Bruce Pandolfini is considered to be America’s most experienced chess teacher. He was famously portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the film “Searching for Bobby Fisher,” which is a film about Joshua Waitzkin who, at the time, was considered a chess prodigy. In addition to Waitzkin, Pandolfini has also coached notable players like Fabiano Cauana, currently #2 in the world and one of the highest-ranked players in history, and Rachel Crotto, two-time U.S. Women’s Champion. In addition, he was also a consultant on The Queen’s Gambit.
One aspect of Pandolfini’s teachings is his reliance on short, pithy, often counterintuitive statements to seize his student’s attention and stimulate their imagination. In many cases, these statements can be applied not just to chess, but broadly to life.
This post looks at a few of Pandolfini’s chess lessons that can you can apply to your life.
Chess Lessons for Life
“A principle says where to look, not what to see.”
General principles should be observed because they usually work. But they should never be viewed as totally reliable and always true. The principle provides guidance, but it won’t tell you what to do in every situation.
“Master the principles so you can know when to break them.”
Similar quotes have been attributed to the Dalai Lama & Picasso. First you have to understand the principles so that you understand how to leverage creativity and innovation to deliberately break them when appropriate.
“Play the board, not the player, unless you know something about the player.”
This is true in chess, poker, negotiation, et al. Information about the person can sometimes supersede the position, the cards, or the facts at hand.
“The biggest mistake is to think you can’t make one.”
I don’t have to tell you that overconfidence can get you into trouble. A chess player, an investor, a MMA fighter… Your opponent/the market will take advantage if you slip up. Don’t let confidence lead to complacency.
“Learn from your mistakes, especially not to repeat them.”
The best players in the world make mistakes periodically. It’s virtually impossible to play a ‘perfect’ game. As with life at-large, the important thing is to learn from those mistakes & ensure you don’t make them again.
“Don’t consider everything, just everything that matters.”
- The 3 most important things
- The things most aligned with your vision
- The ways you’re uniquely able to provide value
The key is not to be distracted by everything else.
I talk about this a lot.
“Solve it yourself and it’s yours for life.”
When you hire the handyman, you don’t learn how to fix the problem. There are times when that makes sense, of course, but just know that once you truly learn something once, you’ll have that skill and/or knowledge forever.
“Every win is first won in practice.”
Of course, every great coach and athlete knows this is true. Whether you’re studying for a test, preparing a speech, or interviewing for a job, your success depends on the preparation you do before you ever step in the room.
“Bad players can play good moves by accident.”
If you’ve ever played competitive poker, bad players get lucky on the river all the time. In chess and life, sometimes you get unlucky. The key is remain calm and focused. Don’t personalize it. If you get rattled, you will lose.
“No one ever won by resigning.”
You may have horrible position, or be way down on material and, perhaps, the rational thing to do is to resign, but you can’t win if you quit. Caveat: there are rare occasions when quitting one thing might help you win another, or in the long run.
In studying Pandolfini’s teachings, a big takeaway for me is that there are many principles that, once learned, can be broadly applied across many disciplines. Another is that good teachers leverage useful constructs for codifying, remembering and reinforcing these principles.