Living Like a Grandmaster

  • Nathan Schneider
girls playing chess

Today’s blog is going to break from the tome-lengthened posts I’ve been putting out since we began this blog. Invariably I begin with what I think will be a simple idea which then grows and grows like a gremlin fed after midnight. But today is a new day, and just like Solomon wrote, “There is a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to kill, and a time to heal, a time to write really long blogs, and a time to keep it short and simple.” Or something like that. In any case, from this point on, I’ll try not to completely contradict what I just wrote. This is called literary accountability.

Growing up, the Schneider clan had a family game. I really shouldn’t say “had” because we still play it, it’s just that living up in Alaska means I don’t see my extended family nearly as much as I used to. But there was a time when my dad’s family would get together for our bi-annual family reunions, and when you get more than a few of us together, it’s doesn’t take very long before the playing cards come out. And for our family, the game of choice was Hearts.

Sadly, I have not yet introduced my own family to hearts. However, I have introduced them to what could be considered the king (no pun intended) of games…chess. Now, none of us are very good at chess. But it’s a game with infinite possibilities, demanding strategic thinking and a lot of patience. And when you play chess with little kids, patience requirements are multiplied exponentially.

Nevertheless, chess is a fascinating game, and there’s a certain aura that surrounds it. Books and movies have been produced immortalizing chess grandmasters of the past. I think I grew up believing that chess grandmasters were these geniuses who could think five, ten, even fifteen moves ahead of their opponents.

Then, when I was in college, I came across a fascinating article that changed my perspective on these great chess players. The article was from Scientific American, and was a report of a study done by researchers from the University of Konstanz in Germany. The study concluded that what made these players great wasn’t necessarily their IQ, or their ability to plan out moves with alarmingly god-like foreknowledge. Instead, it had to do with what they already knew.

The team proposed that the use of the frontal cortex by the grandmasters who have memorized thousands of moves indicates that they recognize known problems and retrieve solutions for them from their memories. Use of the medial temporal lobe by amateurs, in contrast, suggests that these players are analyzing unknown moves and forming new long-term memories.

Then, a follow-up article a few years later noted that

Researchers have found evidence that chess grandmasters rely on a vast store of knowledge of game positions. Some scientists have theorized that grandmasters organize the information in chunks, which can be quickly retrieved from long-term memory and manipulated in working memory.

How do these individuals achieve this level of knowledge? According to the study, it’s about how they approach the problem in the first place:

To accumulate this body of structured knowledge, grandmasters typically engage in years of effortful study, continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond their competence.

In other words, these great chess players don’t get to where they are by relying on mere talent and inherent genius. Don’t get me wrong, many of them would be placed in the category of genius, but that’s not the underlying reason for their mastery of the game. Instead, in the end, it comes down to the amount of time they spent playing the game. Each hour they spend, and every game they play accumulates into a vast mental filing cabinet filled with scenes and scenarios and configurations. They know where they want to go because they’ve seen the board set up this way before. They know what will happen if their opponent moves his piece to this square versus that square, because they’ve played those scenarios out and filed them away.

You may already know where I’m going with this. Forgive the cheesy metaphor, but life is not much different than a glorified game of chess. It’s filled with decisions, opponents, moves, and scenarios. Except that it’s not a game, and the stakes for losing are much higher. If we put these concepts in biblical terms, what we’re really talking about has to do with wisdom, discernment, and decision-making.

In his prayer for the believers in Colossae, the apostle Paul wrote,

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him. (Colossians 1:9-10).

Paul wanted the Colossians to have lives that pleased the Lord and were fully commensurate with the gospel that saved them. So his prayer for them, with that end in mind, was that they would have “all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Wisdom, here, is a broad concept that speaks of an ability to collect and concisely organize principles, in this case, principles of God’s will. Understanding, on the other hand, is a more focused word that refers to the idea of skill at applying those principles to everyday life. In a way, that sounds a lot like those chess grandmasters.

But here’s the thing. You can’t process and apply principles to everyday life if you aren’t continually filling your mind with the knowledge necessary to formulate those principles and understand them within the context of a biblical worldview. In other words, you can’t expect to live life like a grandmaster if you aren’t consistently exposing yourself to the very thing that gives you wisdom–the Bible.

The hunker-down restrictions might be easing, but life isn’t any less messy or complicated. You will encounter problems you’ve never faced before, and challenges you have yet to process. But the principles necessary to navigate those scenarios are at your fingertips. You have only to open your Bible, read it, think on it, recognize its principles, and file them away. That’s at the heart of biblical wisdom. Then you can use them and apply them at different points in life. That’s called understanding. But without the principles there, there’s nothing to draw from. You’re like that amateur chess player, always encountering unknown moves.

Make it your habit to never tire of filling your mind with God’s Word, and never being satisfied with your level of competence in the Scriptures. We may not ever be able to play chess to the level of a grandmaster. But we have spiritual resources fully available to us to live out lives that please the Lord.

How can a young man keep his ways pure?
By guarding it according yo your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
-Psalm 119:9-16