Lunch breaks taken: 2/5
As much as I love doing something different with my lunch breaks each week, the only draw back is that often I don’t want to have to stop. Similar to my knitting challenge, where I found it almost impossible to put my knitting needles down at the end of each 45-minute session, once I got the hang of chess, I just wanted to keep going and going.
For those of you who haven’t read the first part of this post, I had absolutely no experience of playing chess at the beginning of the week. As such, it was agreed that those of us who didn’t know how to play the game would spend the first lunch break watching the only two people in the office who did know how to play, play.
Slight point of interest: the first group (non-players) were all female, the second group (players) were male. I’m not criticising, especially as the week before I had been justifiably rebuked by my male colleagues, who had wanted to try their hand at knitting, for only inviting female officemates to join in the challenge. I’m just wondering if it’s that men are more engaged by chess, or – similar to my own knitting prejudices – it’s a game that’s taught to boys more often than girls. Social musings done: on to the game.
We began with Patrick explaining what each of the pieces were called and how they moved. I’m going to be honest, it was in one ear and out of the other. I’d tried reading a few online guides about how to play chess and it was like trying to learn a language with an entirely different alphabet. This was the same. It wasn’t until Patrick and Gary started actually playing that the pieces came to life and you could observe the repeated patterns of their movements.
Even then, it was still somewhat ambiguous as to what was going on. The main thing I noticed was that Patrick got a lot of his pieces out into the board very quickly, whereas Gary was more defensive and kept his close to their starting points. I thought Patrick was being a bit rash, and that he’d get burned for exposing his King, but actually it ended up with Gary forcing himself into a corner, and Patrick winning (sorry Gary).
I think the sweetest thing about observing Patrick and Gary play was the relationship between the two of them. Gary is Patrick’s line manager, and a few years older, so there could have easily been a sense of necessary deference on Patrick’s behalf, but it was like watching two brothers play against each other. I think this is more to do with the excellent working relationship that these two already have, but the game somehow put this into tangible form: without the office hierarchy, the two of them seemed much more united. Put simply, we were watching man vs. man, rather than man managing boy. They were also both incredibly magnanimous about the result.
Day 2, and it was my turn to play against Patrick. Needless to say, I got thrashed within under 20 minutes. I realised the essence of chess is not about the move you are making in that moment, but the effect of that move, five moves later. Patrick was thinking in the future, I was thinking in the present. Towards the end of the game, I was able to think one move ahead, but it still wasn’t enough to turn the tide (I think Patrick knew he’d won several minutes before declaring “checkmate”).
Even though I lost, the game was like a mental workout. In the same way that, when I’ve done an exercise-based lunch time challenge, like walking or biking, I can feel the blood whirring around my body for the rest of the day, just 20 minutes of chess was enough to keep my brain ticking vigorously for the rest of the afternoon. It literally felt like my mind had been stretched. The front of my brain was buzzing and Patrick said the sides of his (by the temples) felt like they were expanding. You could also feel that you had been thinking sideways, or laterally, rather than just in one direction, like you do for the rest of the day. You are considering several options, rather than one or two, with several other options shooting off each of the initial options. It actually made me a bit sad to think how little I use my brain in any normal working day. It was also this feeling – the buzzing, the expanding, the stretching – that made me want to keep going: it was an addictive sensation.
The other aspect of the game that made you feel good was the risk-taking: considering a move, weighing up the positives and negatives, and backing your final decision. In a working environment there are so many structures and layers of approval that surround decision-making, that autonomy is near non-existent. While this is definitely a good thing, as it means actions are taken on behalf of the company rather than the individual, and also a comforting reassurance that, if all goes wrong, your manager or director was the one who signed it off, it does make you feel a little like a cog in a machine. Taking responsibility for your moves and bearing the consequences was actually quite a privilege and a refreshing burst of individual expression in the middle of a working day.
Though I didn’t expect it to be so, playing chess has definitely been one of the most team-bonding experiences out of all the challenges so far. Everyone is equal, yet autonomous, pitched against each other, but in the most respectful and fair way. Forget away days in Surrey doing pot-holing and crawling through marshes: if you want a happy, cohesive team, buy a chess set.