Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Learning concentration through playing chess

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Jonathan Rowson, the co-founder and director of Perspectiva, a research institute in London, and the author of The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life (2019), writes in Aeon:

Arriving at the chess board is like entering an eagerly anticipated party. All my old friends are there: the royal couple, their associates, the reassuringly straight lines of noble infantry. I adjust them, ensuring that they are optimally located in the centre of their starting squares, an anxious fidgeting and tactile caress. I know these pieces, and care about them. They are my responsibility. And I’m grateful to my opponent for obliging me to treat them well on pain of death.

In many ways, I owe chess everything. Since the age of five, the game has been a source of friendship, refuge and growth, and I have been a grandmaster for 20 years. The lifelong title is the highest awarded to chess players, and it is based on achieving three qualifying norms in international events that are often peak performances, combined with an international rating reflecting a consistently high level of play – all validated by FIDE, the world chess federation. There are about 1,500 grandmasters in the world. At my peak, I was just outside the world top 100, and I feel some gentle regret at not climbing even higher, but I knew there were limits. Even in the absence of a plan A for my life, chess always felt like plan B, mostly because I couldn’t imagine surrendering myself to competitive ambition. I have not trained or played with serious professional intent for more than a decade, and while my mind remains charmed by the game, my soul feels free of it.

In recent years, I have worked in academic and public policy contexts, attempting to integrate our understanding of complex societal challenges with our inner lives, while also looking after my two sons. I miss many things about not being an active player. I miss the feeling of strength, power and dignity that comes with making good decisions under pressure. I miss the clarity of purpose experienced at each moment of each game, the lucky escapes from defeat, and the thrill of the chase towards victory. But, most of all, I miss the experience of concentration.

I can still concentrate, of course, but not with the same reliability and intensity that a life of professional chess affords. In fact, from a distance, chess looks to me suspiciously like a socially permissible pretext to concentrate for several hours at a time. In The Island from the Day Before (1994), Umberto Eco composes a love letter that includes the line: ‘[O]nly in your prison does [my heart] enjoy the most sublime of freedoms’ – that could be said of chess, too, and the experience of concentration is what makes it possible. I believe concentration is a defining feature of a fulfilling life, a necessary habit of mind for a viable civilisation, and that chess can teach us more about what concentration really means.

Any skilled endeavour entails concentration, but chess is unusual in requiring that we concentrate not for a few minutes at a time, but for several hours at a time, within tournaments, for days at a time, and within careers, for years at a time. Concentration is the sine qua non of the chess experience.

In chess, concentration usually unfolds in quick succession through perceiving, desiring and searching. But it’s recursive, so I often find something I didn’t expect in a way that leads me to see my position differently and want something else from it. My perception is pre-patterned through years of experience, so I don’t see one square or piece at a time. Instead, I see the whole position as a situation featuring relationships between pieces in familiar strategic contexts; a castled king, a fianchettoed bishop, a misplaced knight, an isolated pawn; it’s a kind of conceptual grammar. The meaning of the position is embedded in those patterns, partly revealed and partly concealed, and my search to do the right thing feels fundamentally aesthetic in nature.

I could describe the feeling as a kind of evaluative hunting  not so much for a particular target, but for trails of ideas that look right and feel right. I am drawn towards some transfigurations of the patterns that make me look deeper, and repelled by others. Good moves have the qualities of truth and beauty. They are discoveries of how things are, and should be.

However, chess invites me to deepen my concentration a few centimetres away from another being who is also trying to concentrate; someone I can smell, sense moving, and hear breathing. I often know, even like, these people, but they loom within my psyche in a relatively impersonal sense – a familiar energy, not friends as such. I sometimes think of chess opponents as psychopathic flatmates with whom I have to share a living space. They look harmless, but I know we signed the same contract that says they need to try to get inside my room, steal my possessions and hunt me down, before killing me; naturally, I am obliged to do the same to them. Together we create a story, and narrative themes such as attack and defence are both reduced and reified into particular moves with particular pieces on particular squares, which we record like stenographers, into our own arcana of algebraic notation. The climax of a game’s story might be ‘Brutal counter-attack!’ but the record merely reflects the logical power of a short sequence of moves, for instance: ‘…34. Bf3 Nh3+ 35.Kh1 Qg4!! Resigns.’

The forces on the board are always . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2020 at 7:32 am

Posted in Chess, Daily life, Fitness, Games

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