Life & Systems Change as a Game of Chess

About 4 years ago, my dear friend Leonard, a retired nurse, had temporarily moved in with his dying mother who lived in Chicago, to provide her in-home hospice care during the last few months of her life.  During that time, he asked if I would play on-line chess with him. At first, I was reluctant as I could not commit to spend long periods of time playing chess with him, but then he explained that the game can be set up to allow players to take as long as 2 weeks to make their moves, so I agreed to play with him.


His mother passed away under his loving care, and Leonard returned home to Madison.  But he and I continue to enjoy playing on-line chess and have now played nearly 700 games of chess with each of us winning about half our games, making for good competition.

Some people have questioned what may appear to be an obsession with playing chess  with Leonard, but in fact, these past 4 years of chess playing have taught me some important life lessons and systems change strategies, in addition to significantly improving my chess skills.

For those who do not play chess, it is important to understand that there is no luck involved in the game. There are no random cards, no rolls of the dice, no luck at all. To be clear, I do not consider it lucky when my opponent makes a bad move.  His bad move was in his control. It is not the same as drawing a bad card, or having a bad roll of the dice.

The same is true in life.  Although some may believe that luck determines life’s outcomes, the truth is that what may often appear to be luck or lack thereof is usually determined by actions or inactions which one has made to lead up to  the lucky or unlucky event. Of course, I am not suggesting that we can control everything that happens to us.  Some events are truly out of our control, such as succumbing to a disease or being hit by another car even if you were driving carefully. But since we can never control the uncontrollable, I believe that focusing on improving one’s ability to control as much as one can in life will bring one more success in achieving one’s hopes and dreams.

So what does chess teach about life?

  • Like life, chess is infinitely complex, providing a vast number of choices with each move. A few years ago, Popular Science described it this way:

After both players move, 400 possible board setups exist. After the second pair of turns, there are 197,742 possible games, and after three moves, 121 million. At every turn, players chart a progressively more distinctive path, and each game evolves into one that has probably never been played before.
According to Jonathan Schaeffer, a computer scientist, “The possible number of chess games is so huge that no one will invest the effort to calculate the exact number.”

  • As in life, one has more success in chess when one analyzes the available choices carefully before making the next move.
  • Concentration and focus are critical skills to succeed in chess, just as they are in life.
  • Learning from one’s mistakes (rather than simply blaming mistakes on bad luck) to avoid repeating them in the future is a key to success in both chess and life.
  • Recovering from mistakes can happen in both chess and life.  The success of the recovery depends on the care and thoughtfulness taken and the response by the other side.
  • Recognizing that one must wait for others to respond or act before one takes further action on a given issue is akin to the turn by turn nature of chess.

Although chess is an individual game, the various pieces have different amounts of power. Thus, a successful chess player knows how to use the different strengths of each piece towards the ultimate goal of checkmate, just as for those of us engaged in systems change, we must utilize the different skills and strengths of the team we assemble to accomplish the change that we seek.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.