“Don’t be afraid of losing, be afraid of playing a game and not learning something.” – Dan Heisman
“Win with grace, lose with dignity!” - Susan Polgar
For so many personal reasons, I have a strong dislike of bullies. In my third year of high school, I became aware of a new type of brute that likes to push their weight around: The intellectual bully. This type of bully likes to hide behind a wall of logic and supposed facts to back up any argument they present. They never agree with anything you say, unless they say it first. They also like to compete at games they are familiar with, particularly against weaker opponents.
I met two such “brainy bullies” when playing backgammon against them. Being a newcomer to the game, I was soundly beaten every time, and to be sure, they would rub my nose in every loss. So, I went out and bought a book on how to play the game called “Backgammon for Blood”. It opened my eyes that even though the randomness of dice plays a major roll, by simply memorizing some basic statistics and a few strategies, you can greatly even the odds.
As with most bullies, these two backgammon players were very sore losers, and started claiming I was winning by luck and not by any strategy I may have learned. They got so tired of losing in fact, they soon began to decline my invitations to play backgammon, and invited me to join the chess club they belonged to. Since both of them had at one time been high school champion, they both bragged to teach me a lesson or two in this more intellectually challenging game.
I had never before played chess, but as is my usual, I jumped in with both feet first. I purchased some chess books, joined the club, and promptly began my journey of getting trounced on a regular basis. Of course, the teasing by these two brainiacs was merciless, but six months later I actually finished fourth in the annual tournament. I still could not beat these two bullies, but I was actually winning matches against other players. I was stoked to learn more about this classic game.
In my second year of playing chess, I was rabid for the game. More books were purchased, and on the weekends, my friends and I would play using that ancient precursor to the internet, the telephone, as we called out our moves and played on separate boards. I swear there’s a crook in my neck decades later, so many hours I spent with the handset nestled there. By the end of my second year of chess training, I finished in third place, but my goal of beating those two bullies continued to elude me.
Then, I came across a book that taught me some of the most important lessons that can be applied to any sort of competition: “Why You Lose at Chess” by Fred Reinfeld. There was one specific chapter called “Play the Man, Not the Board”, where Mr. Reinfeld suggested that you should learn about your opponent’s likes and dislikes, and consistently push the game towards those dislikes.
If your opponent prefers a crazy offensive game, exchange pieces as quickly as possible, aiming to sap your opponent’s creative energy and bore them into making careless mistakes. If they like a stodgy defensive position, it might be worthwhile to sacrifice a piece to break the game open where your opponent is less comfortable.
In my third and last year of playing chess, I began getting results that really pleased me. I finally got those two bullies off my back one day, when I beat them both during a simultaneous three board challenge. The grumbling and excuse making from those two was particularly memorable.
In my last high school tournament, victory in the championship match eluded me. I lost two games out of three to a terrific player by the name of Samuel Flahaut. But I was so very proud of myself just getting into finals, and making Sam work so hard for his victory.
What I love most about the game of chess is that there is no luck involved in the outcome. It is the purest game where your plans and logic come up against another person’s strategic skills with no other element or excuse you can hide behind. If you lose, there is no bad call by a referee, no bad bounce or lucky break that can change the outcome. If you are a humble sort of fellow, you live and learn from your mistakes. If you are a blustery intellectual bully, making excuses when you lose just makes you look foolish.
Proud as I was of my chessly accomplishments, I soon gave up playing competitively as life began to present new challenges: Coaching lacrosse, going to college, moving out on my own, and in general, crossing over into adulthood. But every once in a while, I crank up a good old game of chess on my computer, and remember the lessons chess taught me:
- Study the subject matter
- Study the opponent (or system) you are up against
- Practice, practice and practice some more
- Learn from your mistakes
- Never ever give up
- Be classy
- Always have fun.