Exploring the Zen and Philosophy of Chess


We find lessons in the most inconspicuous of events. For example, I play chess with my ten-year-old nephew over holidays. He never relents. In these games, I find insight into the philosophy of chess.

Our games started as a mix of learning piece movement and strategy. He picked it up quickly. No matter how many games lost, he kept wanting to play. In a society of frail egos and participation trophies, I love seeing him thrill over the idea of overcoming and winning. I rarely see that tenacity in adults – I admire him for it.

These lessons will bode well for him in life. Imploring different strategies, being creative on the fly, and continuous improvement lay the groundwork for a successful life. It made me realize that chess, although a game, parallels life in many ways.

The philosophy of chess models the philosophy of zen life in many ways as well.

Philosophy of Chess and Living in the Moment

Many view chess as the pinnacle of structure and order. I see it as quite the opposite. Chess models the chaos seen in everyday life.

In life, like chess, we create a plan in our heads and execute it. Rarely is this successful as life has a habit of getting in the way. We plan our moves and responses with such tenacity just to see them crumble as life makes a move we had not anticipated. Our plans fall apart as quickly as we built them up.

Is there a better metaphor for the importance of living in the moment?

No matter how well we plan our moves or our lives, the result comes out differently than anything we imagined. We can never predict the unknown chaos inherent in life. The beauty comes from the fact, even as our imagined future collapses, we can build new ones. As life derails our best-made plans, we regroup and move forward. Hopefully better than we were before.

We cannot move forward if we are stuck in the past. Imagine staring down a daunting chess defense. The moves made up to this point are irrelevant now—the most important move is the next one. Burdening your thoughts with quandaries of the past like “I wish I hadn’t lost my rook so early” only wastes mental resources. That time has passed.

We can only take inventory of our current situation and move forward in a way that leads us to victory. The past is gone, and we address the future as it arrives. We only control our present.

Philosophy of Chess and Meditative Strategy

The philosophy of chess focuses heavily on meditation and concentration. In fact, Confucius even said that a player with less intelligence and higher concentration could beat a player with more intelligence but had no control of their mind.

Much like in chess, we are more successful if we approach life with a clear mind and focus. We can build a strong mind and focus through meditation.

Meditation improves our ability to take in all sensory stimuli around us and examine them objectively. In chess, this allows us to quickly move on from a bad move. In life, this allows us to move forward from negative life events by removing the power of negative thoughts. Many assume meditation encourages one to ignore negative thoughts. It is the opposite. Meditation encourages us to take in all thoughts – good or bad – and experience them for what they are. Just thoughts.

By controlling these thoughts, we make better decisions.

Life and chess revolve around focused and directional decision making. We as humans make important life decisions daily. We play a ranking game where we rank and order our priorities and how we allocate our time. With only 24 hours in each day, allocating time between relationships, family, and work is critical. A clear head allows us to allocate time in a way that is in line with our true self and not reactionary.

Chess benefits from a clear head as well. With a clear head, moves are made deliberately – not hastily. Even under intense outside pressure, our mind remains calm and collected allowing us to make the optimal choice in any given situation.

Philosophy of Chess and Endless Opportunities

There is a beauty in the near-infinite combination possible in some games. Chess is no exception. As we sit down at the board and place our fingers on that first white pawn, endless possibilities exist in front of us. Some good where we win and some bad where we lose. At that moment, anything is possible.

All games leading up to the current match do not matter. Past victors have been crowned and past losers deflated. They exist in the past.

Life works in the same way.

We wake up each day with the capacity to tackle life in any way we choose. If we are unhappy with our current situation, we can begin making changes at any time. Each new day parallels a new game. No matter the outcome of yesterday, we can choose to take a different trajectory today.

And hopefully, we take lessons learned and find the courage to move in a way that ultimately betters us.

In the vast face of endless opportunities, we must be deliberate in direction. In the overwhelming presence of social media and social marketing, an enterprise will make those choices for you if you let them. Determining our core values remains our responsibility. And we must show diligence every day as we move towards them.

If we value our family, take the time away from work and create memories.

If we value our relationships, put down the phone and be present.

Each day, as you wake up, and are about to move that metaphorical first piece, make sure you’re playing your game. Nobody can guarantee it will be great. Like Bobby Fischer said, “That’s what chess is all about. One day you give your opponent a lesson, and the next he gives you one.” This drives the true philosophy of chess and life. There is always an opportunity to learn.

Whether you are winning or losing, if you are living a life where you’re learning and being true to yourself, it will be meaningful.

About the Author

Jason Williams is a U.S. based blogger, husband, and dad trying to find peace in an anxiety-fueled world. Join our community ? https://workingmanszen.com/



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