Stay Calm and Carry On Playing Chess

I decided to take a one time break from my series of articles because I realized that this piece would be published right around Christmas. Let’s face it, it has been a difficult time for the majority of us over the last two years. The Covid-19 Pandemic has thrown our routine lives into a state of perpetual change. While humans are great at a lot of things, handling sudden and long term change isn’t one of them. In our quest to answer the question of why all of this happened, many of us have grasped at the flimsiest of explanatory straws in an effort to make sense of it all. The results have proven to have made things worse, more chaotic. I am not here to say who’s right and who’s wrong. I leave that to political pundits, although I don’t trust any of them either, since bad news seems to create greater ratings than good news. I’m here to simply say “stay calm and carry on playing chess.

I teach chess to children and adults and, after a year and a half, finally got back into the classroom and back to in person learning. I wish to share with you a similar question asked by two new students of mine, one a successful adult, and one a child. My students seem to think that because I teach chess that I have great logic and reasoning skills which can be applied to any situation. While I do have some skills regarding logic and reasoning, I am by no means a Yoda type. My skills in logic and reasoning are based on subjects in which I can control much of the outcome, such as physical computing and to some extent chess. It should be noted in chess that I can not fully control the outcome, since a perfect outcome would be me winning a game. When playing against a stronger player, it is more likely that I will lose. With my work in physical computing, I come closer to absolute control of the outcome. However, I can’t control a piece of faulty hardware. If I design an electronic device and then build that device, there’s always the chance that a component in my circuitry will be faulty due to a manufacturing issue. In short, I have no absolute control over anything, Therefore, when a student comes to me for advice about the world outside of chess of electronics, I can give them an educated guess at best. What does this have to do with chess?

I had two students ask me what I thought would happen to all of us over the next few years. Really, it started out with a similar comment from both of them, “with the way things are going, why bother getting further stressed out trying to improve my playing?” Yes, there is some validity to this line of thinking, albeit a bit dramatic. However, things really are dire in many places around the globe. We are in dark times to a certain extent. I shared my experience, with both my young student and my adult student, regarding how I saw things at the start of the pandemic and nearly two years later.

When the pandemic first started, I was fairly certain the United States would just escape it’s wrath. I was wrong. I knew it was serious but did not realize just how much so until they locked down the state I live in. I had never lived through such a historical event. I suddenly had nothing but free time and dreadful headlines on the news to fill my days. I don’t do well with free time or dreadful news for that matter. They say idle hands are the Devil’s playground. This really applies to me. I can get into lots of trouble if I have nothing constructive to occupy my time

The problem with the free time we all long for is that once we get it, we tend to squander it. The free time I had due to not being able to teach, forced me to make a decision regarding my mental health. I could do nothing and have one day melt into the next, with the news filling my thoughts with stories of sorrow and despair, or I could get busy. I got busy. I realized that many of my students were probably going through a similar situation. I called them all and suggested we continue our studies using Zoom, instant messaging and email. I suggested that we keep busy with our chess playing because it would help us develop a barrier between the horrors of the pandemic and our attempt at having some sort of normal life. It would also fill our days out with some productivity.

The rules were simple: I’d hold weekly Zoom classes. Students would start working on their studies where they left off at the pandemic’s start. I would make myself available for office hours in which students would work one on one with me via electronic communication. We would all play correspondence chess with one another. Lastly, we would form an emotional support system in which members of the group could reach out to one another if they started to get stressed about non-chess related issues. We created our own little world within the pandemic.

What I told those two students was fairly simple: The pandemic is bad enough. Imagine if years later, you looked back and realized that you dropped everything and did nothing during that period of time in which the pandemic took place. Would you feel better or worse about things? Then there’s the mental health aspects to the pandemic. Wouldn’t you want to have some sort of mental insulation against the horrors of the Covid-19 Pandemic, allowing you to escape or take a mental vacation? Chess offers a world in which you can control the outcome to a certain extent. While complex in scope, chess comes down to simplicity in that it’s one mind against another. Chess also has the benefit of training the mind to focus. The ability to focus means removing outside thoughts, such as those dedicated to the pandemic, and honing in on one thing, chess.

We all have made it thus far and were recently able to start playing chess face to face again. I never realized how much I enjoyed sitting down to play another human being, face to face, until the pandemic took that away from me. My students feel the same way. Collectively, we all improved our playing (well, I barely improved because I decided to go back to the University for another intellectual beating) over the last nearly two years. We all realized just how important the game of chess is in our lives. Lastly, we all realized how important we are to one another. I talk to all of my students at least once a week now, even though I see them face to face during their classes. Either they call or I call, just to check in. An event that separated the world actually brought my group closer together.

Don’t ask me what will happen in 2022. I just don’t know. However, I do know that my small group will continue to play chess and keep in touch. We’ll stick together and see this journey through no matter where it leads us. I actually have gotten to know the parents of my students and more about the students themselves. This would not have happened if the circumstances were different. However, we’ve been virtually thrown together and have gotten to know one another more intimately. You can always find something positive in a seemingly negative situation. It sometimes requires taking a deeper look to find the positive within the negative.

With Christmas less that a week away, I’ve realized that the last two years has taught me a lot. While I have used chess to work my way through both addiction and cancer, never has it played a more important role than getting me through these times of isolation. I tend to be a loner, but a loner by choice. When it’s forced on me I feel differently. Loneliness can be crushing. However, I didn’t experience feeling alone because at the end of the day I found some like minded people and stayed calm, carried on, and played a lot of chess. Next week we’ll pick up with our Foundation for Beginners series. Happy holidays everyone. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Hugh Patterson

Author: Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat). View all posts by Hugh Patterson

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