What chess does to my PhD

This guest post comes to us from Andrea Freund, a PhD student at at the Institute for Northern Studies, UHI, in Kirkwall, in the third year of an Applied Research Collaborative Studentship. In partnership with Orkney Museum, Andrea is investigating the Orcadian corpus of runic inscriptions as sources for Norse diaspora identities. You can learn more at Andrea’s Blog: orkneyrunes.wordpress.com

In this post, I will explain how playing chess has helped me with my PhD. And I don’t mean that metaphorically as in the various chess-related idioms in the English language (“stalemate” in Westminster, anybody?).

I am by no means a good chess player. I learned the basics when I was little and then played with friends – until during my late teens other things took precedence. Now, I am in the third year of my Runology PhD in Orkney, and I have taken up chess again more frequently.


White opens the game and has 20 possible first moves, not all of them recommendable

You might think that it is not a good idea to spend a few hours a week playing a game during this crucial phase of my project – but in fact, I have realised this is exactly the right thing to do. With the submission date always looming somewhere in my mind, it is difficult to switch off and give my brain time to deal with something non-PhD-related. That also means often mulling over the same problem almost continuously, thoughts going in circles, without finding any solution. This is where chess comes in: During a game, I focus completely on what is happening on the board. Afterwards, I return to the thesis with fresh ideas. It has happened to me repeatedly that the solution for a confusing issue came to me suddenly just minutes after (usually losing …) a game of chess.

It is known that teaching chess to children improves their ability to focus and concentrate, and I assume it may have helped me in the same way. Not a bad skill to have when you are trying to make sense of runic inscriptions. Chess also improves pattern recognition, which is extremely useful for working with epigraphy.

But chess is far more than just a distraction or tool for improving my brain. As a strategic game, it taught me valuable lessons for life and shaped my thinking in ways which are now influencing how I tackle my thesis. First of all, you need to have a strategy. Neither in chess nor in a PhD you can simply consider one step at a time. In chess, you can never think just one move ahead. Or better, you can, but then you will definitely lose sooner rather than later, against anybody who is not a beginner. Unless you play Blitz or Rapid varieties and the clock is ticking down, it is worth considering all potential moves, how your opponent may react and how you can then counter the opponent’s move. There are almost always different options with their pros and cons, and you should normally only move after weighing all choices and thinking through their consequences. This tactical thinking applies very much to my PhD. During the entire three-year project (and even before deciding on embarking on this journey), there are many difficult decisions to make. Often, one option looks nicer in the short term – but another option provides the better long-term outcome.


In this hypothetic position, white could capture a black Pawn with their Queen – not a good idea at all, as the next move would be either a black Pawn or Knight capturing the Queen. Not every sacrifice is a good idea …

Another important point in chess is the notion of sacrificing a piece to gain a greater advantage. You might for instance sacrifice a Pawn in the hope of capturing your opponent’s Knight later. Importantly, this is not done out of random impulses. Instead, each piece is assigned a points value: Pawns – 1; Knights and Bishops – 3; Rooks – 5 and the Queen – 9. (The King does not get a points value because as soon as it is captured, the game is over.) So, before deciding on a sacrifice or an exchange of pieces, you consider the balance – both within the moves and on the entire board. A Pawn for a Pawn seems like a smart choice, but if it costs you a Rook later, it is less so. Of course, you also calculate potential opponent moves to see if your bravery might make you end up in checkmate. And this methodical, calculating approach before moves helps a lot in a PhD. Often, you’ll need to decide what to sacrifice and if it is worth it. There are simply too many things to do in three years, and you will always have more material than you can use your thesis, more avenues than you can possibly explore in under 100,000 words. When you need to settle on what to drop, it helps to look at the medium- to long-term implications. The same goes for sacrificing your hobbies: Is it worth it, or will it have a negative effect on your happiness, your mental health – and thus a negative influence on your ability to complete the PhD?

In chess, you aim at one goal only, and all your actions have to contribute to it: checkmate. Sometimes, you get bogged down in minor issues, trying to capture your opponents’ pieces unnecessarily, and this makes you overlook a good move towards a checkmate. In the PhD, the all-important goal is to finish the thesis and get the degree, but again, there are so many potential distractions along the way. I am not saying I never follow any of them, but whenever I do, I try to evaluate if and how they contribute to my overall goal and never lose sight of it.


Mission accomplished for black: checkmate

Crucially, one thing I have truly learned from chess: Never despair. Sometimes, in chess just like in the PhD, the situation might look truly dire. Yet, one good idea can change everything (if you play an “ordinary” opponent – notable exceptions apply, namely if you are playing somebody like Magnus Carlsen). Therefore, it is worth to continue trying, even if things do not look promising. Just the same goes, in my case, for the PhD.

Finally, I have a recommendation that, to me, is valid for both the PhD and all my chess games: Try to enjoy them as much as you can because both can be great fun!

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Brittnee via email atb.leysen.1@research.gla.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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