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Chess and Positive Psychology by NY State Open Chess Champion

written by Zak Maymin March 31, 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