Does learning chess (as an adult) help you become better at life?
October 29, 2013 5:53 AM   Subscribe

Ok, so someone told me that chess is a lot like life in many ways and that becoming better at the game will also therefore make you better at seeing opportunities in life. Is this true? I'm no spring Chicken and I just learned how to play this game. I'm not ashamed to say it- This game literally hurts my brain. It is really hard and I feel so stupid when I play this. I suppose that makes sense since my life sucks from bad decisions I've made... assuming there's any truth to what this guy told me.
posted by manderin to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For people for whom chess resonates, this will be true but it's no more universally true than "Life is like a box of chocolates." People easily find analogies for "life" in the things they're interested in and relate to. Life is like baking. Life is like baseball. Life is like writing a novel. Life is like th Princess Bride. Life is like a camera. Etc.

Your ability to succeed at having a life is no more related to your ability to play chess than it is your ability to bake, enjoy baseball, write a novel, riff on TPB or take photos. Also, life is distinctly unlike chess in that there is no winning.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:58 AM on October 29, 2013 [18 favorites]

Learning chess does teach you critical thinking, understanding complex rules and anticipating future situations based on current conditions. All good skills for being better at "life" in general.
posted by humboldt32 at 6:03 AM on October 29, 2013

It might not be that chess is the answer for you. But it's a 'universal' thinking ahead type of game, but so is Scrabble (letters) and there's a number version of it out there, Yushino. It might be another type of strategy game, like Monopoly, or Settlers of Catan, or Ticket To Ride.

Part of it is learning the game, working in the rules and thinking ahead of the moves, but about learning how to look ahead at the moves. I play several of the games above with my friends and family, and I play with a handicap because I play so often or am so good at it. But I also, when they want to learn, teach them what moves I make, what moves I'd make if I were them, and how to think ahead and picture the board ahead. None of them are dumb by any stretch, mostly just new to the game, and they're getting better. Several of them beat my pants off at chess, but I keep trying. :P One guy I play Yushino has gotten significantly better and we win evenly now instead of my always trouncing him since I gave him some of the tips I developed.

If you're feeling as though you're making bad choices, start simply. What are the choices that were bad, are you going to face this choice again, and what will you do about it? What were the consequences of these choices, and what can you do to fix it (pay it off, file bankruptcy, step up savings, sell the crap car/house, DTMFA, etc).

Most personal finance sites talk about totalling up your debts, your minimum payments, laying out a budget and then tying it to your income and figure out where to cut (cable, gym, internet, car) and where to add (debt repayment, debt consolidation, second and third jobs, selling off your crap) and a number walk you though saying on the black side of the ledger. I don't see why you can't do the same with emotional or other life sections - getting a better job, moving in with a roommate and taking two crap jobs, finding new hobbies to get a new crowd of friends, et cetera.
posted by tilde at 6:08 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Learning chess does teach you critical thinking, understanding complex rules and anticipating future situations based on current conditions. All good skills for being better at "life" in general.

But under highly controlled conditions where there's a finite number of possible outcomes!

I think what we're all getting at here is that chess can function as a useful but limited metaphor for life, but that it's not the only useful but limited metaphor. Many things can teach you to deal with complex rules and anticipate future conditions - team sports, playing cards, community activism, learning a new cuisine, etc.

It occurs to me, too, that the metaphor you choose for "learning about life" is important. Chess conjures up winning/losing, extremely predictable responses to given situations, calculation, the removal of emotion in order to succeed, ignoring pre-existing conditions (hierarchy, gender, etc - you're supposed to put those aside even though people can't do this completely), a certain Machiavellianism, a certain European/Western focus, (I mean, why not go?), privileging the brain over the body. Maybe that seems like overthinking, but consider this - what if I said that learning to make really good cakes was the best metaphor for life? I could say well, no one wins in baking, anyone can get pretty good, it's your individual flair as a baker which distinguishes your cakes, you can incorporate your social or cultural traditions, but you have to master physical rules about chemistry, be really precise, learn to fix or hide unexpected mistakes... and that's why cake-baking makes you good at life!

