Chess Changed My Life. For Reals. Here’s How:

A few years back I was on tour with Rebecca Loebe and my (now) chess friend Sweet Gary Newcomb. During a long travel day, he and I started chatted about the game and after our gig that night, we managed to find a board complete with chess pieces.

The plan was to play one game before bed.

2 hours later I was having a whale of a time, and realised;

Holy moly! Chess is bloomin’ brilliant!

‘But KM, isn’t chess for like intellectual sorts who have kind of a supercilious air about them?’.

I used to think EXACTLY the same thing. I’m not allowed to play chess because I’m not a smart person and only smart people play chess.

WRONG!

Sweet G is a superb chess player and over the years has been very kind and is totally the reason I love chess as much as I do. Not only do I have a ton of fun playing, but it has also made my life better in so many ways.

IT’S HELPED MY MUSICIANSHIP

TECHNIQUE

After about a month of chess playing, I noticed the weirdest thing.

My left hand got stronger 😮

I was playing drums when I noticed this had happened. I suddenly was able to play patterns with my left hand that I had been struggling with for a while. I sat there in disbelief, repeating rudiments that had always felt uncomfortable to play, that all of a sudden were flowing very easily.

MINDSET

In Judee Shipman’s brilliant book Portable Chess Coach, she dedicates an entire chapter to chess psychology.

Reading this chapter had a profound effect on me. Every single point she makes also applies to being a musician.

Put your ego aside. Focus. Be present. The world is your chessboard, live entirely in the moment of each position. Don’t rush. Be thorough. Avoid personal judgements….and so many other brilliant pearls of wisdom.

I have kept this book on my bookshelf just so I can re-read this chapter whenever needed.

I’M A BETTER DECISION MAKER

As many of you already know, I am a Libra, and being a Libra-person means I am not terribly good at making decisions. I’d even go as far as to say I used to really suck at it, especially when put on the spot.

‘KM! The traffic light is about to change! Do you want to go left or right?’
‘Arrrrg! I don’t know, erm….left….NO…..RIGHT! Wait, left, yes. Left. Or maybe in this particular situation right is right? I’m not sure. Is there another option other than left OR right? Right feels kind of weird to me but, left sorta does too….what about north or south? Are they options too?’
*Cue car behind honking at Libra taking way too long to make their bloody mind up. 

Playing chess has not only made me a better decision maker but forced me to be confident about the choices I am making, especially when playing Blitz games. The clock is ticking. I have 30 seconds left. I have to make a move….but which one is the best?

It’s amazing how chess brought to the fore some of my personal fears. It showed me how afraid I was a making the *wrong* choice. I also realised that I didn’t have the courage of my own convictions and more often than not, my gut reaction was that I needed to ask someone else. Someone else is bound to know the answer, I couldn’t possibly know what the right thing to do is! 😉 But when I was practicing games on my own, 9 times out of 10 having checked with a chess computer, I would always find the right moves on my own. I just didn’t believe in my decisions enough to just do them without asking a friend / chess engine.

Amazingly, this has actually translated into real-life stuff. I’ve been playing chess for about 3 years now and I am a much better decision maker and feel way more confident that I’m doing the right thing.

CHESS HAS TAUGHT ME TO ENJOY THE JOURNEY

Winning chess games is fun. For sure. But there is soooooo much more to playing chess than winning. There’s an ocean of information out there, and being a learning junkie, I find this both exciting and inspiring.

I remember watching an interview recently with one of my all-time favs Garry Kasparov. He said the only way anyone managed to beat him was because he had made a mistake, not because someone had played better than him.

I think it’s safe for me to say at this point that I am no Garry K, and I have been outplayed by many people who are waaaaay better than me. No doubt! 😉 But having gone over hundreds of my own games, there were many times when I was playing really strong chess, but for some reason lost my focus and made a silly mistake. Analyzing my games and understanding exactly where –>I<– went wrong has been enlightening and taught me so much.

Again, this translates into real-world stuff. We don’t tend to enjoy looking at the mistakes we have made. It’s much easier to look at everything we don’t suck at.

I watched a brilliant Netflix documentary about Michael Schumacher, in which he said something that really resonated with me.

‘It is your responsibility to find out what the problems are and fix them’.

It is impossible to grow personally or professionally if we don’t have the courage to look at ourselves honestly and see where the faults lie.

Chess has taught me that the journey is far more important than the end destination. If I won games constantly, I don’t think I’d have nearly as much fun. I love going over games. Even games where my opponent has destroyed me! I enjoy checking out other people’s ideas and playing styles and figuring out how I can incorporate that into mine.

CHESS CONNECTS ME TO THE PAST

I LOVE checking out chess games from the 19thC.

