Losing is Learning

Chess can teach us a lot about life.

Most people, when they think of how chess relates to life, think of ‘applications,’ as in, “How can the skills used by a chess player be applied to real life situations?”

Certainly there are many of those: creative problem solving, understanding consequences, decision-making, planning, critical thinking… The list goes on.

But chess can also teach us about life. And there is no greater life lesson in the game of chess than this one:

Losing is learning.

Black wins this game easily.

The position above is from one of my early games as a competitive tournament player, a full 12 years before I would win a Class Championship at the U.S. Open. You don’t need to know much about chess to be able to tell that White has no hope of winning. Just comparing each side’s forces on the board, it’s plain to see that Black has an extra piece — the rook on h2.

White’s only hope of getting a piece on the board is to get a pawn all the way to the end of the board. And there is no hope of that!

You can probably guess by the title of this post that I played White in this game! It was a disastrous loss in a game that I was actually winning for some time, but I then made a mistake and let my advantage slip away into the hands of my opponent.

One of the most difficult things to do after a chess game you’ve lost is to play through the game looking for the errors you made that cost you the game. But it is absolutely necessary if you want to improve!

Former World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca said it best:

Capablanca was one of the greatest world champions to ever have lived. He learned the game as a four-year-old by simply watching his dad (a Cuban war general) play day after day.

He was not taught how the pieces move, or what checkmate meant, nor was he taught anything about basic strategy or tactical moves. He learned all of those things just by watching and being a curious four-year-old. Amazing!

However, whether you label him a child chess prodigy or not, he tells you in his own words how he became the kind of player that wins a world championship! By learning from the games he lost.

How do you learn from your losses in chess? You study your mistakes.

We all make mistakes, and this is by no means a new revelation. However, many people seem to make similar mistakes — if not the same mistake — over and over in life. I believe this is because many people are unwilling to confront themselves and honestly examine the mistakes they make.

It can be painful to relive or rehash something from the past, especially when it’s the recent past, in order to try to extract a lesson from it. But the most successful people in the world do just that.

Warren Buffett is widely known as one of the greatest investors of all time. His net worth makes him one of the richest people on the planet.

But much like Capablanca, he got that way because he understands the power of studying his mistakes and learning from them.

Don’t think Buffett ever makes mistakes? Think again!

I’ll let you read that article if you want to, but I can summarize it quickly by telling you that one of the biggest mistakes he ever made, straight from “The Oracle”’s mouth, was buying Berkshire-Hathaway — the very company he is famous for being the CEO of!

In his estimation, buying control of the company cost him around $200 billion! Yes, that’s billion with a ‘b’. Not a typo!

One of my favorite inspirational men that I’ve followed for decades is Tony Robbins. Love him or hate him (and it seems to be one or the other!), you must admit that he has risen to a level of success few ever reach.

And by the theme of this article, you can probably forsee that I’m about to tell you he got to where he is as a result of the mistakes he’s made over the years. Again, straight from the source, Tony Robbins breaks down his success strategy as follows:

  1. Try something
  2. If it doesn’t work, try something else
  3. If that doesn’t work, try something else
  4. What if that doesn’t work? …[fill in the answer; you know it!]

I don’t have to spell it all out for you. The point is, you keep trying until you succeed. And each time you ‘fail,’ or ‘lose,’ or ‘experience a setback,’ you learn from what you did and use the feedback to inform your future choices.

One of my favorite analogies he uses is with teaching your baby to walk. If you’re a parent, how many times did you try to teach your baby to walk before you just gave up and figured, “Well, I guess my kid just isn’t going to walk?”

The absurdity of that question should get you laughing! Of course you’re going to keep at it and keep working with your kid until he or she walks. It’s a small wonder, then, that almost everybody walks! You and I learned to walk through trial and error and my daughter did and so did your kids if you have any.

So we can agree that losing is learning, and that we need to study the mistakes we make in order to learn from them and grow.

The key position from earlier in the game. White to move.

So as a chess player, we go back through the game and find the turning point where everything changed for the worse. In this game, it was right here.

It’s my move and I didn’t pay attention to the fact that my rook on e3 is pinned to my king. It cannot move off of the square e3 because doing so would put my own king in check, which is never allowed.

Because I missed that feature of the position, I played the pawn move g2-g4, thinking I’d advance more pawns into the enemy position than he could handle. The next move my opponent played, …Bc5, was the winning move. My opponent attacked my pinned rook with a minor piece, winning the exchange a move later and ending up winning the game.

Had I not gone over this game and studied it, I might have never learned to take into consideration the pieces and pawns that are pinned to my king, and what might happen next as a result of that. If I did learn that, it would have come after more mistakes just like it and more losses as a result.

And when we make mistakes in life, if we’re willing to go back and analyze them — just long enough to learn from them, not to dwell — we are serving our future selves in the best way possible.

Learning from — and recovering from — our mistakes takes us on the path to success.

Thanks for reading! Drop me a line anytime at coachrob@kidsnchess.com

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Coach Rob

I’m a chess coach who works with kids of all skill levels to teach chess by connecting the material so it can be rapidly put to use. Visit: https://rb.gy/xqdp8g