JEFF ELL: No More Chess – My Personal Checkmate

Jeff Ell

My experiment was a complete failure.

The hope was to get better at something for which I have almost no natural aptitude. Specifically, the game of chess. Thanks to the internet, anyone can subject themselves to chess lessons, chess tactics, and chess games, anytime anywhere. Computer coaches can dissect your moves and tell you where you blundered and what you could have done better.

My motivation for this experiment was the hope that if I could exercise and strengthen the part of my brain that is the weakest, then perhaps I could become a little sharper and a little smarter in other ways. Apparently, my left brain is not exactly the sharpest hemisphere in the cranium, in fact last year it actually bought a timeshare from my right brain.

I’ve often imagined the different facets of my life as staves in an old wooden barrel. I thought if I could just lengthen the shortest stave, then the whole barrel should hold that more water. The theory made sense to me. So nearly everyday for the past year I’ve done the free on-line tactics, went through the lessons, and even did a few educational videos.

I think I now know how my daughters must have felt when we made them practice their scales on the piano with a kitchen timer atop the spinet. G A B C D E F-G A B C D E F-G A B C D E F-G A B C D E F-G A B C D E F. Surely the timer was broken or trapped in a spacial anomaly. G A B C D E F-G A B C D E F-G A B C D E F-G A B C D E F. Finally it would would ding, and they would run outside like they had just finished a 20 year stint in San Quentin.

I earnestly believed that if I did something diligently enough for long enough some neuro pathways would be unclogged and begin to flow like a long atrophied muscle reanimated when it regains circulation. That one day, there would be a ding in my brain and I’d be able to see diagonal attacks and backwards moving knights. But the fact is that after more than a year of lessons I’m little more than a bright toddler moving pieces around a pretty colored board.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried this kind of thing.

The summer after I failed pre-calculous in college (Now to be completely fair to myself, I didn’t technically fail the class, because the professor took me aside and told me she was giving me a D- because she had never seen someone work so hard and still fail) I became an algebraic machine.

I would rise before dawn, take a four mile run, shower, and then work algebraic equations for a full hour before my shift at the factory would start. But as that summer progressed and I continued to take the exams at the end of the chapters, it became clear that the only thing I was learning was the parlor trick of how to guess outcomes based on pure rote. Kind of the same way a monkey learns which lever to pull to get an orange.

That fall I signed up for classes in the humanities. No math, no physics.

So at end of 2016 I deleted my chess account, not exactly a new years resolution as much as a end of year disillusion. I’ve removed the app from my phone: no more lessons, no more tactical problems, no more end game techniques. I’ve taken my king and put him on his side.

So now I’m in the market for another hopeless self-improvement altar upon which to sacrifice myself, or perhaps a wall upon which to pound my non-symmetrical head against in my never ending quest to become a better man.

Jeff Ell is pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s the author of Ruth Uncensored, blogs at and can be contacted via Facebook or smoke signal.

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