I mean, chess is cool and all - maybe you could try playing it regularly for a couple of months and see if you start to improve. But if you don't really like chess, lord knows you don't need to be some kind of chess genius to be good at life.
posted by Frowner at 6:15 AM on October 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

What? No. Chess ain't gonna solve your life problems. Maybe this guy isn't the best teacher since you get filled up with existential suffering after a match with him.

There are some fantastic videos on YouTube about opening strategies, and helpful guidelines for beginners. Look them up. Also, there are lots of games with commentary that is again, also helpful. Chess is mostly about study and exposure, but what you need right now is some tactics. You'll know you're getting better when you can start talking about how somebody is kicking your ass instead of just remarking "my ass is getting kicked." The basics are a pre-req for understanding improvements and combat alteration.

Get Tactics. Then you can get Strategy. This will help you see opportunities in chess.

If you go about this method of "learn how to do things effectively", that's probably the most transferable skill you're gonna get out of this.

Chess is about winning and losing.
Personal finance and compatible relationships are not necessarily. See a therapist for the troublesome things that aren't chess related in your life.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:19 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

One of the most notable aspects of a good chess player is that it is very often tied to good memory. I'm not entirely sure which is the cause and which the effect, but I suspect the good memory is the effect of learning to play chess well. So, if you practice long and hard enough at chess, I think it's highly likely that one of the benefits you will see is improved memory.

As noted by Frowner though, life is more complicated than any metaphor.
posted by fearnothing at 6:19 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of things that require mental or physical effort can ultimately help out in other areas of life, whether it's from improved confidence or from gaining a new way of seeing things. Some people see life as a series of strategic decisions in which the goal is to defeat your opponent. Others see life as a long run through the park, or a hand-sewn quilt, or the quest for the perfect steak. Chess doesn't have to be your game or your metaphor if you don't care for it.

Personally, I prefer activities which allow for mistakes and mediocre starts, but still leave you like you're feeling accomplished about something. If you're frustrated with the way your life has gone, you might really benefit from a noncompetitive activity that's a little bit outside your comfort zone, but that you still enjoy. Yoga? Woodworking? Getting better at something you like can spill over to other parts of your life. It's helped me.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:26 AM on October 29, 2013

A lot of high level chess is pre-worked out scenarios- standard openings, defenses, gambits, that sort of thing. But I do agree that they probably meant in the planning, looking ahead to both your moves and your opponents, having goals and working towards said goals despite opposition and flaws in your plans and setbacks.
posted by Jacen at 6:34 AM on October 29, 2013

manderin (OP): "This game literally hurts my brain. It is really hard and I feel so stupid when I play this. I suppose that makes sense since my life sucks from bad decisions I've made..."

Yikes! It hurt my brain when I first started too, but I don't think my life sucks. I say this as a recent chess addict, as someone whose company's founders (you might consider them stereotypically "successful") are serious chess players:

If you play chess for 10,000 hours, you'll probably gain useful life skills along the way. But that can be said about pretty much anything. Do something that you enjoy, so you actually make it to the 10,000 hour mark.
posted by yaymukund at 6:37 AM on October 29, 2013

This game literally hurts my brain.

If you do not enjoy playing the game, there is no compelling reason for you to play it. A computer has defeated a reigning world champion. Should we believe then that Deep Blue could make great life decisions?

Chess does not "make you smart" (just about nothing can) or make you much of a better thinker. Great examples of this are disadvantaged children who have learned to play chess very well, yet they don't have any measure of increased academic success. Chess grandmasters have actually been studied quite a bit by cognitive psychologists. One interesting fact from such research is that novice players think more moves ahead than advanced players - an advanced player will only think three to five moves ahead. And, as has already been noted, there are the standard openings and defenses to same.

So, I think what you were told was not accurate. Play chess if you enjoy it. Don't play chess if you don't enjoy it.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:39 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Not really, no. This is based on knowing a lot of tournament chess players. It could help you be more disciplined and objective in your thinking, since, to play chess well, you have to see if your ideas withstand attack. But it never seems to lead to anything except more chess.
posted by thelonius at 6:45 AM on October 29, 2013

In Garry Kasparov's book "How Life Imitates Chess" he says:

"We know computers calculate better than we do, so where does our success come from? The answer is synthesis, the ability to combine creativity and calculation, art and science, into a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. Chess is a unique cognitive nexus, a place where art and science come together in the human mind and are then refined and improved by experience. This is the way we improve at anything in our lives that involves thinking, which is to say, everything."

