It’s Your Move: What’s It Going to Be?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I recently entered into a casual conversation with friends; they were talking about chess. One gave me a sideways glance, “You play?” It was stated as a question, but an underlying astonishment was imbedded. I nodded affirmatively.

“Any good?” came the follow-up query.

Good is relative. Tournament good, I am not; casual-player good, I am. When I play I am generally pleased with the results, yet I chose to not respond directly.  “I haven’t played for a while,” I evaded.  That seemed to satisfy his curiosity.

My cousins had taught me how to play when I was young. My parents were a bit dubious that I could grasp the complexities of the game. Seeking to protect me from possible frustration and disappointment, they urged caution and tried to lower my expectations. Bravely, I forged ahead. The older of the cousins patiently taught me the names of the pieces and how they moved. He would gently quiz me to gauge my comprehension of his tutelage. Soon we were playing a real game. Despite my novice errors and memory lapses, it was grand fun. We played until he grew weary, so I moved on to his siblings. They had less tolerance for my sloppy play and geeky exuberance; by mid-afternoon, the board was put away, and we were on to other things.

The next morning, I challenged my instructor-cousin to a game. Before the day was done, I had won my first game. He rallied, winning the next two, but I sensed I was beginning to challenge him, and he feigned boredom with the game. I then plied his younger brother. Discerning that I had now advanced enough to not be too demeaning, he condescended to pick up where his brother left off. By the time their visit concluded, I was hooked, opening the door to the adventure of chess and some valuable lessons:

Practice Makes Perfect: Although my desire to play was strong, the opportunities to do so were limited. Not to be deterred, I would play against myself. Sometimes I would play the white pieces (which moves first and takes the offensive); other times I would take the black side (which responds and defends). Sometimes, I would switch sides midway through the game, giving up an advantage of superior position to assume a lesser one. When the time came for a real game, I was ready; the time spent practicing paid huge dividends.

Read All About It: Although enjoyable, playing against myself began having diminishing returns, so I turned to books. I studied the classic opening moves, which actually have names and are categorized, with variations of play and recommended defenses. In a serious game, I open with my king’s pawn; conversely, I have trouble defending a queen’s pawn open. I also learned techniques, like the pin, the knight fork (a personal favorite), discovered check (a great way to confound one’s opponent), and gambits, as well as end game tactics.

Next, I zeroed in on the book, “How to Beat Bobby Fischer.” The premise was that in tournament play it was statistically more probable to beat Fischer than to force a draw – of course, he was nine times more likely to win than to lose. I actually read, studied, and reenacted many of the 61 games he lost. To improve, I needed to study the master.

Don’t Quit: The unspoken credo among my chess-playing buddies was to never concede a game. No matter how dire the situation, we would play to the end without quitting. Resigning a chess game was for those of lesser character.

Having this perspective taught me how to be a good winner and to be kind and gracious to the personage of my opponent, all the while dismantling his army and forcing his king into an acrimonious checkmate. I wanted to win decisively, but I did not desire to belittle my opponent or assault his self-esteem- after all, I would want to play him again!

Playing to the end also taught me how to be valiant, remaining strong and dignified in defeat. That is much harder – especially when the vanquishing conqueror is relishing his impending victory a bit too much. Yet these are the moments when character is strengthened and perfected.

Make it Fun: Sometimes, we would play “rapid chess” where we had to move within five seconds. We had no timer, so it was self-policing. It made us think astutely and react quickly. I had a knack for it, being able to hurriedly assess a situation and make a snap decision that was founded on a hastened logic, often couched with intuition or consisting of gut reaction. Games only lasted a few minutes and were so intense that it only took a couple to induce a headache.

I sometimes employed this “rapid chess” mindset in a regular game. Although my hurried moves were not always ideal, the unending swiftness of my responses would unnerve my opponent, causing him to get flustered and make blunders. From his perspective, it was always his turn, causing him to intently concentrate. I, on the other hand, was able to relax and have fun. I realized that it is often better to make a quick decision based on initial reactions and facts than to wait and make the ideal determination that might not seize the moment.

Try Again: Losing isn’t fun, but it does happen. I learned to accept these disappointments as inevitable and to grow through them, thereby becoming a better person. It is a truism that one can grow more in defeat than in victory.

It is also important to not wallow in self-pity and incriminations when these setbacks occur, but to shake off the disappointment and forge into the future. So, regardless of how close I came to winning or how big the loss, my first response was invariably, “Wanna play again?”

Change the Rules if You Need: My track buddy, Spenser, didn’t play chess. I tried to teach him, but his attention span was too short. Spenser grew tired of being left out of the action, so he one day suggested a different game. He blurted out, “Let’s play checkers – all-kings-jump-your-own-man.” I’m not sure if he made that up or not, but I was game. We used my chess set, arranging the pieces like checkers. Since every piece was automatically a king, they could move both forward and backwards. Also, you could jump your own piece (though you left it on the board) to catapult yourself into enemy territory to jump your opponent’s pieces. It was a wild game and Spenser played it with great abandon and immense joy. He changed the rules to make a game we could enjoy together, and I was happy to oblige.

To imply that life is like a game of chess is a shallow metaphor. However, just as a good game of chess requires an articulate strategy and reasoned approach, so does operating a call center with excellence or living life that is meaningful.

It’s your move; what’s it going to be?

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From the December 2007/January 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]