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Chess and Positive Psychology by NY State Open Chess Champion

written by Zak Maymin 31 March 2009

Zak Maymin, Ph.D. in Mathematics, is the author of six children's books about truth and ethics, including the Flying Fox series for pre-teens and a series for younger children. He uses his mathematical training to develop a logical first-principles approach to ethical, moral, and legal issues and to present these principles through the Socratic method. He has been a professor, a portfolio manager, and a chess player. Zak's articles are here.

Editor’s note Dr. Zak Maymin is the author of Publicani, an action-thriller about freedom. Dr. Maymin is also the reigning NY State Open Champion for 2008.

Change and Happiness

I have read PPND articles for years, and recently several of the articles showed me the similarity between positive psychology and chess. In particular, given the positive psychology research, there may be two analogies in chess that illustrate and bolster up a few positive psychology principles.  Specifically, my observations are about change and happiness.

CHANGE: Develop Your Worst Piece

In January, I was reading about your optional theme of change, and I read this article on choosing what to change by Kathryn Britton.  If you want to change yourself, how do you decide what should be changed?  This article suggests that you should go for the greatest leverage, the greatest possible output.  It reminded me of a similar situation in chess when you are thinking about which plan to choose. Often in chess you don’t really have a choice. You either have to find the single defending or attacking move. Or when the situation is not that critical, the best plan is obvious. But often, you have time to make various moves and develop various pieces. And it’s not clear what is the best move or even what is the best plan. What should be your criteria when evaluating various plans?

Playing chess

Recently I became aware of a great approach in such situations, a chess secret that not even all good players are familiar with: Develop your worst piece!

I think this is a good approach when you have a list of things you want to change, there’s nothing pressing, and you want to figure out which to choose. Try to rate all the options and go with whatever you feel is the worst at this time. If you feel your biggest problem is that you haven’t exercised for a long time, or exercised too much (ha!), than perhaps this should be your next focus for change. Positive psychology is all about strengths.  However, I agree with the research of Nansook Park when she says that at first that one must focus on one’s strengths and later on one’s weaknesses.  As a young chess player, you are able to improve quicker by focusing on strengths (which some call the 80/20 rule – spending 20% of your time on your chess strengths could improve your game by 80%).  Later, as a great chess player, you are able to improve faster by focusing on weaknesses that grow your abilities in the last 20%.

If you have trouble deciding what your biggest problem area is, ask your friends, they will gladly tell you :).


HAPPINESS: Happiness is a Passing Pawn

My second observation is about the definition of happiness. I was trying to choose which scorebook to buy, and saw on one of them printed the brief wisdom: “Happiness is a passing pawn.” I immediately recognized the truth of that statement. If in a chess game I have a passing pawn, I am generally happy.

What is a passing pawn? It’s a pawn that doesn’t have an enemy’s pawn in front of it and therefore can potentially became a queen, which is about 8-10 times greater in value than a pawn. So normally when a passing pawn becomes a queen, the game is won.

How could it apply to a non-chess situation? I think that happiness is when you have an opportunity to make it big. Even if the opportunity is remote, you have the potential exactly as with the passing pawn. This is similar to hope theory as Doug Turner describes and to Becoming Our Own Visionaries as Eleanor Chin describes. Not every passing pawn becomes a queen and when it does, it doesn’t always decide the game. But having a clear goal, and the chance to win big, can make a person happy!


Maymin, Z. (2008). Publicani. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace.

Playing chess outside Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash
Girl playing chess courtesy of VideoMagus Flickr via Compfight cc

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Barry Elias 31 March 2009 - 5:58 pm

March 31, 2009

RE: CHANGE: Develop Your Worst Piece

This is prescient advice.

It seems congruent to a piece I read in PPND several months ago that included “frog” in its title (i.e., attack the frog, the most difficult task, first).

Barry Elias

Marcial Losada 31 March 2009 - 8:39 pm


Chess is one of my hobbies despite de fact that I am a lousy player. Same with music. I love it, but I can hardly play Fur Elise on the piano. Nonetheless, I can delight in both and I have gone over many of the great chess games. And I have never come across such an excellent piece of advice as the 80/20 rule DEPENDING ON YOUR STRENGTH–that´s a pearl of wisdom, Zak. I realized that if instead of lamenting my weaknesses, I focus on my strengths, I may go all the way from lousy to perhaps average.

The passed pawn is a great analogy. From the perspective of positive psychology, of which I know a few things, I can say that we are all passed pawns. We all have the potential to queen. But that requires to become aware aware that being a pawn is not in your DNA, that you’ll have to be aware of the opportunities that open for you (nothing in front that can stop you), and that even if you are behind in material, linearity doesn’t rule the world (having more is not always decisive) and, as nonlinearity would have it, a humble passed pawn can decide the course of events (something one who is now sitting at the Oval Office understood very well).

