Life & a Chess Board

I have long heard about the benefits of playing chess. It is an intensely strategic game that is very good for the mind. It is also a very old game. In medieval times it was a past time for nobility.

I thought it would be terrific to teach my students how to play chess. They usually get done with their work in time to have some free time on their hands and they like to play games. I thought to myself, why not teach them a game that will challenge and engage their minds instead of games that are easy?

I did a little shopping on Amazon and managed to find some cheap chess boards for my classroom. I bought three of them.

I have five students in my class and it takes two to play chess. Even though a student will occasionally decide to play against two people simultaneously, often one student has no other student against which they can compete. It didn’t take long for one of them to ask to play against me. Even though I like to get checking or other work done during the students’ free time, I enjoy a good game of chess, so I yielded. Benny was the first to play against me.

The first game moved quickly. Benny had played some chess before, but not a lot. I don’t consider myself incredible, but I’ve played enough to know the game pretty well. This game was quite simple to win, because he kept making moves that he simply didn’t think through very well.

The game took off like crazy. My students loved it. Now, it’s rare indeed, that the reading corner doesn’t have at least one chess board set up on the floor. It only waiting for the students to have some spare time to continue their chess game. As a teacher, I’m simply delighted to see my students becoming so engaged in a game that’s so good for their minds.

Earlier this week, once again, Benny was the “odd” student who had no chess partner. Of course he asked if I would like to play, and of course, I did.

We started the game and I had a difficult time mapping out a strategy for this particular game. Usually when I play, I like to have a specific thing I want to accomplish, but this time, for some reason or another, it didn’t really seem to go anywhere. He kept moving his pieces to the wrong places for me to be able to manipulate the game properly. That’s when things started going down hill. One of the first dumb things I did was lose my queen on a stupid move. Things didn’t get much better after that.

Fortunately, I didn’t lose the game. Fortunately Benny made some equally silly moves later on the game when he could have easily sealed my fate. Unfortunately I didn’t either win the game. It ended in a stalemate.

When I mess up in any competition, I usually analyze my performance . . . often to pieces. I was trying to figure out what made this one so much worse. I always make mistakes in my chess games, but especially that one portion of the game, was just plagued with bad moves. It was puzzling. Then I figure it out.

I had no particular strategy. I was just moving pieces around trying to see if something good would happen. Good things didn’t happen.

Sometimes you get lucky. But usually when that’s your approach, the game will end badly for you–unless of course the other guy is doing the same thing. Then you might be fortunate enough to make fewer mistakes than he does, and you might win the game. Might.

All metaphors have their limits. But metaphors are good because they help us understand life. They help us see things in a different light, from a different angle. Things that we have grown accustomed to seeing are suddenly seen in new colors. Old concepts become vibrant and we appreciate the fresh perspective.

I couldn’t help but see the metaphor in a chess game. It has some surprising similarities to life: specifically in reference to direction in life.

Inspiration for writing strikes at the oddest of times. As I washed my hands in the bathroom, I thought of the different ways in which chess was like having direction, having a plan in life.

I’ve found that some of the biggest issues in my life have stemmed, at least partially, from not knowing what I want. When you simply sit there, moving pieces around, waiting for something cool to happen, something cool doesn’t usually happen Instead you will usually make dumb decisions. It’s been that way in my life and I’ve seen numerous other people who do the same thing, so I’m guessing it’s pretty common.

People like this often spend their time and money doing a lot of worthless things. “Maybe if I buy these expensive clothes or move to this place, life will look better from this perspective.”

No it won’t. Not for much more than a week or so.

You can give up some of the best “pieces” of your life if you’re haphazardly rearranging things to see if they look better. Life continues, even if we are sitting there. We need to make our next “move,” so we do. And then we do something dumb again. This cycle will repeat itself if the approach remains the same. I’ve figured out (sometimes the hard way) that life need to be approached with intentionality to minimize stupid decisions.

It’s a fact. People that are intentional with their lives, that know what they want, that sacrifice the mediocre for the good, don’t make as many bad moves as those that approach life with the, “let’s see what happens if I do this. . . Oops” approach.

As usual, there are two ditches. You can also make some really terrible moves in chess, and life, when you are so intent on carrying out your plan, that you fail to see the big picture. Ideally when I play chess, I form a strategy, but pay a healthy amount of attention to what my opponent’s pieces are doing and tweak my strategy accordingly.

Sometimes though, I become a little near-sighted, and think I am going to make a smashing move, trapping a valuable piece. I fail to see the counter strategy of my opponent. The result is also disastrous.

Obviously, strategy and direction is not bad in chess or life. Some people, however, go ripping through life so intent on carrying out their big ambitions, that they pay no attention to people, circumstances, and God, all telling them to do something else with their lives. These people are likely to reach their goals, but they don’t realize that they’ve messed up their own lives, and other people’s lives doing it. And they’ve made God sad too.

