Chess Thought and Self-Actualization

Chess is an intimately introspective activity. It involves an exercise of expression within a structured space with limited rules. When a person is confined in such a way, his/her personality and ego becomes a factor in this expression. Chess is interesting vehicle for expression because it encourages a deeper need for satisfaction and self-fulfillment.

Icons in western psychology have examined the complicated science of the human psyche and have discovered that there are basic needs of fulfillment in life. Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” states that there exists five levels of needs: self-actualization, self-esteem, love and belonging, safety and physiological. Obviously, this model may not pertain to all cultural systems, but provides a foundation for understanding aspects of human behavior.

Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”

In Maslow’s pyramid model (above), self-actualization sits at the top and is considered a “growth need” as opposed to a “deficiency need” which characterizes the other four levels. Self-actualization is the desire to fulfill one’s potential and chess is such an exercise that forces one to strive to reach a certain sense of accomplishment. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. By scoring a satisfying victory, by upsetting a superior opponent, by winning a prize or a trophy, by earning rating points or any number of events with tangible outcomes.

Chess, rightly or wrongly, is viewed as an intellectual exercise and its mastery provides a player with a certain sense of fulfillment. At a given tournament, a player’s demeanor may be a result of his/her level of confidence and would depend on a number of factors. The strength of the field, the possibility of playing a particular opponent, or one’s level of preparation may affect one’s confidence and thus, their potential fulfillment.

If a player is playing someone 300 ELO points higher, they generally will have doubts about their potential for fulfillment… only if we define fulfillment as “winning the game.” The good thing is that fulfillment is relative and is not defined only by winning. It could be that drawing with a stronger opponent or merely playing an exciting game also brings fulfillment.


Perhaps, it is for number of reasons that we play chess, but in these questions lie the notion of self-actualization… the idea of fulfilling one’s potential.


For the professional players, their playing ability may provide them with increased chances for fulfillment. Regardless of what their status is in public life, they become transformed when they walk into a tournament hall. They feel important even if they will not admit to it. In actuality, they are important! However, when they leave the tournament hall, that particular sense of importance may fade as soon as they step into a taxi and begin to interact with those who are not familiar with their status in chess.

It is interesting that a professional chess player can be a celebrity in an obscure weekend tournament, but once they step outside of those confines, they suddenly are a common person. Inversely, a prominent business executive can play in the same obscure weekend tournament and be the patzer that everyone takes advantage of. Inside that tournament hall, his demeanor and sense of fulfillment changes. Very interesting dynamics.

The Mind. Copyright © 1998, Carol Barnes.

However, there are still personal battles for the professional player in the tournament. The pressure to win the tournament, the apprehension of a particular opponent, the concern about weak opening preparation, the concerns about the playing conditions and many other factors affect how one may fare in a given tournament. While chess is an activity played on the board, most will agree that external uncontrollable factors play a major part in how one gauges their potential outcome for a given tournament. Of course there are ways to reduce the impact of these factors, but it remains a tremendous challenge.

Why is chess such an attractive activity for millions? Is it merely the thrill of sport? Is it the possibility of creating a work of art? Is it the idea of engaging in a stimulating debate over 64 squares? Is it the idea of breaking another person’s will to fight? Perhaps, it is for number of reasons that we play chess, but in these questions lie the notion of self-actualization… the idea of fulfilling one’s potential. When a chess player sits down at a chessboard, they are engaging in a very intimate activity. They sit face-to-face approximately three feet (slightly less than one meter) from a person they may not know at all.


One of the most fascinating ways to assess self-actualization is post-mortem analysis. At this point you can conduct a self-assessment of your ideas and psychological makeup at different points in the game. Analyzing with an opponent is a valuable experience and can give further insight to one’s strengths and weaknesses, insecurities, indecision and even sense of imagination.


From this close physical proximity, players reveal much of their inner thoughts and personality. Strangers usually do not engage in an intimate exchange of thoughts in such an intense posture. The idea of glancing at an opponent’s eyes and watching their mannerisms at close range is quite revealing. It is said that one should play the board and not the opponent, but an opponent’s outer appearance (whether in a crisp suit or in a crumpled t-shirt with a strange slogan) may provide clues to how they may express themselves on the board. Obviously, this is not always the case, but we often find ourselves trying to find such advantages.

Databases are not substitutes for productive post-mortem sessions with other players. Much can be learned of one’s self in such exchanges.

One of the most fascinating ways to assess self-actualization is post-mortem analysis. At this point you can conduct a self-assessment of your ideas and psychological makeup at different points in the game. Analyzing with an opponent is a valuable experience and can give further insight to one’s strengths and weaknesses, insecurities, indecision and even sense of imagination. Analysis can also serve as a catharsis of fears and insecurities. Your opponent (previously a stranger) could help you to solve aforementioned issues as well as providing alternative insight to your own thinking. Of course it is possible to use chess engines, but this does not have the same social impact as does the exchange of ideas. This is why it is advisable to conduct analysis sessions and then check the analysis using a database.

Not everyone views post-mortem analysis in this fashion. Of course, the sense of accomplishment may have been thwarted, but the opponent may have exposed the frailty of one’s ideas… especially if the game is published. It may be a blow to one’s ego for a stranger (or even a friend) to expose weaknesses. In many cases, analysis sessions turn bitter as the winner takes umbrage to humiliate the loser. Have you ever analyzed with an opponent who felt that every variation they played was right and every variation you played was wrong merely because they won the game? Some call this “analysis by result.” If so, that person has over-indulged in self-fulfillment and a productive dialogue is no longer possible. Gracefully abandon the session.

Abraham Maslow quote

One can debate whether it is more devastating to expose weaknesses to a complete stranger or a close friend. Either way, it’s not a comfortable thought. In chess, these fascinating factors provide us with an outlet for understanding ourselves better… an introspection… a self-examination… a cathartic relief. If we understand this process as a positive event, we make attempts to better ourselves and with each game we may be able to correct any number of problems that may affect our longing for fulfillment. Perhaps that is why chess is so appealing. With each game, we draw closer to an understanding of self… an understanding of our strengths, weaknesses and desired ambitions. It is all part of the self-actualization that we all strive to achieve in life and chess happens to be the perfect tool for helping us in this process.

Composed: 7 January 2007

Daaim Shabazz

Daaim Shabazz is the founder of The Chess Drum, while serving as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds a B.S. Computer Science from Chicago State University, an MBA in Marketing and a Ph.D. in International Affairs & Development, both from Clark Atlanta University. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

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