Fit in my 40s: will playing chess help me to focus?

Zoe Williams
·3-min read

My 2021 started in brain fog: a persistent sense of having not done something, usually because I hadn’t; my concentration totally shot. I think it was the lack of external events – it makes the days blend. The answer to this, apparently, is chess. If you can’t focus, you should play the game in which your focus is total: it’s like sit-ups for the mind. Lots of people took it up having watched The Queen’s Gambit; I took it up to get the hours of my day back, which is ironic, because it takes ages.

The problem was, I hadn’t played since I was eight, when I got put in a schools’ tournament because I was the only person who knew the rules, and I put someone in checkmate in two fluky moves. After that, the teachers thought I was a chess genius, so I decided to give it up rather than tarnish my new glow. “Chess geniuses”, they thought. “So temperamental.”

I still know the basic capabilities of each piece, but nothing more: luckily, Mr Z plays a lot and offered to teach me. Ah, luck; such a fluid concept. “Before we start,” he said, “show me where the rook is really powerful.” Reader, he was annoying me already. The stifled urge to say “up your butt” was giving me indigestion. We moved on.

It’s actually three games: openings, where you set up a powerful position without losing your defence; exchanges, in which you take and lose pieces, aiming to come out on top; and endgame. There are also two categories of endgame, but no time for that now. He’s already moved. Huh! It’s just a pawn. I remember that happening a lot, the uneventful shunting about of the small pieces. I want to get my big guns out, but I don’t want to lose them. “You can’t protect everything, you need to prioritise,” he says. “Wait,” he said, as he casually lifted my bishop off the board. “Are you making notes?” “No.” “I can clearly see the word ‘annoying’.”

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His best advice was how to make your peace with losing your pieces; it’s not by not caring. If you have a plan, which you are watching unfold, each loss becomes a win, and your plan’s derailing no more than a puzzle for a new plan.

Without a plan, I had lost before the exchanges even began; my pieces were just roaming about, awaiting disaster. “Are you sure you want to do that?” he said after a period of carnage, “because that’s checkmate – and putting yourself into checkmate is illegal.” “Yes. Yes I am.”

I won the second game, which was so exhilarating that I didn’t realise until hours later that he’d let me. I don’t think this is a meditative game: it’s more like playing the slots, only without the grinding sense of pointlessness and self-hatred. If it improves your focus, it’s by incentivising the act of sitting down and concentrating, rather than fostering any sense of peace. But I’ll have to get back to you with definitive findings once I’ve won fair and square, which could be years.

What I learned

The fianchetto is where you move your bishop in front of your knight to control more of the board