on public events, people have again turned to board games for at-home amusement. This includes chess—if a game as complex, and unnerving, as chess could ever be classified as a simple board game. Most recently, inspiration may have come from the new Netflix drama The Queen's Gambit, based upon the book of the same name by Walter Tevis. This novel explores the life of a young chess expert, and how her prowess in the game may be her only way out of her current circumstances.

Beyond the bestselling, Netflix-worthy chess books, in a subtle way chess has always been a part of our entertainment. There are elements of the game in books such as The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Prince by Machiavelli, the twisted plot maneuverings of each which form the foundation of many modern movies and television programs.

Who among us hasn't thrilled at the unexpected, and often cold blooded, action of our favorite hero or villain? Thank you, chess. We know more about the game than we recognize, and we often "play" the game more often that we realize. So, the next time rain keeps us indoors, or even on days when the sun floods your screened porch, pick up a book on chess, and find that you are more of a master of the game than you thought.

Read more by William Shelton

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