Home Opinion COLUMN: Gospel lessons from the chess board

COLUMN: Gospel lessons from the chess board

Wind brushes past transparent glass pieces on an eight by eight grid as I make my first move. The air sends chills down my neck, but it’s warmer than where I’ve been for the last two years. Arizona doesn’t really have winter anyways. I look across the board as my childhood best friend, Wyatt Adams, moves a black pawn in response. I move again.

Playing on a cheap set from Walmart, we picked up the game in the first month home from my mission in Scotland and Ireland. Learning was hard at first. There were a lot of principles to understand. It’s been over a year since I started playing, and I can firmly say I am still terrible at the game, but each match brings new lessons that teach me how to be better.

As I entered into my study of chess, I discovered The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, which is a book that dives into chess performance psychology. Waitzkin was a chess prodigy as a kid and the subject of the film “Chasing Bobby Fisher.” As I read, I had an epiphany: The principles I learn in the game can apply to areas of study outside of chess.

Since that moment, I’ve had the chance to apply some of my newly-found knowledge outside of the game. Some principles have helped me academically, some physically, but the most important ones have built up my testimony of Jesus Christ and His gospel. Here are three things that have helped me learn more about the gospel through chess.

Two players compete outside in a match.
Two players compete outside in a match. Photo credit: Travis Skelton

Lesson one: Strategies and principles beat tricks and traps

When I started playing chess, I lost a lot of games. I made an account to play online, and players who were similar in skill beat me over and over again with an opening called “The Fool’s Mate.” For those who watched “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, you may know the moves. It’s a four move sequence that can win the game if the other player is unaware. This opening devastates new players, but there is a catch: If it’s recognized, it can be stopped easily and the other player has good chances of winning.

“[Chess players] learn opening variation off by heart, and especially look out for traps to outwit the opponent in a few moves from the start,” wrote Ludek Pachman, the author of Chess endings for the practical player. “Such methods will never help anyone to become an appreciably strong player.”

In chess and in the gospel, quick tricks and traps will eventually lose to strategy and principles. The struggle between Captain Moroni and Amalickiah in the Book of Mormon showcases this point. Amalickiah rose to power through tricks and murder but was defeated by Captain Moroni, a man of a firm commitment to the gospel and his standards. While whit and cunning seem to win now, correct principles endure forever.

Lesson two: Watch for the second mistake

After a few months of playing, my determination to not be awful increased, and I started to analyze my games. On chess.com, 10 performance statistics are measured to show the player what he or she can improve on. Three became important to me: accuracy, best moves and blunders. The first two show how often the best move available was played. The last shows mistakes that are bad enough to cost the player the game.

While blunders sometimes lose the game on the spot, it’s more common that many little mistakes combine to produce defeats. In his book, Waitzkin warns against something he calls “the downward spiral.”

“The first mistake rarely proves disastrous,” according to Waitzkin, “but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction.”

There are many ways to combat the downward spiral, said Waitzkin, but the principle is the same for all of them. The player must avoid the frustration of mistakes, and then reconnect with reality. Working to avoid the second mistake and put the first in the past, the player is enabled to continue the game with confidence. This same pattern applies when we make mistakes outside of chess.

“One doesn’t get clean and whole by brooding unduly over the past,” according to Lowell L. Bennion, an author for the Ensign, ”although we can certainly learn from our mistakes.”

Learning from blunders is critical, but I believe it’s important to move on from them and continue in games and the gospel. If not, we risk being caught in the downward spiral. In the gospel, this means recognizing that mistakes don’t define people, and it’s never too late to turn around on a bad path. Avoiding the downward spiral is seeking forgiveness from errors, both from others and oneself.

Chess lessons combine with gospel lessons to create new wisdom.
Chess lessons combine with gospel lessons to create new wisdom. Photo credit: Travis Skelton

Lesson three: Applications to reality

Ten months ago, I realized lessons learned from the board applied to life outside of chess. Since then, more epiphanies occurred, teaching me that principles can be gathered from any interaction we have with the world around us. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that knowledge is endless.

The chess student can spend thousands of hours researching, practicing and playing and still learn new things. The gospel shares this ever-deepening characteristic.

“The Savior said, ‘I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10),” according to President James E. Faust. “The abundant life involves an endless search for knowledge, light, and truth.”

In almost every interaction we have, chances emerge to learn something new, and lessons produce wisdom. I’m still terrible at chess, but I grow each time I approach the board. Likewise, religion is all relatively new to me. There’s only so much someone can learn in their first 21 years about how eternities work, but through study, I progress.

Taking lessons from chess and applying them outward has proven to be a vital asset in my study of God. Similarly, I can take spiritual and mental principles like patience and diligence and apply them to chess. The chances to expand knowledge come each time we wake. We just have to be willing to look for them.


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