Play chess if you enjoy it. Don't play chess if you don't enjoy it.

Things which people enjoy they do as a diversion, as something to avoid thinking. Tasks which involve intense cognitive effort are not always enjoyable, but can nonetheless be beneficial.

As for bad decisions.... well everyone has made them. I usually comfort myself by reminding myself that given the same choice at the same time with the same experience I had when I made those choices, I would most likely make the same bad mistake all over again. There is absolutely no sense in allowing your experienced self to beat up the inexperienced you from the past. Once you take your hand off the piece, you have to let it go and think only of your next move.
posted by three blind mice at 6:48 AM on October 29, 2013

I don't think chess is anything at all like life. Chess is a 100% deterministic game involving zero random chance played against one opponent. Whereas random chance plays a huge role in life and there are several billion other players going at it.
posted by pravit at 6:48 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Chess can teach you skills which, under certain circumstances, may be applicable to other areas of life. It doesn't happen automatically. First you have to learn the skills of the game. Then you have to figure out where the insights you've learned from the game are relevant to the rest of your life. Then you have to actually practice applying those insights in a non-game setting.

This is true of any field which can be studied in depth. There are lessons for life to be found in the martial arts, in computer programming, in politics, in cooking - you name it. Despite that, there are plenty of individuals who are masters of one of these particular domains who suck at managing the rest of their lives. Either they haven't done the work to practice applying the lessons they've learned more generally or else they've applied the wrong lessons. (In the case of chess, treating life as a zero-sum game would be one example of the wrong lesson.)

If you find the study of chess to be rewarding, then it may be fun and helpful to think about how to generalize the principles you've learned in playing the game. If not, don't worry about it - it's certainly not the most efficient or reliable way to improve your life.
posted by tdismukes at 7:21 AM on October 29, 2013

It won't help any more than any scenario where you have to plan for the future and allocate your resources in a way that puts you in the best position to be ahead.
posted by theichibun at 7:22 AM on October 29, 2013

I'm a tournament chess player. I like having a pastime that demands that I concentrate for extended periods of time and in which accuracy is rewarded and sloppiness punished. I feel that I gain value from it. But if you're not into it, don't force yourself.
One interesting fact from such research is that novice players think more moves ahead than advanced players - an advanced player will only think three to five moves ahead.
This is not really true. For one thing, novices are not even really capable of regularly thinking three moves ahead. Grandmasters (players at the 99.9th percentile, say) indeed calculate less in typical positions than, say, players at the 95th percentile, because they're so familiar with the standard patterns and have developed a lot of intuition about them. But they also calculate really far out when they need to; just check any GM annotations in New in Chess or something. These studies are usually comparing GMs to "mere" experts (about 90th percentile of serious chess players), not to novices. I'd guess that amount of brainpower typically spent on calculation goes up as you progress from novice to master and only then starts decreasing.
posted by dfan at 7:23 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am terrible at chess. TERRIBLE! That brain-hurting thing - I know exactly what you mean. I also know exactly why I'm so bad at the game.

Chess involves visualizing a series of moves based on branching possibilities (if he does X, I'll do Y, etc.). I don't have a chess "vocabulary," so for me, this means actually picturing the moves in space...and I pretty much can't do that. I have absolutely no visual or spatial memory. If I try to picture even one move in advance, my brain starts to hurt, and if I try to go further than that, there is a palpable sensation of "fullness." I can't get any farther. You know how they say most people have room for 7 digits in their short term memory? When it comes to picturing objects in space, I have room for maybe one and a half, and that's it.

Does this say anything about how I function in the real world? Absolutely. I also can't give directions, because even if I'm describing a route I've taken a thousand times, I'll say, "You go left, and then right, and then..." blank. I can't picture it. I can't play 3D video games, because I get lost. This is the way my brain works, it's a legitimate flaw, and chess illuminates it. My badness at chess "says something" true about me.

