The Blue & Gray Press

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Personal Essay: Picking up chess brings unexpected benefits

3 min read

Trading out social media to learn how to play chess has been an enlightening experience for UMW student, Nicklaus Wohler. | Randy Fath / Unsplash


Staff Writer

I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that I often fall victim to the trap that is mindlessly scrolling through social media. It always starts the same: I tell myself that I’ll only browse for a few minutes, usually during a break from schoolwork, but one thing leads to another, and “a few minutes” can easily turn into an hour if I’m not careful. What’s even worse is that I have nothing to show for my wasted time. After extended periods of passive media consumption, I somehow feel more exhausted than I did before I started. 

About six months ago, I made the conscious decision to replace this vice of mine with a healthier and more constructive habit. In particular, I was looking for an activity that would be engaging and mentally stimulating and wouldn’t drain my mental energy in the same way that social media seemed to. This way, my downtime wouldn’t be wasted time.

Influenced in some part by the popularity of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, a seven-part miniseries that follows the life of an orphaned chess prodigy, I settled on the game of chess as my new habit. While starting chess at the ripe age of 23 essentially disqualifies me from ever attaining the rank of master or grandmaster, I felt that the game still had much to teach me. 

As a game of strategy, chess requires strong decision-making skills. The ability to think critically about complex spatial problems, make judgments about decisions and their consequences and weigh future outcomes against one another are all central to becoming a strong chess player. Chess may be just a game, but I’ve found that the principles underlying these skills can be applied more broadly. 

In just six months of play, I’ve begun to notice patterns I otherwise might have overlooked in my day-to-day life. I’ve been more deliberate when making even minor decisions, often double or triple checking for better alternatives. Thinking like a chess player both on and off the board has helped me to be more patient and conscientious—no doubt an improvement from the impulsivity and constant novelty-seeking that social media use tends to promote.

I was surprised to find that chess has more to offer than the sharpening of cognitive skills. Upon starting six months ago, it took no more than a few games before I was thoroughly humbled. To be blunt, I suck at chess. Accepting that fact and pressing onwards has been a greater test of my ego than I would have anticipated, and I’ve probably spent more time furrowing my brow in frustration than I’ve spent dominating any opponent. I’ve had to remind myself more than a few times that the only way to improve is to allow myself to lose, difficult as that may be. 

After only six embarrassing months of losing chess in more ways than I can count, I’ve developed a new relationship with my pride, and I have a better understanding of when pride can be a counterproductive emotion. The game of chess demands that a player constantly learns from failure, but it also rewards improvement by opening up new strategic possibilities. No doubt, this is a skill that could serve any of us far beyond the chessboard.

If you’re like me and find yourself reaching for social media at any spare moment, and you’re looking for more productive ways to spend downtime, I urge you to give chess a try, even if only for a week. If you’ve never played before, I can almost guarantee that you’ll feel confused and frustrated initially, but that means you’re using your brain in ways that you never would have if you spent your time browsing the endless stream of vapid social media content. 

Feeling stupid temporarily is better than feeling like a zombie, and if you keep at it, I promise you’ll find yourself becoming not only a better chess player, but a better decision-maker, and perhaps even a better person.

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