There’s been a debate in Norway for years about whether or not chess is a sport. We would probably never have had this debate if Magnus Carlsen had not appeared. The Norwegian player, who is still not more than 27 years old, has been a grandmaster since 2004, world champion since 2013, and FIDE has ranked him as the world number one since July 2011.
A lot of people that hardly knew what chess was has become interested in the ….. Yes, what is chess exactly? That’s what people can’t agree on. Personally, I think the whole debate is silly, and I don’t understand why anyone would want to be associated with something that sick. I must admit I have some prejudices regarding sports, and a lot of it stems from my rather ambivalent (and possibly ambiguous) relationship with football. I loved this particular sport as a child, and I still found a lot of joy in it during my teens and young adult years, but I see it mostly as a parasite today. It steals a lot of resources, and makes the body weaker. That’s what happened in my hometown where the politicians supported the local team with millions of NOK while the budgets for schools and retirement homes were drastically reduced.
I still think, even when I leave my town out of it, that football is too much a drain on the resources. That explains why my position is somewhere in the middle today, and why I can never fully support it without feeling a little bad. My point in this post is that I like chess, and whether we compare it to physically demanding activities or not, it is undoubtedly fascinating to watch. I like the World Championship streaming from the newspaper VG. They have a panel consisting of Hans Olav Lahlum (a historian, crime author, politician, and known chess player), Simen Agdestein (chess coach, grand master, and author), and Jon Ludvig Hammer (chess grand master, currently ranked 89 in the world).
So why do I write about chess on a blog that deals with neurodevelopmental disorders? I have always seen chess as therapeutic, something that could be beneficial to people with these challenges. There are many reasons for that, such as what this does to the brain. I have said it before, and do it gladly again. The brain is conservative. It likes doing what is has done before, in the exact same way. It can be persuaded, however. When you force the brain to do something new, it wants to solve this new challenge, and it does so by creating new synapses in the brain. I have written about ballet before, which has a good effect on the brain for the same reason, but chess works too.
This quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a useful reminder:
Always do what you are afraid to do.
That’ll develop you. I already knew some of the benefits, but this became clearer to me when I was watching the FIDE World Chess Championship on VG TV last Friday. The panel briefly referred to players that had talked to their chess pieces. One of the members of the panel mentioned a player that had been most upset with his Knight (hourse) once because this had lost him his game. It was said humorously, but Agdestein added that talking to your chess pieces could be beneficial. It occurred to me that this would be a lot like cognitive therapy.
In cognitive therapy you talk to yourself, you use your inner voice as a conversationalist. The idea is to give yourself alternatives, to oppose automatic, negative thoughts that frequently bring you down. Imagine that you see someone on the street, someone you know. This person doesn’t return your smile or greeting, which is a situation our inner voice may very well interpret in the worst possible way. “Did I do something wrong, something to offend this person? Doesn’t he/she like me? Why not? Is there something wrong with me? Am I stupid, boring …… ?” The possibilities for totally wrong information are endless, and as these thoughts tend to visit us often, we could conclude that there must be some truth to them.
Cognitive therapy is about thinking. Is your inner voice being realistic? It isn’t most of the time, and after your own voice has presented a more reasonable solution, your inner voice will see it too. When these chess experts were talking about this, it made me think about chess as therapy. It’s about allowing the thoughts to engage in a process. Players have to be able to explain to themselves, to reason logically why they want to make a certain move. You can do so by talking to the pieces (not out loud of course). This can also be used to block thoughts that would only be in the way. There’s a limit to how many moves ahead you can think, but players that can plan up to 20 moves would have an advantage. This reminds me of cognitive therapy. What would happen if I do this and that?
Magnus Carlsen is known for being able to see solutions others can’t. He’s capable of winning a game that even the most advanced computers say is a draw. He thinks ahead, and sometimes finds solutions, which I suspect is why he occasionally goes on playing when winning appears impossible. That strategy has worked on a few occasions, such as during the Carlsen-Anand championship, where the computers concluded with a draw in two of Carlsen’s wins. He clearly found a path to victory, but most of the time even Carlsen has to accept that he can’ get a strong enough advantage against his opponent. Chess tells us that we need to focus on the situation at hand, but also consider possible scenarios for the future.The game develops creative and critical thinking, and many find it recreational. It recharges our batteries. In short, there are many reasons to choose this form of low-tech activity.
I also like chess because it’s so easy to start a game. I can play anywhere, whether I have access to electricity or not. I prefer silence when I play, but I like more social board games as well. I highly recommend games like Arkham Horror, Elder Sign, Battlestar Gallactica, Firefly, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, King Domino, and the many variations of Munchkin.
Incidentally, there is something called chess therapy. There is an interesting article on Wikipedia worth reading.