Marcial Losada 31 March 2009 - 9:22 pm

AND, you have come up with a great principle for positive psychology (PP) with your 80/20 depending on strength, Zak.

There is a strong current in PP to focus on your strengths. Though this is not bad advice when your P/N ratio is not too high, it becomes not so useful when your P/N ratio already reaches high levels. For instance, when your P/N ratio is at 3.67 you are already at the average level of high performance teams. Top performance teams are at or above 4.8. But no team that I am aware of has ever reached 6. There is also a point when there is nothing more to gain adding positivity and that is 8.625. This point is determined by what I called the gain function. At that point (8.625) the gain function is 100%. So we can argue that focusing on your strengths is not going to bring you further benefits.

Your chess rule might be a great principle for PP, Zak: Once you pass 3.67 it is time to start paying attention to the denominator of the P/N ratio.

Senia Maymin 1 April 2009 - 4:02 am

Barry, that’s delightful: I think you mean this article by Sean Doyle: Living with Cockroaches. Great reference for this concept.

Marcial, wow, what interesting thoughts in both your chats! Marcial, I wonder if you have appreciation of beauty and excellence in your top strengths because your appreciation of both music and chess seem to come from that aspect – of loving the power of the melody or the game. That is a great observation about the 3.67 positive-to-negative ratio and switching the focus from the numerator to the denominator.

I am thrilled that Zak wrote this article!

Senia Maymin 1 April 2009 - 4:07 am

Marcial, your comment about all of us being passing pawns in some aspects of our lives, and that it is our due to find those areas of life… all this reminds me of Christine Duvivier’s philosophy of successful education, and that the Bottom 20 in academics go on to be very successful in their own fields. Once they learn in what fields they are passing pawns!

Positively Present 1 April 2009 - 9:49 am

Not being a chess player, I thought I wouldn’t be able to relate to this post at all, but I found it very enlightening! I especially liked the section on “happiness is a passing pawn.” It is completely true that “having a clear goal, and the chance to win big, can make a person happy.” Often people forget how important having a goal, and a chance to complete that goal, is. This post offers a great reminder of that!

Marcial Losada 1 April 2009 - 11:43 am

Senia, you were right on target with your observation that your strengths can take you to far away places. I thought about it carefully before answering you, and it is now quite clear to me that without using those strengths it would not have been possible for me to appreciate music and chess. But this is even more evident in my professional life. Contary to what people believe, mathematics was not an easy subject for me at school. My mind wandered too much and I made many mistakes in the calculations (those days we didn´t have electronic calculators). But my love for the beauty of mathematics, for the ability to say the most with the least, allowed me to overcome all the obstacles. Love made me a passed pawn and nothing was strong enough to stop me.

Zak Maymin 1 April 2009 - 12:12 pm

Marcial, I am a professional mathematician. I have never heard your definition of mathematics and I find it true and beautiful: “… the beauty of mathematics, for the ability to say the most with the least.”

I also like your “nonlinearity” analogy. If a person has a good family, is a good worker, expects 4% increase in his salary a year after year, I doubt it’s enough to make him/her happy. There should be something in his/her life which brings another dimension and promises a great payoff, beyond any imagination. Only then can you work late hours and get up in the morning with a smile.

I also believe that people who are working on their passing pawns, often the crazy and unappreciated people (Vincent Van Gogh, Joan of Arc), are the people who are moving our civilization forward.

Nicholas Hall 1 April 2009 - 3:57 pm

Hi Zak,

Interesting article, and very interesting discussion thread. I have always wondered which way was best in life: to constantly work on improving your weaknesses, or to only focus on your strengths? The former makes one mediocre, the latter makes one highly unbalanced. This discussion thread, begun by your suggestion in the article, has really clarified this for me. One must focus on their strengths in life in a particular domain until they have achieved a level of mastery, and then work on their greatest weaknesses. This method allows a person to become highly competent and skilled, as well as more balanced.

This reminds me of Chris Peterson & Nansook Park’s work in analyzing their VIA Character strengths. Through analysis they determined that people who have the least amount of variance between all 24 of their character strengths have on average the highest life satisfaction. Those with the greatest variance between their strengths (that is, very high highs and very low lows) have on average the lowest life satisfaction scores.

Way to become great AND balanced…!!

Thanks for the insight, both Zak and Marcial!!