At the same time, if you were trying to predict my path in life based on my chess performance, you'd probably say something like: this person is barely functioning, she is in the bottom 10% intellectually, she cannot strategize or plan for the future, she will probably end up living under a bridge somewhere.

But guess what? You'd be wrong! I am not living under a bridge and I'm actually quite good at planning for the future, because it turns out that in the 'real world,' as opposed to when you're playing chess, you're allowed to write things down. That's all it takes for me! What I lack in spatial reasoning and memory I make up on the verbal side of my brain. I can't picture the route to work, but I can remember a long series of written directions. In fact, I could probably learn how to be at least mediocre at chess (as opposed to egregiously bad) by learning the notation for it and turning it into a word problem. There are a million little gaps in my life I've papered over this way, to the point where I hardly notice them. My fixes work.

That's the thing about games. They are artificial environments. Sometimes, they can be very useful in highlighting the way you think - your strengths and weaknesses. If you have a problem with, for example, impulse control, so that you go for the most obvious move without looking around at the other possibilities...then yes, that may be true in both chess and in life. But the answer is not to keep playing chess, poorly, until you've gotten better at life. Rather, you want to take advantage of all the ways life isn't like chess: you can figure out workarounds, you can ask for help, you can be creative in the way you take advantage of your weaknesses and your strengths.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:23 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

i'm all for chess, having competed in uscf-sanctioned events against adults since i was eight years old, but i'm sorry, the notion that this makes me better at life is patently absurd. i have no doubt that i could beat barack obama or any member of congress, so, that means i'm more qualified to be president, right?
posted by bruce at 7:38 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

You can make a lot of analogies:
*"Being a short order cook will make you better at life." (prioritizing and performing under stress)
*"Playing paintball on the weekend will make you better at life." (strategy and teamwork)
*"Running a marathon will make you better at life." (focus and determination)

At some point, doing a variety of challenging things will make you better at life. I think many of us get comfortable challenging ourselves in certain ways but not in others. So there is a point where we could "get better at life" by stepping outside our comfort zone a bit.
posted by 99percentfake at 8:30 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

First, I need to tell you where I'm coming from. The first thing I did (other than make coffee) today is play several games of blitz chess online. I wasn't fully awake and my game suffered a bit (though I won more than I lost.)

That said, playing chess has very little to do with life. Many chess players can't handle their life outside of chess. I've played chess with homeless people and alcoholics and people who can't get it together and their games were good but their lives were not. I've also played chess with people who were the opposite of this from the standpoint of knowing how to live. (I'm only counting those who played reasonably well here, not to skew my anecdotal "research.")

My conclusion--all other things being equal, ability at chess has no bearing on ability at life. Bad decisions in life aren't usually made because of the inability to think strategically or to formulate a plan, but because of emotional problems which can often be sidestepped in a chess game.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:53 AM on October 29, 2013

I'm another one who hates playing chess, which is disappointing because I love chess metaphors and wish I could use them with more authority. But I remember feeling a little better when I read some analysis, back in 2008, of the election campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama prior to the Democratic party nomination. The writer (Andrew Sullivan, maybe?) pulled together this great metaphor that Clinton played a skillful game of chess, but was being outfoxed by Obama, who was playing Go: instead of focusing on prized pieces (as in chess), his strategy was to cover the most ground on the board, and in doing so he was winning.

And Obama did win. TAKE THAT, CHESS. (Whether or not the man actually plays either game, I have no idea.)
posted by saramour at 9:01 AM on October 29, 2013

I would be wary of any answers that rely upon statements like "chess is 100% deterministic" or "chess has finite possibilities" to say that it is unlike life. While such statements are in fact true, in practice they're virtually irrelevant.

Yes, chess is 100% deterministic and has a finite number of possibilities. But from the point of view of a player rather than from the point of view of mathematics, that's basically an absurd statement. That finite number of possibilities is far beyond the scope of the human mind, and the determinism from the point of view of the human mind is limited to the next few moves or the endgame from certain positions.

Chess absolutely involves randomness and non-determinism from the point of view of a human as opposed to from the point of view of mathematics: Will your opponent see something that you do not? That is "deterministic" and "non-random" and "finite" only in the absolute strictest of senses.

