Chess and Work

I’ve been playing a fair amount of online chess lately. Someone who ran a local chess club came to my middle school once, and I played a bit there – I still remember some of his lessons and adages like “the pin is mightier than the sword”. At some point, I left chess behind and focused my extracurricular efforts on music. Then I went to Allentown, PA with my family to see a drum and bugle corps show. I do this every year, but last year, the apartment we stayed in had a chess set, and my brothers picked it up and started playing. I watched their game, then I played a game with one of them while the other one watched. After we all returned to our various homes, one brother and I have been playing online. We are still trying to nudge our other brother to create an account. But it has been a good way to keep in touch while stretching our brains.

The format I play in is correspondence chess. My brother and I have a game with a time limit of 3 days per move. And I have 3 simultaneous games at the moment – with a friend and another family member. A single move can drastically change the course of a game, so for some stretch of time during the day, I’m considering what candidate move to make next. I heard that there are more possible variations of chess games than there are atoms in the universe (but then also learned that this might not be true when looking at only legal moves – though still it’s a mind-boggling number of possibilities). However, for a given turn, there are usually only four to six reasonable candidate moves.

The process of evaluating candidate moves involves going down a path of what candidate moves your opponent might make in response and how you might counter those moves. So it branches and can get quite complex. It seems endless. All along, you’re evaluating how the situation looks for you and your opponent at whatever branch you’re focused on. Computers are really good at this, and humans are less so. Sometimes we have to use judgments like “this feels good” or “this feels risky” midway down a path. And there’s the meta-judgment of “how much time and effort do I want to spend determining this move?” I used to spend hours per day choosing each move and then I realized it wasn’t fun anymore. I have also made blunders while chasing around my toddler and then wished I had been more careful. Lately, I’ve usually been spending 30 – 45 minutes per day on my chess app.

I’ve found this way of thinking to help me a lot at work – this mode of coming up with candidate moves, evaluating what the result might be, and knowing when to stop has become quite natural. I think this way more in both project decisions and some high-stakes interpersonal interactions. Also, if I make a decision that ends up having a not-great outcome, I can look back at it and say “it seemed like a good decision at the time because this is what I expected” and give myself some grace rather than catastrophizing. And then I can learn from it and refine my judgment the next time. One usually doesn’t make the same blunder twice.