Zen and chess

Master Dizang asked the visiting Buddhist philosopher Fayan, “Where are you going now?

Fayan answered, “I am resuming my pilgrimage.

Dizang asked, “Why do you go on pilgrimage?”

Fayan said, “I don’t know.”

Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Hearing these words, Fayan had an opening experience.

I could not resist starting this post with a koan. Zen is famous for them, little snippets of teaching that you meditate on. They’re not ‘riddles’ and can’t be solved with conventional logic. From the outside there is no solution, but from the inside there is no problem. I like the aesthetics of this one because in relation to chess, one is quite often in the position of ‘not knowing’!

Motivated by a blog post of Noël Studer where he talks about zen and beginner’s mind, let’s discuss the links between chess and zen. You likely know what chess is, so let’s briefly talk about zen. In the current language zen is synonymous with calm or freedom from distractions. Online chess platforms have ‘zen modes’ that hide your opponent’s rating and some of the User Interface! In the Buddhist context, Zen simply means ‘meditation’ and is a branch of Buddhism that evolved in China and then Japan. It strips almost everything from traditional Buddhism and has nothing to say about the afterlife or any religious belief – and focuses on helping practitioners discover their true nature (kenshō). This can be an immediate process and not the result of a long study. Zen practitioners deepen it an try to embody this realization in their daily life. There are several flavors of Zen, but a defining characteristic of many lineages is the reliance of sitting (zazen) meditating on koans (to trigger kenshō) and interacting with an experienced master.

Beginner’s Mind: be coachable

Shunryū Suzuki is zen monk author of the book Zen Mind, beginner mind. It is one of the first books that helped popularized Zen in the United States and the western world on a large scale. I will mention once more Noël’s great blog post (https://nextlevelchess.blog/beginners-mind/) that inspired me to write on the topic.
He makes important points on the importance of being coachable. Seeing the position with fresh eyes, breaking assumptions, always being on the lookout for improvement. After all, you can’t improve by doing the same thing over and over and must be prepared to learn fresh concepts to progress to a higher level.

However, there is a point at which the analogy breaks down. In Zen, beginner’s mind is useful because what we are looking for is on the surface of things. It does not require intense concentration, nor years of study. Your true nature is something that you have always been, and always will be. I’m afraid that in chess we have to often go deep and far beyond the surface of things. Also we are uncovering something that is not part of ourselves.

Should I practice Zen? Should I meditate?

To paraphrase both a famous zen quote and a famous movie. The first goal of the zen club is to reach kenshō. The second goal of the zen club is to reach kenshō. The third goal of the zen club is to reach kenshō.

The modern mindfulness meditation movement has a worldwide momentum and many people have tried meditating at least once. Regular meditation is very much still a dual approach where the ‘meditator’ (typically a presence felt in your head) is aiming its attention on the breath. When thoughts appear and take attention away, bring back the attention to the breath. Repeat until the app says you are done at which point you might straight away resume doomscrolling on social media. Zen goes beyond this because your true nature is not a “self” thinking “thoughts” behind your eyes.

Elite players also have a strong ego, in the sense of self-belief and competitive edge. What would happen if this gets slightly blurred by kenshō? Would they lose a sharp edge that drives them to make the daily sacrifices of competition? For that reason I’ll stay well away from ‘recommending’ such endeavor to the elite players I am working with.

Zen is definitely not a proselyting endeavor in the first place. It does not search for converts and is not selling you anything. Should you be interested, I recommend reading ‘One blade of Grass’ by Henry Shukman and take it from there.

Meditation, however, I would very much recommend that you do. Meditation is just about being aware of what you think. Not being lost in thought. With this definition, everything is meditation as long as you’re not lost in uncontrolled thought.

Meditation and mental toughness – what to do in a game?

Chess is a Markovian game. Almost everything you need to know is comprised of the current board position – few exceptions being the three fold repetition and immediate en-passant possibilities. This aside, imagine you have the FEN position of the game (FEN encodes the en-passant possibilities and castling rights). You can put it into stockfish or analyze it over the board. You don’t need to know what happened during the opening. All the information is available in the FEN: this is the Markov property. Chess is memoryless and all that we need is in the current position. It is a striking property and a powerful reminder to be in the present. All we need is to play a move, with the current position. Which is convenient, because being in the present is all we have – although we ‘choose’ often to be lost in uncontrollable thoughts.

Difficult to find a more ‘zen’ practice in this respect, and yet our thinking process is very drawn to create narrative stories during games.

Remember that everything is meditation. Meditation is just thinking your thought! Being in control of your thoughts does not stop when you close your smartphone app. That includes during a chess game.

When considering mental preparation for an elite athlete/player, there are several pillars: goal setting, relaxation, visualization, internal dialogue. Negative uncontrolled thoughts are part of a dysfunctional internal dialogue. ‘What if I miss this penalty?’ or ‘I must win with this match point’ or ‘we are too far behind on score’. These are unwanted thoughts. To be more in the present, meditation will definitely help. It won’t be sufficient but definitely is part of the toolkit of a mental coach. Identify the unwanted thought, recognize it, and let it go.

There are plenty of opportunity for one’s internal dialogue to go wrong. We think we are winning, and relax. Or our position gets worse and we are upset because of what it was before. Let’s remember that the game has no memory! Just play the current position. It does not matter that the position was better. Or that you had a winning advantage and now are fighting for a draw. Or that you might lose rating points if you play for a attack that looks good but is speculative. Even if the unwanted internal dialogue is tamed, playing chess well requires a finely tuned ‘correct’ self talk! On this particular topic I will refer you to Jonathan Rowson and his books The Seven Deadly Chess sins and Chess For Zebras. Rowson describes the exact phenomenon : “one phase of the game leaves an emotional imprint on the next” and prescribes explicit helpful self talk in the Looseness chapter of the deadly sins. This is also part of the toolkit of a mental coach.

It’s not my role to give chess advice, but I think I’m on fairly safe ground to say that you should play the position you have on the board, not the one of 10 moves ago, nor the one of next round.

In the context of zen and competition, the most famous – even legendary – samurai Musashi was a zen practitioner and I am preparing an upcoming post on lessons from his writings. In the meantime I will leave you with the words of Dziang. “Not knowing is most intimate”, and let you meditate and think about what he meant.

Not knowing is most intimate

One thought on “Zen and chess

Leave a Reply