Why Every Writer Should Play Chess

by Petr Kratochvil

Dear writers,

Chess: if you think it’s just another board game for bored people, you’re wrong. You’re so wrong, anyone with even a minor penchant for the game would slap you in the face, declare you a blasphemer, and promptly proceed to tar and feather you; and that’s if you get off easy. He didn’t break out the stake or the guillotine.

No, chess is no mere “game”; chess is a way of life for some. Even for the less passionate players, it is no mere pastime, no more than reading or writing. The art of chess is to be taken seriously, for an art it is; and like any art, there are many things it can teach us about life. And anything that can teach you about life, teaches you about writing.

There are many reasons writers should play chess, and wiser, more ardent chess masters could probably write volumes on it. I’m going to spare you that, and touch briefly upon some of the main points.

Keeping it all together. Chess is about minding every square and every piece on the board at once. You have to be able to see every possible move, feeling every piece as if it were an extension of your body. It’s no easy task to keep so much in mind at once; but that’s exactly what a writer has to do.

You have to mind your characters like a chess player minds their pawns; you have to mind style, grammar, story, plot, and so much more, all at once, like a chess master juggling his or her each and every piece.

Knowing your opponent. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

In The Art of War, one of Sun Tzu’s most important philosophies is learning to accommodate oneself to one’s enemy: this is the surest path to victory. As a writer, my opponent is my reader. If I wage my campaign on conceit and arrogance, knowing myself but heedless of my reader, I’m only babbling to myself and I belong in an asylum. (Whether or not I belong in an asylum in general, is a question we won’t address just now.)

Luckily, it’s up to you to decide who your reader is. Ask yourself who your ideal reader would be; I find it infinitely helpful to choose someone I know, one person in particular, to write for. When that person is yourself, you enjoy the writing experience, but end up pleasing nobody else. When that person you write for is someone else, you are doing more than writing for your own enjoyment; you are writing for others. That is when the writer excels.

Planning ahead. Chess is about looking ahead and planning out paths to victory. If you don’t have a direction in mind before you start you’re too late already. But one plan will only take you so far; variables rarely have any regard for your designs. You have to be on your toes. You have to have multiple routs planned to take you to the same destination, and you have to be flexible, and capable of adapting your plans to allow for new developments.

A writer can plan, a writer can outline all he or she wants, but nothing ever goes perfectly to plan. If it does, if you can pull it off unchanged and infallible, chances are victory will be stale, and your opponent will be able to tell. A mutable plan makes for a more thrilling experience.

In chess, you have to be creative; it’s no different for creative writing.

Protecting what matters. Chess is about protecting all your most important pieces. The more material you sacrifice, the harder victory becomes. If you let go of the things that matter most to you, you’ve already lost.

Chess is too serious an art to play frivolously. If you’re going to play with a heedless, devil-may-care attitude, you might get a few laughs but you won’t impress anyone. Throwing your pieces willy-nilly will result in a loss that catches nobody’s attention. Chess, like writing, is hard work, it’s true; but it’s fun and, if you take the time to do it right, the experience is a sensational one.

Pay attention and have care: vigilance alone will empower you to protect what matters most. Whatever your ideals are, fight for them, and don’t let them go.

Making sacrifices. Call me a hypocrite, but sometimes you need to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, and when a winning strategy necessitates sacrifice. There are times when it is essential to let go, and in life and chess, that’s one of the hardest things to learn.

If you try to protect every piece without letting go of any of them, you end up with a confused melee that will prove impossible to defend and soon lead you to your defeat. In creative writing, it’s impossible to please everybody. You’ll only end up pleasing no one at all. You need to learn to let go, of the right things, at the right time and place, for the right reasons. That’s no easy lesson.

Analogy. Here’s the best lesson I can give you: before you put pen to paper next, sit down at a chessboard first and find an opponent, even if it’s a computer. The lessons I’ve pointed out are a small few. Go, play a game yourself, and see what lessons you can learn about writing from the fine art of chess.

Not only will you learn more than I could teach you, but you will, ironically, learn another lesson from this mode of learning itself. In searching for metaphors and comparisons, you will be honing your perception, expanding your vision, exercising your imagination and creativity, and generally gleaning further lessons about the value of analogy.

So what are you waiting for? Writer or human being: go play a game of chess.

If you don’t know how—Philistine! Grab a chess master if you have one handy, or look up the rules online, and start learning!

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