There is something about mindfulness meditation that relates to the game of chess and what it takes to play the right move in any given moment.
I came upon this idea while struggling through one of chess.com’s many puzzles and questioning the utility of practicing them. The puzzles on chess.com present the solo player with a single board configuration and ask the player to find the next best move for whichever color’s turn it is. After finding the move (or failing to find it and being provided with the solution), the exercise is over, and the player moves on to solve the next random board configuration (seemingly “random” at least within the range of the player’s calculated skill level).
What initially bothered me about playing these puzzles was the inability to continue play after selecting a move to see how the game would unfold thereafter. What also struck me as impractical is the fact that this mode of practice situates the decision-making process in a vacuum, where the player is deprived of the progression of moves leading up to the current board state. The ebb and flow of board-level dominance in a chess game between two players is a felt experience that shrouds any given move in varying levels of tension, inquietude, decisiveness, and intrepidness. Each move from the first of the game to the present state of the board constructs in the player’s mind a step-wise trajectory of the conflict. Trying to pick a single move out of an unrecognizable arrangement of pieces without that context just seemed like an unrealistic way to practice.
But as I thought about it some more, I came to realize that this could in fact be the very practical essence of these puzzles, and a quality of the game that draws parallels with the goals of mindfulness meditation. I don’t have much beyond a newbie’s knowledge of mindfulness practice, but among its goals is training the mind to focus on the present moment — to take note of those thoughts and feelings that arise in consciousness and simply observe them. At its core is the primacy of not getting lost in thought and carried away by the surging tides of affect.
In a game of chess, every board position has a best move (or a number of equally best moves) available for the player to discover. While finding these moves will pose reliably intractable challenges for the human mind, a player — regardless of skill level — will likely maximize their outcomes if they are playing “mindfully” — that is, if at each move they fully absorb the state of the board and detach themselves from any internal narrative that would color the board and lead them astray of the principles that lead to objectively good chess moves.
This is my theory, at least.
In a naive example, a chess player who recognizes a potential attacking opportunity and who then, fueled by the excitement, chases the fulfillment of their imagined success, does so at the risk of neglecting a backdoor in their defenses and making themselves vulnerable to a counterattack. On the other hand, the player who begins each turn of the game with a dispassionate enumeration of the available checks, captures, and threats will at least benefit from the awareness of having a complete picture of the board. Training oneself to perform this assessment at each and every turn is toilsome and certainly takes some fun out of the game, but perhaps it is not unlike the meditative practice of regularly turning one’s attention inward to monitor the appearance and disappearance of thoughts and emotions. It is a matter of keeping the mind “wide” and staying open to whatever there is to notice and observe in the present moment.
And so, I thought, this could likely be the value of these chess puzzles that present single board positions in isolation. Moving from one scenario to the next, unrelated scenario can perhaps train the mind to constantly “fall back” and see each new board configuration with fresh eyes, and to develop some resistance to being carried away by affective momentum. The caveat here of course is that in both chess and meditation, one must actually implement the correct behaviors during practice. Simply playing chess puzzles for fun is not likely to develop these muscles, in the same way that just sitting there and letting your mind roam is not really what it means to meditate.
I still suck at both.