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Burnout: My Chess Story

As a kid, I liked chess because it was a medium where I had control. It was a fantastic escape from the monotony of childhood and we played at dinner every night. Through the play of chess, I learned valuable lessons like ‘Never ever quit!’ and ‘Why not!’.

Eventually 'Why not!', paid off professionally, I applied for a job teaching chess to kids in local schools. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough, but why not! I ended up spending the last 5 years of my life teaching chess, but also running scholastic chess events for thousands and thousands of kids on the East Coast.

My first blindfold chess game was played in front of a class of 20 kids with me having no idea if I could manage to play an entire game without looking at the board. Why not! I won. The next day I spent $400 registering for the World Open having no idea how I would do. Why not! I won $7000.

The Glory

When I first started playing chess seriously (around the time I started teaching), my rating climbed rapidly. It was a whirlwind of easily gained raw chess improvement. I was teaching kids how to play chess and getting lots of input from a multitude of very strong chess players working for my after-school chess company. Just a few months into this, I was primed for winning my first major chess competition (did I mention the money? Yes? Ok fine, but that was really really cool). Right on the heels of that triumph, I received a few awards for excellent lower-rated play from the local chess club. After a year and a half, my rating climbed 505 points and I went from being a class ‘D’ player to a class ‘B’ player. Below is an actual picture of me during my successes.

The Burnout

The next year was my worst chess year ever. In 2016, my attitude was terrible and learning more chess was not fun. To make up for my failings, I pushed myself even harder. Why not! became a sinister mantra. I played more rated games than I ever had before. Chess became a chore. I played game after game hunting for that elusive feeling of victory that I had so recently experienced. Below is my publicly available record of games won and lost by year up until COVID.

You’ll notice that I played 63 rated games in 2016 (about twice as many as usual) and won about a third of them. The peak rating is a bit misleading as my rating plummeted to as low as 1597 towards the end of that year. Anyway, regardless of the specifics, I had some hard questions that I needed to ask myself.

I’ve played this game my entire life, but what’s the point of playing if I don’t improve? What went wrong?

Lets answer the questions in reverse order!

What went wrong?

I set a fixed rating goal that year. My first-born was due in December and I decided I needed to make 1800 before she was born. Everyone told me that having kids makes chess more difficult and I wanted to beat the clock. So I rushed, pushed, and trained the fun out of the game.

Ok, simple enough.

What’s the point of playing if I don’t improve?

Journey before destination. This phrase has been coined by my favorite fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson and I think it might be the most universally significant three words ever strung together. When I read those words sometime in 2018, they really really clicked with me.

My purpose in playing chess isn’t to check off all the boxes on my personal accomplishment shopping list. I enjoy the journey of self-improvement. I am supposed to enjoy it! My chess joy come from the moments of inspiration I have while staring at a difficult chess position, when I teach students a new way to look at something they’ve found challenging, and when I practice my chess in a way that makes sense to me.

Its always about the journey. The more we humans practice, the better we get, and our limits are totally unknowable. Just because I’m failing to achieve now, does not mean that I will not be able to achieve later. Or as my father has always put it, “Never EVER quit!”

This doesn’t mean force yourself to like something. This means that if you like something, regardless of how skilled or unskilled you are, stick with it. With enough effort put into an activity, anyone can find accomplishment in that activity.

Finally, if I’m not improving, instead of hitting my head against the wall repeatedly trying to learn (or teach) a lesson in one way, its totally fine to try a different way. Teaching children the basics and getting advice from one set of masters took me far, but I needed a new and varied chess experience to go further. I took a different path and found success!

If we return to that chart above, you’ll notice my rating and performance in 2018 and 2019 has improved (class ‘A’ achievement unlocked!), and the magic sauce is definitely focusing on the journey. I still have a relatively rigorous study plan (for someone with two kids), but I’m not punishing myself for failing to demonstrate progress. The progress will eventually come: every journey does have a destination after all.

P.S: Yes, I credited Brandon Sanderson because ‘journey before destination’ is his phrase and after asking his legal team for permission, but I’m seriously glad to reference Mr. Sanderson because his writing is amazing.

My previous paragraphs referenced one author, I’m now going to talk about another, James Clear. I’ve been reading his book, Atomic Habits. Its an excellent starting point for self-reflection and analysis of why you do what you do. I won’t offer too many spoilers here, but if you want to see why I’m hyped about his work you should visit his website:

The premise of Atomic Habits is that to form a habit, the habit must be obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. You can take use any aspiration and create a series of steps to work your way in its direction. Making lots of little things 1% better with those little parts adding up to make big changes in the end.

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