It’s pretty easy to think up these awesome plans about life and give no consideration to how it might affect other people, or what God might think about it. God’s really interested in the plans that we make and it’s insulting to Him if we leave Him out of them.

Moderation is sometimes a difficult tightrope to walk. Sometimes it almost feels like I’m spending more time trying to balance, than walk anywhere. But being aware of the tendency in my life to drift along with no particular goal in mind has helped me tremendously. Even though my steps are sometimes shaky, my balance is getting better.

Also, if I may get on a soapbox: finding that direction in your life, when you’re young has distinct advantages. I wish I would have found some of that earlier. If you are young and have extra time, find something, some ministry, some person or people into which you can pour your life.

It keeps you from becoming complacent. It’s hard to find purpose in life when your mostly focused on your own needs.

At least play chess. It’s good for your brain.



12 comments on “Life & a Chess Board

  1. AMEN to your soapbox speech!

    I’m glad you found a Profitable Something for your students to do in their free time.

    Great post!

    • rjshetler says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I always appreciate when people take the time to comment instead of just read. 🙂 I don’t do that for others’ blogs as often as I wish people would on mine, so what can I say?

  2. Andrew Yoder says:

    I like it. Now I know why the guy who takes the longest to move, usually wins!

    Good work

  3. Eugene says:

    ‘ If you are young and have extra time, find something, some ministry, some person or people into which you can pour your life.’

    Right on. Even if we don’t know the whole of the big picture, it’s amazing what opens up when we take the opportunities to live well that are right in front of us. Somehow they have a way of leading us further. 🙂

  4. Andrew says:

    Hey, that’s really cool, even though I don’t play chess.

    I definitely agree that everybody needs to be doing something profitable (I believe every person has influence on someone!), instead of just sitting and waiting for something cool to happen.

    Keep it up with your students, bro, I bet they adore you to pieces!

    Great post!

    • rjshetler says:

      Yeah, I think even when we don’t do anything with our lives, we still affect people. We teach with our lives even when we just sit around and do nothing. We teach something really bad, but it’s still teaching.

      Thanks for the encouragement, bro. And I think you’re doing something great with what you have at home. I’m proud of you for doing the “early church” thing. I was so blessed last Sunday.

  5. Rosina says:

    What do you do, then, when the strategy fails? Sometimes something you want very badly is taken away, or your plans for life are disrupted. Then I find it easy to think that God isn’t interested in my life and what I want to do any more. I don’t have the answers… I love dreaming, but I really haven’t figured out how to recover when those dreams don’t work out. I enjoyed the post!

    • rjshetler says:

      Strategy isn’t something that guarantees success by any means. I would say that’s where flexibility comes in. Obviously there are things we can’t control. Going back to the chess analogy, if your opponent makes a move that messes up your strategy, adapting your strategy to what your opponent does is necessary. Sometimes in life, things happen to me that should cause me to change my strategy but I keep trying to make the old strategy work. But maybe I shouldn’t completely abandon the old strategy. I may be able to use it in a different context than I was planning to at first.

      Fortunately the analogy breaks down in one particular spot. We don’t have to worry about losing in life if a strategy doesn’t work. Success in life doesn’t hinge on me carrying out my plans. Before this gets long winded, I’m afraid most of what I said in that blog post doesn’t really address the whole dreaming thing and recovering if it doesn’t work out. The premise for this one was more the fact that if you have no strategy in life, you will almost invariably make poor decisions.

      The dreaming thing is great though. I think it gives direction to life and maybe adds some risk. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. I usually find that the most rewarding things in my life have come from taking the biggest risks. Granted, those were some of the most painful and freakiest times I’ve had yet, but they were the most rewarding. I’m kind of rambling now. I don’t know what you’ve been through, and maybe I’m the last person who should be talking to someone else about dreams that don’t work out. Basically, I don’t think the risk of having your dreams snatched from you should eclipse the idea of pursuing the dreams. I think God can redeem that stuff. He might redeem it in ways we didn’t expect, or ways we would have thought He should have, but He has that ability. I’ve seen some of the things that I’ve dreamed of doing and long since given up, show up in my life in a completely different context than I had envisioned them originally.

      I also have a lot more questions than answers but, I guess you could sum up what I’m trying to say in this: don’t let the disappointments in life keep you from keeping your old dreams, or even coming up with new ones. Whew! That was really long. I’d better hit the reply button before I get even more long-winded. 🙂 I don’t know if that helped at all, but it was good for me to process anyway.

      Oh, and thanks for the kind words.

  6. Rosina says:

    Thanks for your encouragement. I think you’re saying that resilience is important through all of this. I do believe that living purposefully (and taking risks) is definitely preferable to an insipid existence, but it’s hard to actually live that way when things go wrong. Thanks for the stimulating discussion–this is one housewife who enjoys that!:)

  7. Wow, thanks, I enjoyed your answer to Rosina about as much as the post. 🙂 Good stuff.

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