Playing chess is one of the most worthwhile hobbies you can take up. It nourishes the inner-life and fosters both competitiveness and resilience in a way often absent in young people now.

Chess enjoys an increasingly positive and mainstream public perception in 2018. The ability to play chess on various devices and the increased publicity of professional games mean more are taking up the game. Great YouTubers such as Kingcrusher and Agadmator (Croatian! and perhaps the best to watch…) promote chess and chess history wonderfully well. Chess’s grand history of interesting characters reflects the wider intellectual and cultural battles that have been taking place from the mid-1800s to the present day. Generally speaking, there are those who play defensively and accurately and those who commit to wildly ambitious moves. Such romantic play might be unsound, but it unsettles the greatest opponents and lead to surprising wins.

Some of the greatest battles in chess reflect this battle, with Tal, Kasparov and Hikaru on one side and Karpov, Alekhine and Carlson on the other. In all of these players we see a reflection of wider cultural capital: read anything about Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky to understand better the tensions in America and Soviet Russia for the players and public alike. The way they play chess, either with or against their general culture, says much about the human spirit.

And that is something I really enjoy about chess: that it both reflects and nourishes the intellectual and inner-life of all those who play it. Rather sadly in 2018, computers can beat all the best players (and even in Go, too). Improved AI means that chess machines can learn from their mistakes and play extraordinarily ingenious moves that previously only humans could make. Humanity’s previous ascendency had, pleasingly, demonstrated that much thinking is subconscious and necessarily so. Carlson (the world’s current best player) states that he only thinks of, perhaps, three moves in a (blitz?) game and thinks through all permutations three or so moves deep. When Kasparov took on Deep Blue, IBM’s supercomputer in the 1990s, it was stated that he would think of seven moves a second, whereas Deep Blue could think of a few million moves a second (and would think for up the 30 minutes!). Many of those moves would, of course, be entirely terrible. Now, though, computer engines are able to judge the best moves and evaluate positions.

Despite this apparent championing of AI, chess against others is the height of the game. Since both players are always in full knowledge of what their opponent could do, the best chess is about trying to control your opponent – of knowing when to react and when to enact.

This tension highlights the most important facet of chess to classroom teachers for me: that it is genuinely situated learning. As you can read elsewhere on my site, transferable skills are held in high-esteem and rightly so. However, transferable skills are the result of situated knowledge applied accurately: you cannot learn chess in a gist fashion just as you cannot learn literature in a gist fashion. Well, you can – that is just a terribly flawed way of doing so. You cannot simply read chess books about general principles and improve past a beginner stage. Each position is its own position.  This means each game requires its own particular analysis, just like each literature text requires its own particular analysis. Whilst principles can be analysed, only extensive situated knowledge can mean a real understanding of which principles might begin to apply, and when. You can read about the importance of teaching the timing of metacognitive strategies here. 

This development of knowledge is key in getting better, both in chess and in other things. The mantra of getting better seems, sadly in my experience, often quite glib. It is about merely working harder (often for other people!), and feeling better about things. Yet improvement in chess is tangible. The two branches of getting better are through either tactics (short-term gains and tricks) or strategy (long-term gains and positioning). Tactics involve discipline and soundness, checking and solidifying a position. Such discipline is never really as fun as the wild moves and more intuitive gist understanding involved in strategy. However, like with all learning, it will lead to better chess for almost all players below excellent club players. Strategy in chess is appreciating your opponent’s psychology and trying to disrupt it and not just continuing with your plan without thought. I have very many games on my profile that demonstrate either my lack of strategy or my equally mediocre opponents conforming to my plans too. Understanding such interaction with an opponent is the quantum leap in chess.

Of course this interaction teaches you knowledge of how to lose and how to win. As a classroom teacher, it is one of the few things I get to feel competitive about, especially in a people-job. To be competitive is perhaps seen as a masculine trait, yet I see a remarkable number of women and girls engaging in open competition with each other, often fiercely. Such competitiveness within the bounds of a game and against another person teaches resilience – you win and you lose, and not always without some petty trolling on both sides (yet hopefully with good sportsmanship for both!). Both experiences are invigorating, and both affect a public rating.

My own rating is decidedly mediocre, often hovering around 1100, and fluctuating to 1300 (once!) and dipping to 900 (also once…). To give you an idea of what this means, a school-player is perhaps 800-900. A club player is 1300-1500. Every increase in 100 points means someone is twice as good as before or at least will win twice as many games against those players. I can dip into the top 30% of players (yes, taking into account bot accounts…), but usually I’m just above average. The match-making of the means everyone seems to win more games than they lose, though, so I do not feel as disheartened as I would be with other competitive online games.

As I write this article it is World Cup 2018 in Russia. Despite the moneyed corruption of football’s soul, I love the idea of fans worldwide watching their with pride and pain in equal measure. It is this thought of another person, another mind like yours, that makes chess so potent. The game itself is a vessel. As with all gaming, without regular playing against others, and ideally in real life, the best dimensions of the game are lost. And gaming against different cultures fosters cultural appreciation.

So I say chess as a game offers one of the most universal and cross-cultural experiences any student can enjoy. Much of what a humanities student learns is only really communicable within specific cultural contexts (a Chinese aristocrat could not communicate sociological understanding with absolute accuracy to a French peasant, according to Bourdieu). Therefore, this shared gaming experience is especially powerful in humanities students, and for anyone interested in the the inner-world. Try it now…