The Game You Should Take Up This Holiday Season

I’m the only person in my family who doesn’t play chess.

They’re all chess freaks.

Even my 9-year-old daughter is an enthusiast after her uncle taught her how to play last Christmas – and my usually ‘too cool for school’ teenage son has been known to drop Instagram for a chance to beat his dad at it. Throughout any holiday or family gathering you’ll see chess games going on all the way through the festivities on a specially set up table – between father and son, uncle and niece, cousin and cousin. These little chess huddles are accompanied by furrowed brows, intense concentration, the occasional gleeful shriek of “checkmate!” and competitive strategising the likes of which would impress any Roman army general.

Jack, my nephew, about to trounce his Uncle

All this tomfoolery gives me a serious case of chess FOMO.

It’s like they’re part of this exclusive little club that I’ve been shut out of, but have been too intimidated to join.

Until now.

This week, I decided enough’s enough!

If my 9-year-old can get on the chess bandwagon, it’s about time I did too. “Suzi”, I said to myself sternly, “stop being daunted by a little wooden board with horses and castles on it.”

So my 16-year-old son has shouldered the unenviable task of teaching me – and although I’m still befuddled by the different pieces and their respective moves, I’m already positioning my pawns and rocking my rooks with the best of them.

“Well, good for you. But why should I play chess and what’s it got to do with leadership?” you might be wondering.

Quite a lot as it turns out.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about this gem of a game that’s been around for 1500 years – and why you might want to consider swapping your device for a chessboard these holidays:

  1. It sparks your creativity. Studies have shown that the brains of chess players are different. Playing chess uses both the left side of your brain and the right. As Lynn White and Esther Newall point out in their article Which side of the brain is most important for a business leader?, “Increasingly it appears that an effective business armoury is going to involve something more – a “right brain” or “whole brain” approach. This approach relies far more on giving value to personal connectivity, intuition, insight and emotional intelligence.” Playing chess unleashes your originality and forces you to take a whole brain approach. That’s an important trait for any leader to adopt in today’s business environment.
  1. It improves your problem-solving ability. Playing chess forces you to problem solve on the fly because your opponent is constantly changing the parameters. As the world in which we lead becomes increasingly volatile and complex, the ability to change tack as new information comes to light or circumstances change is vital. Chess requires quick thinking and teaches you to respond to ever-changing stimulation. Research has shown that playing chess regularly even increases your IQ.
  1. It’s a great people connector. In a world where we’re constantly attached to our devices and communicating face-to-face with the people around us less, a game of chess gets you off your phone and interacting with another person in a fun and direct way. Just how bad is it for us to be on our phones all the time? One study from Northwestern University revealed that the more time people spend on their phones, the more likely they are to be depressed. The average daily use for a depressed person was 68 minutes, compared to just 17 minutes for someone who has better mental health. (source:
  1. It develops your strategic agility. Chess forces you to focus on your opponent’s moves. You have to look at each problem from many sides. You’re encouraged to think ahead and plan multiple moves and project possible outcomes. It flexes your foresight muscle. Chess is based on planning, strategy, and tactics. This requires trying to predict and analyse the future. All of these skills are paramount for leaders to develop.
  1. It’s an antidote to the increasingly fast-paced culture we’re surrounded by. Chess slows you waaaay down. A bit like the slow movement, chess is a refreshing antidote to today’s ‘rush- rush, gotta get it done’, adrenaline-fuelled work culture. As my brother, a weekly chess player said, “the time it takes to play a game is so at odds with the fast and busy lifestyles of the 21st century. I like the way you have to look at each problem from many sides. My brain can be skittish at times – so the requirement of slow meditative thought is an antidote to this.”

Still not inspired? Check out this video on chess grandmaster, Magnus Carlsen, the world’s best chess player – dubbed the Mozart of Chess. This dude is one crazy cat.

So this holiday season, give your mind a work out, learn a new skill, and connect with your loved ones. Put down your iPad and pick up a chess board.

Chess players wade in. Tell me why you like chess and what it’s taught you?

*Photos by Andrew McAlpine

1 Comment

  1. Tanya Houghton on November 24, 2017 at 10:11 am

    really good article, I need to put learning chess on my list too. why is it that we women are the ones in our families that haven’t learnt to play, when our husbands, sons and daughters can?

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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