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Life Lessons

When Your Best Move Is Embracing Loser Mindset

1:28 PM EST on December 28, 2023

Photo of two pages of an Italian illustrated chess manual from the 15th century, located at the Gorizia, Fondazione Palazzo Coronini Cronberg
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

According to the Chess.com app on my phone, I have played 702 games of rapid chess and 3,733 games of blitz chess in 2023; that is, games with 10-minute and three-minute timebanks, respectively. Few of those games went the distance, though even if you assume my opponent and I used half of our available time, that nets out to a rough total of 303 hours, or, just over 12-and-a-half days. Staring at that bulky massif of time should feel daunting, and the diktat of this genre of writing says I should spend the subsequent clause hemming about how I could have used that time to read books, learn how to make a soufflé, hone my empathy—you know, something classically productive. But I don’t care about soufflés. The crunch mindset is brutally reductive of what time gives you, even when it seems to be passing in the most futile ways. I don't have to imagine Sisyphus happy as he ascends his hill, knowing what waits ahead, because I live it every day.

In an attempt to figure out the length of my average game, I stopped writing after I finished the previous sentence, laid down on my bed, and played 10 games. This lasted all of 24 minutes. My temporal probing revealed something stranger and ultimately more rewarding than new information (three games ended with fewer than 10 total seconds on our clocks, two ended in the first 15 seconds) about the length of a three-minute game: the hilarious futility of all this chess-playing as a competitive exercise. 

I’m a very competitive person. Over time I have learned to check this tendency without annoying or hurting anyone around me by channeling that energy inwards, instead competing against myself when I am exercising, writing (ha ha…), and playing chess. There’s no avoiding self-knowledge on that last one: you always have an Elo rating, a personal score that rises and falls (usually between seven to nine points per game) with every win and loss. There’s no rationalizing your skill, just a number that reflects exactly what you’re worth. In my 10-game sample, I started with a 1068 Elo and went 4-4-2 in my 10 games, five with white and five with black. I played a sharp line against an Indonesian player who didn't see a queen-bishop trap in the last game, securing the even record and leaving my Elo exactly one point higher at 1069. All that scuffling—an inspired French Defense, a failed Ponziani—left me almost exactly where I started. This felt incredible because I was finally playing loose. I was, to be incredibly annoying, letting the chess flow through me.

To get to this peaceful place—and, somewhat contradictorily, to get better—I had to accept that losing at chess is something like an eternal condition. The thing that makes chess so hard to cheat at is also what makes it so infinitely replayable, that whatever state the board is at in any given part of any game is necessarily the product of bivalent interactivity, that no matter how much opening prep the two (in my case, below average) players bring to the table, it takes two to make things go sideways. In the course of pushing this boulder across the board, I found that the harder I raged against my losses the more deliberately I flexed my brain to avoid them. And the more I focused on not losing, the worse I would play. Somewhere along the line during the summer when my rating was in the toilet, like 200 points lower than now, I accepted that losing is something like the baseline in chess. There I was, trying the same stupid Englund Gambit against d4 against an 879-rated player from Serbia, thinking, Shouldn’t I be trying to have fun? A win is less a triumph than the small-time avoidance of another loss, it gives you a buffer to then throw away on your next blunder, the next trap you didn't see coming, the next blown opening. You take what you can from the corpses of your losses, move on, and you must never linger, because that next L is lurking around the corner. Wins only mean you will match against better players, more well equipped to surprise and flay you. Once you accept this, your mind is set loose to simply play.

Chess will humble you like few other games, because you are only ever playing yourself. There is always an ideal move to be made in any given situation, and the better players are the ones who more consistently find those. It requires creativity and self-knowledge, and in this way chess is like a language. Great players have stunning capacity for self-expression, with beautiful vocabularies of openings, interactions between pieces, and spooky foresight, used together to form beautiful sentences. The thing that so many people find daunting about writing is the abyssal sense of possibility; out of the millions of words, how do you know you're picking the right ones? Out of the infinite permutations that every single chess move flickers into possibility, how do you know you're bringing the right ones into existence?

I can watch and analyze a game played between the best players in the world, and though each discrete move makes sense to me, there's a deeper meaning in the syntax and prosody of the game that I find elusive. My language skills are simply not up to the task. I'm not a native speaker, I'm hobbling along, slowly learning how to conjugate my verbs and use increasingly sophisticated verb tenses, but I will never, ever be fluent like Magnus Carlsen or Anish Giri. They're writing Shakespeare, where my level is something like "The horse is in the big red barn." The gulf is too big; I only hope I can teach myself to read their work.

Rather than daunt me, the knowledge of exactly how much I don't know about chess thrills me. According to my app, I am the 1,773,726th-best blitz player on Chess.com. Sometimes I will play my friend Tommy, a former Illinois state champion and something like an actual prodigy, and though we are making the same sorts of moves with the same pieces on the same board, I have never ever come close to even sniffing a draw against him and I know I never will. He's fluent, and I'm a first grader. He writes effortlessly in a syntax I barely understand. Even then, he loses plenty of his online matches too, because like any other language, chess is only something you can hone, never perfect. And I am honing my game every day, each loss helping me express myself more clearly.

There's something beautiful in that, I think, some shimmering window into all that possible knowledge, a window you can only see if you can love losing.

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