chess lessons for a writer


I bought Hubby a chess set for his birthday. I have fond memories of our children playing chess at school and at home. I marvelled at how their young minds soaked up the rules and enjoyed the unique moves of each piece. We’re looking forward to teaching the grand-kiddies. Oh, the fun, friendly family tournaments we will have! (Ok, sometimes not so friendly. We do have some over-achieving competitive types among us!)

I am especially in awe of those rare, “beautiful minds” that truly master the game. We recently watched  two movies about two such minds.

“Queen of Katwe” is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi,  a young girl from the slums of Uganda who eventually became a Woman Candidate Master. Her coach, Robert Katende, believed chess could not only develop important life-skills for his students, it could open doors to a better life.  Chess teaches discipline and focus. If you want to to succeed, you must have a plan. When you face defeat, do not despair; simply re-set the pieces and start over.

The second movie is a documentary about World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen. As a parent, I’m always skeptical of those who push and prod their children into the limelight. But, the parents of Magnus recognized from an early stage that their son was different. Chess became his passion, and they helped nurture that passion. The documentary captures the tension and stress of high end chess competition.

The movies inspired me to sit down and play chess. There’s an old school feel to the game. The beauty, weight and feel of the pieces. The changing patterns on the board. Facing your opponent across the table. The silence of concentration; sometimes peaceful, sometimes tense.

Sadly, watching the movies didn’t make me a better chess player. I’m actually quite pathetic. So far, Hubby has beat me 7-0.  I cannot think more than a move or two ahead. I’m usually forced into defence mode. I throw away pieces due to carelessness. When I lose a piece, I lose focus. If I lose my Queen, I throw in the towel even when the game is far from finished. How bad am I? Hubby has started giving me “do-overs” out of kindness…or pity.

So far, I’m a Chess Grandloser. I haven’t felt like much of a winner with my writing recently, either. I began pondering the parallels between the two skills…

natural gifts vs hard work

The good Lord  gave me gifts. A “beautiful mind”is not one of them. I lack the brilliance of those intellectually gifted women and men who immediately understand complicated concepts. I’m a slogger, a slow reader, and a lousy retainer of facts. My memorization skills suck. I’m obviously not a natural chess player.


Chess can be studied. Winning strategies and moves can be learned. If I want to progress beyond my infantile skills (thanks for the do-over, Hun!), I’ve got some work to do. It won’t be easy, but it helps to have a solid goal in front of you. (You’re going down, dear husband of mine!)

Writing can also be studied. Some people are natural writing machines, churning out enviable numbers of words a day. Good words! I’ve read many books, articles and blog posts that promise to make me a prolific and successful writer. I am, still, neither.

Studying theory provides a good foundation. But, theory must be put into action.

practice, practice, practice,

This is the most obvious piece of advice when developing any skill. Natural ability or not, both Phiona Mutesi and Magnus Carlsen studied and played chess daily. Constantly. They played actual games, and replayed games in their minds.


It’s good to study the art of writing, but there comes a time when you simply have to stop thinking or talking about writing and do the obvious. WRITE! Which brings me to…

focus, focus, focus!

Chess is all about focus and commitment. It requires a disciplined mind. Know what else requires a disciplined mind? Writing.

I suffer from writer’s attention deficiency. The empty screen haunts me.


Damn! Stumped on the first sentence. Again. Getting the first word down would help. I know, I’ll read other people’s words for inspiration! Do a quick check of the news sites, Twitter, email, other blog feeds, etc. Ooo, there are some great writer’s tips on Pinterest! It won’t take long to have a peak, then I’ll get back to writing. Oops, forgot there’s laundry to move. A cup of tea would be lovely. Is it lunch time already?

don’t quit!

The biggest lesson I can learn from chess? Finish the game! You lost some vital pieces early in the go? Get over it! Kaka happens. So the challenges got tougher. It doesn’t mean they can’t be overcome.


This has been one of my biggest struggles with writing. Writing a book is high on my bucket list. So, why don’t you do it?…you ask. I’ve actually started four or five different book projects.

I’ve started.

I’m a great starter. The moment of inspiration is thrilling. Ideas don’t flow, they gush as I write them down. I can even vision the completed work. Then comes the hard part.

The actual writing.

What sounded like such fun all of a sudden becomes work. Hard work. REALLY hard work! Like a losing chess game, I walk away. Deflated and defeated. The work is left uncompleted. I’ll never know if I had a chance to win the game, because I assumed I would lose it.

if at first you don’t succeed

Fear of failure cripples many a writer. What if my work is rejected? What if it’s published, only to be slammed by reviewers or online discussion boards?

Chess teaches us to persist until the end of the game, win or lose. And, we all lose sometimes.  What do you do when that happens?

You pick  up the pieces and start a new game.





4 thoughts on “chess lessons for a writer

  1. There are lessons here. Most remember the Scout, Guide , camp or family gathering where you have to “preform”? Well, I never could; never did. I do recall one such time though; a lad, “pretending” to be a stand-up comedian. After, he thanked me. Astounded, I asked why. He said that I listened. Listening is respect. Without a listener, an orator is nothing; without a learner, a teacher is redundant. One doesn’t have to be a Shakespeare but we need a bard; one doesn’t need to be a Monet, but we need a canvas. In all of these ‘needs” we need a worthy, someone we respect, a subject that warrants, a listener that who renders the “word” worthy of a reply. dialogue.
    Someone who plays the game, and maybe seldom wins, respects the engagement, is not a loser. That someone is the spirit.

    1. Thank you for listening, Dennis. And, thank you for finding the words worthy of a respectful, enriching reply so many times. I have always appreciated the dialogue. God bless you!



  2. Hi Isabella, wow, you’ve got nerve, exposing all your writer’s nerve-endings! But know this, your comparing with chess is brilliantly done 🙂 Do draw some hope and courage from this piece. I hope and pray that naming the blocks and staring down their power is the beginning of freedom … to … write 🙂 Yes, you can, Isabella. I have faith in you 🙂

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