Chess As Therapy

There’s an insidious habit that forms in a lot of my colleagues and I found it forming in myself the last year or so. I imagine there are those in your office or other communities that fall prey to it as well. It would be easy to confuse with workaholism, but I find it to be different. The most proper word I can find for it would be flow addiction.

Being a flow state is inherently positive. It’s worth striving for. What troubles me is I find myself putting so much effort into finding flow in the workplace that it becomes hard to be doing anything else.

Working in support, the primary way my performance at work is measured is in the number of interactions I have with our customers. Our company has lots of smart people in it, so we have a lot of ways of looking at that data, and that interaction count can feel like a scoreboard if you let it. Each live chat inching you higher and higher in worth. Each point giving you a splash of endorphins.

Much of life isn’t set up with such a quick feedback loop. This is part of the craze to gamify things: my fitbit gives me a badge for hitting so many steps in an effort to make me more excited about walking the dog. But these tricks aren’t nearly as effective as true flow state, and I can get that on a regular basis doing my work.

The trouble comes that on a day off, or at night after work, the nagging that there is still more work that could be done just never stops. Even a nominally fun activity may seem way less desirable than getting a few more points on that scoreboard.

What it’s come to is a need to find more intention in my recreation. I’ve been doing a lot of revisiting with younger versions of me, and I think my best shot of making myself happier right now is upping my chess game.

Chess has always been enjoyable, but there have only been two phases of my life where I really took it seriously: first when I was in primary school (1st-4th grade) and then again in college from 2008 to 2010. My USCF rating peaked in 2009 at 1436, I think that was after playing in the Kings Island Open . Even among amateurs that’s not an impressive standing a strong club player is typically above 1800. If I’d like to reach that level it will stick a lot of effort.

Getting better at chess doesn’t have the quick feedback loop. Truly becoming better is a result of hours of study, and not as much from the time playing games. But playing the game absolutely does have that feedback loop and is still part of the process. You can set longer term goals, particularly if you’re willing to attend bigger tournaments every so often and treat those as tentpoles of performance. And there is a very literal scoreboard available: your rating.

My hope is to turn this problem on its head. If I can get these little excitements from more places, I’ll feel more balanced and happier. If this goes well I may try to take a similar approach in some way with parenting, as dorky as that sounds.

To start I did a read-through of Attacking Chess by Josh Waitzkin, one of the first chess books that was truly my own. Now I’m nailing down the Class D and Class C sections in Silman’s Endgame Course a few times over.

If you’d like to play, please find me on chess.com: backrow1720 .

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