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! 🙂