If you’re a golfer, you’re used to the feeling of inadequacy. No matter how talented you are, there are times when you just don’t have what it takes. You have to come to terms with your inability to hit 40-yard bunker shots, prepare yourself for the two-way miss, and brainstorm excuses for missing the green with a wedge.
Recently, in the never-ending darkness of a Chicago winter, I discovered a new source of inadequacy: chess.
I always thought I would enjoy chess but never made an effort to play. That changed during the second day of the winter vortex, when my roommate brought out a chessboard I didn’t know existed. (We had watched enough Netflix for one storm.)
It took all of 15 minutes for me to realize I had no feel for the game. My roommate was ruthless, taking pieces from me with no regard for human life. My pawns didn’t stand a chance. The little horsemen got chased down immediately. Those pointy bishop guys should have just stayed home. My opponent wasn’t exactly a prodigy, but his slight head start in chess knowledge put me in a chokehold.
I lost every game we played that day. Yet chess became our new obsession. We did research, watched YouTube videos, listened to podcasts—you name it. We even got our third roommate hooked. He, too, was better than I was; I went weeks without ever saying, “Checkmate.”
Not only did I lose every game, I lost sleep. I stared at the ceiling, thinking about how to avoid getting forked by yet another knight (those were the little horsemen). It was like being bitten by the “golf bug.” I thought about chess all the time. My commutes became 20-minute torture sessions in which I repeatedly lost to the computer in my phone. I was addicted. Bad, but addicted.
After playing for seven months, I am proud to say I am… still mediocre. I’m a 20-handicap on the chessboard: aware of what I need to accomplish but unable to execute. I keep plugging away, though, learning new opening moves, patterns, strategies. In the process, I’m discovering that chess has a few things to teach me about golf.
A chessboard is an 8×8 square with eight pawns, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, one queen, and one king on each side. An NBA court is 94 feet long, the hoops 10 feet high, and the ball 29.5 inches in circumference. Almost all sports have limited variability in their fields of play. Each game is different, but the environments and arenas tend to be uniform.
Golf has no such limits, and it’s freaking awesome. We can travel the world to seek out destination courses. We can look out on the Pacific Ocean from the fairways of Bandon Dunes. Cross the Swilken Bridge and see the town of St. Andrews unfold before us. Traverse the dunes in Mullen, Nebraska. Every course has its own character, and there are a lot of courses in the world.
Chess is more like your home club. The space is the same each time you play, but every game is different. One shot, one move, can change the complexion of the day. Variety is great, but sometimes you have to play the hits.
The 14th hole at Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, NE
Pace of play
My roommates and I were chess novices when we started. This, combined with our stubborn competitiveness, made for very long matches. While classical chess permits up to 90 minutes for a single game, we didn’t enjoy sitting down to play and realizing partway through that we had missed an entire episode of Westworld.
Eventually we broke out a timer and tried our hands at blitz chess. This style allows for somewhere between five and 10 minutes per player per game. As our pace of play increased, we had to understand our moves better. We also discovered that faster games more clearly exposed my inferiority as a player. I couldn’t win.
In other words, playing quickly lessens the time commitment, makes the activity more enjoyable, and rewards the best talent. Remind you of another game we all know and love?
I’ve always been a closet nerd, whether that means solving a riddle, planning a trip, or trying to understand why I used to love 3 Doors Down.
Chess is mental warfare, and my nerdy side loves that. Every move you make triggers a response from your opponent, which in turn affects your next move. You have to anticipate at all times. And just as you get to enjoy the compounding returns of a good move, you have to suffer the fallout of a poor one. All of this puts continual pressure on your mind.
Similarly, I love golf because it makes me think a few steps ahead. I have to select the right shot based on wind, lie, and distance as well as on what my next show will look like. And then I need to execute. If I choose the wrong option, I will face consequences on future shots, and my brain will have to process the added complexity of recovery, not to mention frustration.
An opponent introduces another layer. When I play chess, I not only ponder my own options but also try to figure out what the guy on the other side of the board is thinking.
In this way, the match-play format of golf might be the best analogue for chess. It’s different from stroke play precisely because of the additional mental challenges. Take Ian Poulter. Not the best 72-hole stroke-play competitor ever to walk the earth, but he was feared more than anyone in the Ryder Cup. He seemed able to will himself to victory while forcing his opponents to falter mentally. Like chess, match play in golf brings the psychological battle to the forefront.
Now, six months after that miserable day in February, I’m thankful my roommate brought out the chessboard. Chess has clarified for me that I love golf because, at its best, it engages my mind.
Sometimes professional golf seems to get away from that ideal. In the weekly grind of monotonous stroke-play tournaments, we may forget that there is a mental side to the game. Simple designs and cautious setups drown out the essence of golf, limiting the thought required to overcome challenges. Instead, on tour, marketing and technology have taken center stage.
Luckily, among many in the golf world, the tide is turning. People are starting to realize that the greatness of golf isn’t about dollar signs and low-spin bombs. They are looking both to the past and to the future, hoping to discover a more fun, strategic, and mentally engaging form of the game.
For golf to reach its potential, it could learn from what makes chess great: the pace, the tactics, the psychological challenge. Otherwise, we’ll just be playing checkers.
This is the inaugural article in The Fried Egg’s Sunday Brunch series, which focuses on golf stories that don’t fit the usual categories. Find out more about the series here.