The Art of Balance

When I’m not dropping material at the chessboard or writing hack novels for no one’s consumption but my own I like to dabble in martial arts (read: get thrown across the room by more agile students).

There are actually quite a few similarities between chess and martial arts. Protecting your horizontal axis is just like securing d5 and e5, though failure to do the latter is punished somewhat more torturously, over the space of hours. The biggest benefit from the comparison however is insight into how people learn. A former instructor of mine, a docent one of the one-inch punch as well as a practicing physician, has an interesting idea. We must learn in a balanced fashion and devote equal attention to play, practice, and study.

Consider three chess players, each of whom ignores two of the three in favor of the mode he or she likes the most. The first, as experienced a competitor as they will become, cannot improve the aspects of his game that rely upon fine technical understanding.  He cannot learn the Lucena or Philidor Positions without knowing what they in fact exist. His brain is constantly solving the same puzzles again and again because it has no systemization to its thinking. The online blitz specialist is a good example of this type of player.

The second player practices his openings, his endgames, and you can find him sitting evenings in front of the board, whipping his army into shape. His openings will become finely tuned and he can rely upon rote memorization to get him through the opening. He will probably turn to the Colle System or some such thing to obviate the need for study. Still, if he does not subject himself to the rigors of competition he can never become fearless. He must test his nerves over the board. He must figure out what to do after getting in his e4 push. How can he know how to make four quality moves in ten seconds to get to his next time control?

I identify with the third player. I have spent many hours with Fine’s Basic Chess Endings interpreting, plotting, learning silly rules and even sillier exceptions to the same. However, because I rarely play I am not nearly as attuned to the psychological aspects of the game as I otherwise could be. I leave many things on the table, such as the ability to discern my opponent’s plan in order to let him execute only the first half. Most importantly the one who does not play sees his love of the game wither.

Today’s lesson is to periodically remind yourself why you own a board and pieces. Today is a calculation-free day. Find a friend, take out a board, and get to having fun!

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