No computers, no chess engines. Just a bunch of nerds gathered around a table figuring out what piece to put where and in what order.

Many experts criticize the Romantic Era of chess, saying it lacks long-term strategic planning and that players used moves now considered too weak for use in modern games. Point taken. However, I do think these guys were way more creative with their problem solving and some of the games I have gone over feature really interesting and fun tactics.

My first foray into 19thC chess was through a book called Staunton’s Chess Player’s Companion, published in 1849.

  

For those of you that don’t know, in ye olde times they transcribed games differently and the current notation system is a heck of a lot easier to follow.

In my spare time (for ‘fun’), I transcribe these old games and play them out on my own board. I also like to run these games through a chess engine to see what it makes of 19thC chess moves (which is usually not a lot lol).

And before you ask, yes, I am an absolute hoot at parties.

I think it’s incredible that over a hundred years ago, a bunch of dudes were sitting somewhere in a smoke-filled room playing these games, and here I am in 2022 replaying it all move by move.

So flippin’ cool.

I read somewhere that a lot of these games were saved purely by chance if someone happened to be near the board with pen and paper in hand to write down the moves. The circumstances were also incredibly different compared to modern games. Anyone could stand around the board (usually very close) and people were chatting, smoking and apparently talking smack to each other trying to throw their opponent off their game. I read about one player who would smoke while he was playing and deliberately blow smoke in the other guy’s face (total dick move).

On the subject of old books, one of my most prized possessions is an original copy of Scacchia Ludus, a Poem on the Game of Chess, written by Marcus Hieronymus Vida (translated by Rev. Samuel Pullein, Dublin, Ireland) which was published in 1750.

There are many reasons why this is special to me; it is the oldest book in my humble collection. I randomly happened upon it during an eBay search one night. It had been newly listed with what appeared to be a very reasonable Buy it Now price. I honestly had no idea about this book at all, but I thought it looked absolutely lovely. The seller told me he did house clearances and came across the book in someone’s attic.

It’s amazing that it arrived with me in one piece, as the guy sent it to me in a plastic envelope with no padding whatsoever! 😮 But I guess there’s a reason this book has survived for over 270 years.

Let’s just put that into perspective; This book was published before electricity had been invented. It was also pre-automobiles, aeroplanes….and the United States of America! It’s crazy this think this book has lived through so much and is now sitting on my bookshelf over 270 years later.

I didn’t realise until after the book arrived with me, that handwritten in the very front page is the name and address of the original owner; John Parsons Esquire, 40 Dawson Street, Dublin, Ireland.

Many times I have wondered who John Parsons is and how on earth this book ended up in someone’s attic in the USA.

Amazingly, one of my students found out a ton of wonderful information about the whole family and their house on 40 Dawson Street. John sadly passed away at the tender age of 26 from scarlet fever. His father (Sir Lawrence Parsons) commissioned Bernard Mullins in 1928 to build John‘s Hall to commemorate his son’s death.

I feel incredibly privileged to own this book and take extremely good care of it.

So yeah, chess is awesome AND rad. Give it a try ❤

Btw, I entered my first ever official chess tournament about a year ago and out of 22 people I came 7th, which felt like a HUGE win! 🙂

Self Help Books for Musicians

In between my musical activites I do a lot of reading.  I switch between fiction and non-fiction depending on my mood, but on the whole, I do tend to lean more in the direction of Educational and Self Help books. I’m a real learning junkie and love coming across a life changing read.

BUT – one thing you do realise very quickly when stepping into the world of Self Help books;

There is a TON of utter crap out there.

The Self Help section of any store is always filled with brightly coloured books of all shapes and sizes, all with snappy titles and a photo of the author printed on the back looking very smug indeed.  These happy, smiley people have jumped on the Self Help band wagon hoping to become the next Louise Hay or Wayne Dyer. Using lots of Self Help jargon to get your attention, each author brags about how, with their help, they can make YOUR life better.

In so many cases it becomes painfully clear quite early on that these people have no idea what the bloody hell they’re talking about and probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to them is their MacBook Air took 10 seconds longer to load than usual.

*sigh.

Thankfully, in between all the brightly coloured books screaming ‘pick me! pick me!’ are beautifully written works by genuine, authentic people who actually know their stuff.

And these are the books that have quite literally changed my life for the better, which is why I wanted to share them with you.

I do have some honourable mentions below my Top 5 list.  These are also well worth checking out.

Ok, so here goes – this is my Top 5 Self Help Books for Musical People

#5 – THE ART OF PRACTISING A Guide to Making Music From the Heart by Madeline Bruser

I remember reading the title of this book for the first time and rather obnoxiously thinking ‘a book about rehearsing? How interesting can that be?‘.  But after seeing it over and over and over again in various places, I decided to give it a try.

