How playing chess has helped me find my focus.
Over the past month or so, I have been working with a therapist for my anxiety and what we suspect is ADHD (getting tested soon). We do a lot of mindfulness practice, which is something I am not unfamiliar with. If you don’t know what it is, it’s where you do things intentionally, without judgement or emotion. As in, checking in with yourself, asking yourself if this is helping or not. In theory, we don’t get upset with ourselves if we do something, like a built in habit we’re trying to break. We just recognize it and refocus our attention on something more helpful.
When we first started talking about mindfulness, I was a little skeptical— mindfulness stuff again? I’ve heard this before! “I know about the breathing exercises,” I told her.
She responded with “there’s a lot of other types of mindfulness.”
I didn’t have a response for that, but I was intrigued.
In the past, I have used things like timers to check in with myself, and focusing on my breathing, things like that. Meditation is a big part of mindfulness, it’s not entirely my thing, nor is it the only part of mindfulness. I fidget a lot and can’t really focus my brain. But my therapist uses it in a different way, we discuss mindfulness a little more in depth. I have homework that varies from week to week around carving out quiet moments to regroup, building helpful routines around self awareness. Some examples include: afternoon tea break (so I don’t get tunnel vision with work and never leave my desk), building an exercise routine around walking/running consistently.
We talk a lot about being purposeful in our mindfulness — we can’t be mindful of every little thing we do, that’d be exhausting and pointless. But there’s times when it matters more than others.
I wasn’t playing chess those other times I was attempting mindfulness. I’ve written about chess in terms of design and UX a lot lately. Today I just want to talk about it mostly as a player.
I have been working with a chess coach for almost as long as I’ve had this therapist. I am still a beginner, and trying to wrap my mind around the layers of how to play this game. It’s like an onion — there’s the aspects of where the pieces move, the larger objective to win, making sure your developed pieces have a sound plan. That’s not even getting into the memorizing plays, thinking about tactics vs strategy, etc.
My coach and I talk a lot about asking ourselves the right questions when opponents make their move. I found it difficult to grasp the concept of “reading” the board — what’s happening, and where is my place in this process. In our initial games when we first started working together, I played by just reacting to his every move, there wasn’t much thought behind it. Nor was I doing much to advance or develop my pieces. I lost a lot of my major pieces by the end, it was bad.
Over the course of the month or so we’ve been working together, it’s been a lot of trial and error for me in terms of what works and what doesn’t. How do I put into practice what he’s teaching me, what I’m learning from our analysis of the games we play? What do I do when I play other games? How do I make sense of the game and help myself move forward as a player? I don’t want to be a beginner fumbling forever. I’d like to be good enough to play in a tournament one day. The drive, the motivation to win a game, it crept up on me. But it feels good. It makes me want to deep dive into chess as a player.
I decided to return to basics — I am a writer, I understand things by writing it down and rereading. So that’s what I started doing with my new games I played this week, I started a chess journal. Instead of playing on my phone while I’m in line at the market, or waiting for a meeting to start, I sit at my computer and log into the site. I record every move, I focus on the board, look for what I noticed about either my opponent, my possible next moves, thinking through ideas, I dump every little thought however dumb it is. Here’s one of my games as an example.
This is easy to do because I play correspondence games online with other folks in tech, we all have other stuff to do. But also because I am new to the game, playing slower is better for now.
However, I am also being mindful — of my opponent’s plays, my potential next move (or next several moves). The thing I didn’t expect by starting a chess journal is that by writing these thoughts down, I was able to see a thought process I would normally not be able to focus on. The board can be a lot, there’s numerous things happening at once, and as a beginner that can be overwhelming. Talking through the potential options also has value, if that is easier for you.
The interesting thing about the mindfulness around chess is that it is helping me find my confidence in the game by working on my analytical skills, problem solving capabilities. Chess IM John Bartholomew talks about setting mini-goals for yourself as a beginner. This is something I’ve sort of been utilizing but now that I understand a set up that works well for me, I’m taking the mini-goals to heart.
In this case, mindfulness and chess go hand in hand, but if you are still a bit of a beginner like me, don’t be afraid to give it a try. Winning a game might still be a bit out of my grasp, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t meet some smaller tactical goals. Like exchanging pieces and being up in material. Or being able to pick a 3 move plan and being able to execute that plan.
Have you tried something like this before? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!