Chess Praxis

Chess Praxis

Kevin McMullin

“Surely this game has shown us unexplored land.”

–    Aaron Nimzovich, Chess Praxis

I had an advantage coming into all of this. Shortly after my diagnosis my neurotologist suggested I start physical therapy right away. It would, he assured me, give me a leg up after the surgery. So off I trundled to my local PT clinician. They gave me exercises to do. They stressed the importance of doing them every day. Of being disciplined about it. I did the exercises every day. I was disciplined about it. To me, physical therapy was just another form of practice.

Anything hard requires practice. It sounds obvious when you say it. But it is an uncomfortable truth for most of us. I’ve spent something like the last fifty years of my life in pursuit of this discomfort and in learning how to practice. There are, of course, plenty of people with way more practicing skills than yours truly. But relatively few of them wind up seeing physical therapists. The bar being relatively low, it was pretty easy to impress them. More importantly, knowing something about practice has helped me a lot as I’ve walked this long slow road to revival. And in the process, I’m learning even more about practicing and what a practice is.

Chess is my most recent practice. “Chess practice!?” you say, “But chess isn’t a practice! It’s a game!”  Ah, grasshopper. I feel your incredulity. Here is a truth that I have to learn over and over again, including right now as I am writing these words. One of the best attitudes to cultivate in any practice is an attitude of attentive playfulness. Ask a violin student to play a scale three times and they will roll their eyes, tear their hair, and gnash their teeth. Bring out a “Barrel of Monkeys” game and put one monkey on the chain for each scale played, and voila! Six scales, eight scales, twelve scales are not enough. You wouldn’t go to a concert to hear somebody “work” the guitar. When musicians practice, they play.

The problem with taking up residence in one of these “matter of life and death” neighborhoods – where I’ve been cooling my heels the last couple of years – is that it’s very easy to take things way too seriously. I am, perhaps, more prone than the average bear to this foible. Learning happens best in a relaxed and playful environment. (Like I tell my students, buy me a cup of coffee and I’ll go through the brain science with you.) Attentive playfulness is a powerful tool to bring to any practice. And chess is a powerful way to acquire that tool.

And what good is a chess practice? I refer you to the most recent issue of Chess Life magazine (January, 2018), which you have doubtless just received. Page 35, contains my essay on some of the many benefits of my chess practice. Surrounding it are nine other amplifying avowals from a strikingly wide variety of authors. For the very few of you who are not card carrying members of the United States Chess Federation I offer a reprint of my pithy treatise below. If you want to read the other nine you’ll have to get the magazine. Happy New Year. And start practicing.

Chess for Life Essay

In January of 2016, I was diagnosed with a vestibular schwannoma: a rare, benign tumor that grows on the vestibular nerve in the auditory canal. As brain tumors go, it’s one of the best kind to have. Still, I don’t recommend including it on your bucket list. The diagnosis left me with plenty of time to contemplate a wide array of daunting and doubtful prospects.  These ruminations did nothing for my joie de vivre and seemed unlikely to have a positive impact on my health. So I picked up my dusty old chess habit and began to divert myself.

Don’t get me wrong. A chess game offers no sure bets. Losing is certainly a possibility or, in my case, a likelihood. But every one of my pieces is under my control. Winning or losing is a result of my imagination and the good or bad decisions I make. It does not depend on a surgeon’s knife. Or tumor removal. Or an insurance approval. Every game I play feeds my hunger for a sense of control in my life. So, with a friend, I helped start a chess club to keep that hunger at bay and my habit well dusted.