This is SUCH a wonderful book. 

Madeline combines musicality, spirituality and practical tips for getting the most out of your practise time.

Almost every page in my copy has a maker in it because there is so much to learn from this beautifully written book.

Go check it out if you haven’t already, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

#4 – EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE 2.0 by Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves

I know what you’re thinking.  This is a strange choice, but hear me out.

I am extremely introverted.  Extremely.  I used to be *terrible* at making conversation or meeting new people and HATED networking with a passion.

Thanks to this book I am now able to meet total strangers and converse with ease.  I *never* thought in my wildest dreams this would be possible for me. I had come to the conclusion that after X amount of years I wouldn’t be able to change that aspect of my personality. I was wrong.

For those of you that don’t know, EQ is Emotional Intelligence, which unlike IQ is much easier to change.  I normally don’t like books that have online features (such as go online and watch this video or unlock this feature etc etc, I bought a fecking book you bleedin eejot! I don’t want to be online) but in this instance it works EXTREMELY well.  You take their online test to find out what your current score is and the website figures out exactly what is making your score low and tells you how to raise it.  My score was 86, which is pretty high – but what let me down was my social skills.  There are specific chapters in the book that tell you how to improve in particular areas and I honestly can’t tell you how much this has helped me.

If you want to improve your networking / people skills, give this a try!

#3 – MORNING SIDEKICK JOURNAL by Habit Nest

Most of my musician friends have been making fun of me the past couple of months because I have been getting up at 7am almost every single morning without fail.

WHY? Why would you do that? I hear you cry.

Well, I was interested in creating more time in my day and thought I’d give this a try.

I was AMAZED at how much of a difference it made.

I sleep better. I have more energy through the day. I finally have some ME time. I get all my jobs done pretty much every day.  It’s truly awesome.

The Morning Sidekick Journal is part book, part journal.  You write in it every day and it holds you accountable for your daily actions, kind of like a personal coach.  It has tons of really inspiring success stories, tips on getting the most out of your mornings and so much more.  It’s been beautifully designed with great attention to detail which I very much appreciated.

The book lasts for a total of 66 days and I made it all the way through! I was actually very sad when it was over, but I’ve kept my morning routine going and I wouldn’t have been able to make that work without the help of this journal.  It really was life changing for me.

Since finishing this I have tried a couple of similar ones but they were all pretty awful (yep, you guessed it.  Jumping. Band Wagon).

I’m a full time musician and have managed to make this change work for me.

Go on, give it a try 🙂

#2 – YOU ARE A BADASS AT MAKING MONEY – Jen Sincero

I wanted to find a book specifically to help me with my hang ups surrounding money.  The Universe presented me with You Are a Badass at Making Money and I couldn’t have found a better book.  It TOTALLY changed my way of thinking and helped me work through all my energetic blocks surrounding moola.

Jen has a beautiful writing style.  Easy to read, relatable and extremely funny.  I’ve just finished reading her first book You Are a Badass which is also very good, but I thought this would be a good choice for creative types as let’s face it – most of us are pretty terrible with money.

Highly, HIGHLY, H-I-G-H-L-Y recommended.  An awesome, life changing read.

#1 – ZEN GUITAR by Philip Toshio Sudo

This book was published 20 years ago and amazingly I only came across recently.

Holy. Crap.

If you need to be brought back to centre and have gotten so caught up in the business side of things that you feel disconnected from your art – PLEASE read this book.  It’s another one where almost every page in my copy has a marker in it, because there are SO many things we ALL need to hear on an almost weekly (if not daily) basis.

Beautifully written with honesty and sincerity.  This applies to all musical people no matter what instrument you play.  Please go and get yourself a copy if you haven’t done so already.  It’s a wonderful book.

HONORARY MENTIONS: 

Even though these aren’t in my Top 5 list, they are all well worth checking out.

The Music Lesson – Victor Wooten
How Many People Does it Take to Make a Difference? – Dan Zadra
Year of Yes – Shonda Rhimes (I highly recommend getting the audiobook version.  It’s read by Shonda and her inflections and brilliant reading style add so much).
Two Minute Mornings – A Journal to Win Your Day Every Day – Neil Pasricha (there are a lot of these journals popping up, but this is a very simple and well put together journal that I take with me on the road, due to it being nice and small!).

So that’s my list.  What do you think? Do you agree with my selection? Have I missed anything? I’d love to know what you think and if you have any suggestions, please comment below and let me know!

If you’re based in Austin please go and buy all of these books (and more) from my favourite indie book store – Book People.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com