Kathryn Britton 1 April 2009 - 5:34 pm


That discussion about distance between top and bottom scores was both interesting frustrating. One couldn’t get one’s own scores, and there was no published information about what’s a small distance and what’s a large distance to compare them to.

Now one can get personal scores with the extended VIA survey — http://www.viasurvey.org/ (costs $40). But I don’t know of any population-wide baseline to compare them to. Does anyone know if one has been published?


Christine Duvivier 2 April 2009 - 9:26 am

Zak, thank you for a delightful article! It gives a good deal of food-for-thought. I use the 80/20 rule with executives when it comes to taking action, so I love your use of it with strengths.

As you and Marcial point out, most individuals and teams have huge opportunities in just focusing on strengths (because most are nowhere near the optimal limits).

I see your point about weaknesses, but I wonder if there is a difference when people work with others. I see real-life leaders use their strengths — and the strengths of others– but often they do very little about their weaknesses. If leaders have a “career stopper” weakness, they may need to get that in line, but otherwise, they frequently ignore their weaknesses and play to their strengths and/or let others’ strengths compensate.

Of course, a lone player in chess cannot do this.

Thanks for a fascinating and thought-provoking article!

Christine Duvivier

Christine Duvivier 2 April 2009 - 9:31 am

Zak, I also loved your point on the crazy, unappreciated people working on their passing pawns! I think that is a beautiful insight.

Christine Duvivier

Zak Maymin 3 April 2009 - 8:49 am

Barry, Marcial, Senia, Positively, Marcial, Nicholas, Kathryn, Christine, thanks for your insights. A few more points.

“When in doubt develop the worst piece” and “Happiness is a passing pawn” could apply not only to individuals but also to all kinds of groups: families, corporations, countries, etc… A non-sport-oriented family would benefit in many ways, if they decide to take tennis lessons or on regular hikes. Presumably, an American Dream, not well-define but understood by everybody, is America’s passing pawn.

One advantage of developing the worst piece is that the whole chess position is developing as a result. The algorithm automatically assures that no part of the whole is left neglected. Sheepdogs know that when they constantly push the sheep that fall behind the entire herd moves in the right direction. Sometimes you just don’t have time or motivation to work on the worst piece, like it’s hard to start cleaning the garage or forgotten closet on an ordinary day, but if you follow this principle, the entire house will eventually be clean.

Nicholas, you are right that it’s better to focus on your strength before you achieve a level of mastery and then work on the greatest weaknesses. I would also add, that at least in chess, you “develop the worst piece” when you are in doubt, when time moves slowly, so to speak. This principle should not be used when you are under attack, or attacking yourself, when each move is a life or death decision. Similarly, when a corporation is facing a deadline, or bankruptcy, it’s probably not a good time to start changing the carpets in offices. Though, of course, there are exceptions to every rule.

Christine, when people work with others, if they are really interested in the long-term payoff of their relationship, they should work on the weaknesses of other people as well. Parents know that. Spouses know that. Great leaders know that. Of course, it should be done when “a level of mastery is achieved,” in the sense that they already know and respect you, and when “time moves slowly” – for example, you don’t discuss the weaknesses of your children when they are about to take an exam.

Elaine O'Brien 3 April 2009 - 4:11 pm

Dear Zak,

Thank you for a terrific and insightful article on PPND! I like chess a lot and this gives me food for playing, and for living. I am currently enjoying reading your book “Publicani.

Well done and all the best to you,


Zak Maymin 3 April 2009 - 6:44 pm

Thank you, Elaine! Looking forward to hear your thoughts on Publicani. Best 2u2!

jeff dustin 3 April 2009 - 8:22 pm

zak & marcial,

i love chess, we must play sometime.

Barry Elias 21 April 2009 - 11:38 am

April 21, 2009

Dear Senia,

Thank you kindly for your comments of April 1, 2009.

Interestingly, today, April 21, 2009, I received another email containing the “frog” concept.

The communication came from Mr. Mac Anderson of Simple Truths(www.simpletruths.com) citing a book, authored by Mr. Brian Tracy, entitled, “Eat That Frog!”

Speak with you soon.

Barry Elias

Editor S.M. 21 April 2009 - 12:34 pm

Delightful, Barry!

🙂 Senia

Jeremy Fajemisin 22 November 2013 - 9:35 am

Dear Dr Zak Maymin,

Thank you for a most interesting article! Drawing parallels with life is, I find very useful for playing and enjoying chess. One concept I think is useful regarding the permitting or forbidding of chess moves is the ‘Theory of Chess Relativity’- that is if your opponent has not done something, it may be permissible for you also not to do it – castling is one example!

All the best and many thanks!

Jeremy Fajemisin


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