Chess has generated a lot of buzz lately as a learning tool to help children and young adults improve their decision-making
ability, concentration, personal responsibility, and sportsmanship. As a supporter of a New York City charity that promotes
chess in schools, I've been delighted to see the popularity of the game surge across the nation, especially as a slew
of studies link chess with higher grades and better reading comprehension. Chess nights are being held at urban recreation
centers. There's even a chess camp for girls to help them become interested in the game. And globally, the ages of the
latest crops of chess grand masters are getting younger and younger.
I wondered if chess was the key to my improvement in poker. At first, I played blitz chess for fun. I had just finished a
grueling consulting project and had a bit of rare free time, so I indulged in a few 3-minute games here and there. Unlike
traditional tournament chess, which can take a couple hours per game, it was convenient to squeeze in a blitz match in
between answering morning emails. Plus, the growth of online chess sites means there's a global community of skilled
players available any time of the day or night. The problem, though, was that I got so absorbed in the game that I would
play for hours. I was surprised at my level of concentration, and I experienced that incredible "flow" when you're so
involved in a task that you lose all sense of time.
When I had played chess tournaments in high school, my coach had always warned me against spending too much time at
speed chess. He worried that I would get so used to making snap decisions that I wouldn't develop the skill to patiently
think through strategic moves. However, as an adult, I believe that the challenge of having to make some 40 moves in a
three-minute game of speed chess actually trains your brain to think on a higher level. I'm convinced that the 80,000 fine
decisions I made during the 2,000 games I played before the poker tournament enabled me to better recognize patterns of
play and helped me win. During a game of speed chess on a plane, a flight attendant told me she had never seen anyone so
focused before and didn't want to interrupt my game to offer me a drink.
The benefits of speed chess didn't stop there. The game had improved my concentration so much that endeavors in other areas
of my life that had once seemed difficult were suddenly easier. I shaved a minute off my mileage pace while training for my
first 5K and held the "plank" push-up position for two minutes straight. I stopped letting myself get distracted by email
and sailed through tedious work assignments. Not only had my success at blitz chess given me a confidence boost, it helped
me develop mental and emotional endurance.
I stopped thinking of my chess addiction as goofing off, but an important part of my brain fitness regimen that deserved as
much dedication as my physical exercise routine. Each morning at 9 a.m., I scheduled an hour of blitz chess. On days when I
had work deadlines, I made it a point to fit in at least a couple games at lunch. Some days I took a break, but I tried to
build it into my daily routine just as I would brush my teeth. I also measured my performance and set weekly goals to
improve my rating.