Thursday, March 15, 2012

Chess: Stages of the game

I've recently taken an interest in chess. The game that you can learn the rules in an hour but take a lifetime to become a little good at. A game which, like squash, converts minor differences in player ability to huge wins either way.

Often, chess has served as a metaphor for me. Certain sales jobs have been like "shifting emotions - mine and others - around like pieces on a chess board". Some business negotiations have been "like playing chess with a six year old".

Well my latest metaphor is one of game stages and a person's life. I'll have a go at working through it.

First, a quick search shows that this is not a new idea. Here's a neat little wrap:
  • There are consequences for your actions or in-actions.
  • You are responsible. Responsibility is learned.
  • Everything in life is your responsibility.
  • Everything is caused by either your actions or in-actions.

Gain Control and Be In Control
Life Lessons from Chess — David Cordover,

Chess has distinct game stages. I never got past the first when I learnt at my grandfather's knee. But these stages are known as the opening, the middlegame and the endgame. As I work through my life, I can see distinct parallels to how a person might live theirs.

The Opening
OK so the game has to get started. Apparently it used to be about gaining the better position if you're white, and redressing the imbalance if you're black. Heres the opening I'm used to seeing and using, apparently it's called the Ruy Lopez.

But a little reading tells me that recently people have come to see the opening more as a way "create dynamic imbalances between the two sides, which will determine the character of the middlegame and the strategic plans chosen by both sides."

So, in life we go through school and get our education, find our life partner and build a family (if that's the plan), start a career, build networks. Perhaps we are working to set a position for us to run through to later stages of the game.

The Middle Game
It gets funky here, the board blocks up complex networks of attack and defence make it impossible to move without losing a piece.

The objective here is to set the board up so that your king is well defended but also that you are in a position to attack. But the overarching objective is to make sure that when you lose a piece, you trade it for a piece of higher value.

So that's where the metaphor sits with me. Before I came to thinking hard about chess, I resisted the idea that I was going to lose pieces. But it's a natural part of the game and going into it thinking you won't lose a piece - naive.

This looks scary to me. I have a lot to learn in chess. The board is empty, you're often relying on minor pieces such as pawns and even employing your king as an attacking piece.

In life I often see that as the "old man in a hurry" syndrome. A person is at a stage of their life where they want to "make it count for something". It appears in many ways, after <whatever shock> s/he threw him/herself into <whatever obsession - often work>.

It may even be where many of the work related problems arise. I know people who are still playing middle game in their own lives at seventy. They have a solid enough marriage, strong family, friends they can count on, work that is interesting and can pay some bills, some sport, travel, interest in arts. These people have many pieces on their board. They don't need to make any single activity a roaring success.

And they may not sit well alongside those who've - perhaps - put all their measure of success on their work. Maybe. I don't know, just musing.

Stay in the middle game as long as possible
So in reflection, perhaps the important thing is to stay in the middlegame as long as possible. Perhaps in life - unlike chess - it is possible to keep the pieces; family, friends, health, some sort of work.

Perhaps in the game of life if you're playing endgame and desperately trying to make it count for something - perhaps you're fighting a losing position.

A buddy of mine infuriates his bosses when they ask him the superficially engaging "so where do you see yourself in five years?" question. When he responds with his standard "happy, healthy, still married to my wife" they tend to roll their eyes. But perhaps he's got it right. I'm sure it serves certain managers well to have all their employees in endgame mode but I expect it's healthier for a person to keep their life rich, and balanced.

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