Sunday, May 03, 2015

My most important lessons, I've learned from chess.

My most important lessons, I've learned from chess.

I have learned not to get distracted by keeping the score. The only thing that really matters is whether you're working toward your long-term goal.

In chess the two aren't the same. While it's possible to count who has the most points as you go, it doesn't you win the game. If you are greedy, you're likely to lose.

And I have learned that the least impressive pieces can be the most important. Every piece has a part to play, even those that appear to be doing nothing other than covering a square. In chess, as in life, no matter how unimpressive the task, if it is done well the entire enterprise benefits.

And I've learned to be nice when I lose and generous when I win. The last moves in a game of chess are necessarily cruel: it's a game of hunting and being hunted. But it usually isn't personal. Everyone takes turns at losing.

As well as other things. While it's necessary to think through problems as much as you can, it's not enough. You also need to recognise patterns. "What happened last time I was in a position like this?" "What's my subconscious visual memory telling me?" It's important to tap into your inner self. It is better at finding solutions than is brute force.

Had I never played chess it is possible that I would have picked up these lessons from somewhere else, but I doubt it. Not all of them, not in the same place.

Chess teaches lessons about life because it has evolved and been refined throughout the last 15 centuries of human life. It has become uncommonly good at teaching us who we should be.

John Adams believes there's more to come. You might have read about him in the papers a few weeks back. A former adviser to Coalition senator Arthur Sinodinos, he has been lobbying the government to allow Australians with higher education debts to get early access to their super to pay them down.

While that's on the backburner (the government says it won't do it in this budget) he has turned his attention to chess, and the way it might help Australia face the sort of challenges identified in the Intergenerational Report.

Our jobs are increasingly going to involve our minds rather than our muscles. We are going to be doing them longer, well beyond traditional retirement age. And we are going to have to compete against the best in the world, wherever they are.

Does that sound like a job for chess?

Chess is particularly good at developing high-level mental skills, not only in maths but in a whole range of things that involve focusing, visualising and applying reasoning. As strange as it sounds, reading is one of them. Study after study shows that children who play chess are better at reading, as well as better at reasoning.

And it might be able to delay diseases such as Alzheimer's. In his new book The Brain's Way of Healing, Norman Doidge details the remarkable ways in which the deliberate use of our brains can rewire and make them stronger. He says brains are "neuroplastic", capable of healing themselves with the right exercises.

Might chess be useful enough to be worth spending government money on? Should it be taught in schools in the same way as music? Should it be funded as a sport in the same way as sports such as soccer?

For a few years in the 1980s at the insistence of the Labor sports minister John Brown chess actually was funded as a sport, out of the Sports Commission budget. Since 1999 the International Olympic Committee has recognised it as a "mind sport" along with bridge, although it hasn't yet put it the Games.

Adams says he doesn't know the answers. In his new role as government relations director of the Australian Chess Federation he has begun a literature review and research project that will examine the extent to which chess can play a role in boosting Australia's intellectual capacity and equipping it for the challenges of the 21st century. It'll be published early next year in time for the budget and before the election when the political parties will be scratching around for policies.

Chess has a number of advantages. It is cheap, almost certainly makes us better able to think, and fun. It would get us recognised around the world for doing something other than kicking and hitting balls. And it might make us better people.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald