In Life, Play Chess, Not Checkers


Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1779 that the game of chess “is not merely an idle amusement (since) life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and evil events that are in some degree the effects of prudence or the want of it”.

Chess is a global game that offers important opportunities in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, including strengthening education, realizing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and fostering tolerance, inclusion, mutual understanding and respect. On 12 December 2019, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 20 July as World Chess Day to mark the date of the establishment of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) in Paris in 1924.

Chess, as we know it today, was born out of the Indian game chaturanga before the 600s. The pieces originally represented the military units common in warfare at that time: infantry, cavalry, elephants, chariots, a general, and a king. The game spread from India to Persia in the 7th century and then westward to the wider Muslim world. Islamic influence then spread the game to southern Europe, reaching western Europe by about 1000 CE.

Until mid-19th century, chess sets were not uniform at all. In 1849, Jaques of London—a manufacturer of games and toys—introduced a new style of pieces that were endorsed by Howard Staunton, the strongest player of his time. The Staunton pattern became instantly popular; Staunton pieces, and minor variations of it, are still considered the standard for tournament chess sets. The 19th century also marked the introduction of chess clocks to competitive play. With the standardization of chess sets and introduction of chess clocks, the equipment needed for modern matches and tournaments were set in place.

Early chess players recognized that a typical game could be divided into three parts, each with its own character and priorities: the opening stage, when a player develops the pieces from their starting squares; a middlegame stage, in which plans are conceived and carried out; and an endgame stage, following several exchanges and captures, in which the player with the superior chances tries to convert an advantage into victory. Chess theory, thus, consists of opening knowledge, tactics, positional analysis, strategy, and endgame technique.

Chess is a game full of possibilities; you will hardly ever play the same game twice. Yet, the game is consistent enough that it does not feel like you are navigating a sea of chaos every time you start a new game. Skilled chess players learn to anticipate an opponent’s next moves; to do so, a player must develop the ability to adopt another person’s perspective and infer what action they are likely to take.

Among numerous benefits, learning and playing chess:

  • Improves cognitive skills—concentration, pattern recognition, decision making, spatial reasoning, problem solving, and critical thinking;
  • Increases attention span and memory capacity;
  • Encourages the understanding of choice and consequences;
  • Teaches good sportsmanship;
  • Creates a learning environment organized around games.

Chess can help with the symptoms or severity of several health conditions, including dementia, ADHD, and panic attacks. Moreover, playing this challenging game can help you find a sense of flow or improve the effectiveness of therapy sessions. On the other hand, chess can be time-consuming and stressful, especially if you plan to compete in tournaments. Whether these drawbacks outweigh the potential cognitive health benefits is something you need to decide for yourself.


Cover Image by azerbaijan_stockers on Freepik

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