With all that said, this "chess will make you better at life" thing sounds kind of psychobabbley to me, except perhaps in loose senses such as that it might train you to think a little more, or that you might enjoy it.
posted by Flunkie at 9:30 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bobby Fischer: not so great at life.

Things which people enjoy they do as a diversion, as something to avoid thinking.

That's just not remotely universally true.
posted by redfoxtail at 9:45 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

In case an empirical discussion helps, here's a decent article that reviews the research on teaching chess in school: Educational benefits of chess instruction: A critical review

Chess has a long history of overstated boosterish claims that playing the game will build intelligence and intellectuality and critical thinking and concentration and so on, but the evidence that playing the game actually inculcates those cognitive skills (and particularly that it inculcates those skills any more than other heady hobbies) is generally thin. The research that chess boosters cite tends to have been conducted by other chess boosters and is often fairly weak, and most of it has found that there's at best a pretty limited transfer of cognitive skills between chess and other domains of thought. And the "life skills" stuff that you're being told is even more unlikely and vague than the more specific cognitive-skills claims that those studies are built around. "Seeing opportunities in life" is really not a skill that non-bullshit forms of psychology tend to talk about — it's pretty much a red flag that someone is spouting self-help nonsense.

Play the game if you enjoy it, but don't be guilted into doing it if it makes you unhappy.
posted by RogerB at 10:30 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ok, so someone told me that chess is a lot like life in many ways and that becoming better at the game will also therefore make you better at seeing opportunities in life.

Or people who can see opportunities better than other people are better at chess. Correlation and causation, etc. Personally, I think chess is way overrated. Try Go. Infinitely simpler playability: pieces don't move and you can put them (practically) anywhere (which opens up a shit-ton of situations really quick). Handicapping is highly straightforward: you can play somebody with a massive difference in skill and still have a good chance at winning. Look for First-Capture Go: you can start playing in five minutes and everything you learn is applicable to the full game.

But don't play it because it's going to make you a more shrewd person, play it because you enjoy it.
posted by disconnect at 12:44 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

To look at it another way, chess is a game of perfect information. The entire board and all the pieces are visible to both players. Everyone starts with a pre-set, functionally equal position. You could argue that you do not know what your opponent is going to do, but they know, and in many cases (e.g. king is in check) there is only one valid move available. Whereas the randomness and imperfect information of life is more like poker in the sense that no player knows what hand they will be dealt, nobody has any control over it, and you can only guess what the other players hold.

I think chess can help in the "if A, then B" type of consequential thinking - which might be useful if you live your life on the spur of the moment without thinking of the consequences. But I personally find a game like poker more relevant. You have to play with the hand you're dealt, you have to evaluate the possible success of an outcome and make bets, and sometimes you get screwed by the river and there's nothing you can do about it.
posted by pravit at 3:35 PM on October 29, 2013

I'm also trying to learn chess (without much luck -- makes me head ache, too) because I think playing will help me become a better thinker in some ways. Skills that I hope chess will teach me: to accept some things as objective truth (ie, it's not all about perception), obedience to rules (ie, getting comfortable working within them), recognizing and using patterns and categories (ie, how to decide on a strategy), figuring out and playing the odds (ie, how to decide on tactics), etc. So yes, I do think that skills learned through chess can be applicable in life. It's not that chess skills are immediately applicable, but your thinking flaws will show up in your game and I do think that chess games are as good a place as any to work on them.

What kinds of bad decisions are you hoping to get right this time around? Which flaws in your thinking are you trying to correct? If this is a goal-oriented enterprise for you, make sure that the flaws you want to correct are things that chess will highlight and force you to improve.
posted by rue72 at 3:46 PM on October 29, 2013

Came here to recommend Go also. I've always liked board games and am open to the idea that they have value in training the mind, but I've always hated chess. Too adversarial, too cold. Go has the same level of complexity but can be played at a beginner's level with more intuition and creativity. It has a more collaborative feeling when playing, and the aesthetics of the board and the patterns created are just a lot more pleasing to me. I can't really vouch for the cognitive development aspects - I'm just as dim as I've ever been, I'm fairly sure. But if chess can do it, Go can do it too and you might like it more.
posted by BinGregory at 9:09 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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