The Queen’s Gambit and Me: The Surprising Similarity Between Therapy and Chess By Vikki Stark, MSW on 2/12/21 - 4:39 PM

I was mesmerized from the first frame of The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix mini-series about a Kentucky orphan girl in the 1960s and her passion for chess. Thoughts of the show colonized my thinking for the three days it took me to get through its seven episodes. I loved it, it intrigued me, and I cared deeply about the characters. It was a perfect jewel. But little did I know how those seven hours would change my life.

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I don’t remember how it happened, but a week or so after the final credits rolled, I started to research chess. I’d never played before and didn’t even know how the pieces moved, so I typed “chess for beginners” into YouTube and curiously, like Alice, fell down the rabbit hole.

I find that I’m dreaming about chess these days and have started to see chess tactics and strategy in everything. I’ve been a psychotherapist for thirty-five years and it's become clear to me since I started playing how a course of therapy conforms, in many ways, to a chess game, with its well-defined opening, middlegame, and endgame.

The first few therapy sessions, when you’re learning about your new client, are like the opening. You start slowly and respectfully, using moves that you’ve used many times before to get a feel for the person sitting across from you. You’re getting situated, knowing that you’re at the very beginning of an important relationship.

For example, I start the first session with my new client, Isabelle, with the opening move I’ve used so many times before—a variation of the question “What brings you here today?” Everything is possible at this point, and I have no idea where this exchange will take us.

During this opening phase, I’m getting a sense of the pacing. Will she jump right in with a cascade of emotion (making dizzyingly fast moves) or sit quietly waiting for me to ask questions (establishing a pensive introspective pace to the “game”)? In this case, holding back and very reserved (not making risky moves), 28-year-old Isabelle explains that she wants to improve her relationships. She’s on pause with her boyfriend, who has not treated her well, and is wracked with indecision about whether to go back to him. She doesn’t trust herself. But when asked her biggest goal in life, she says she wants to meet the love of her life.

A session later, in a latter part of the opening, Isabelle tells me about the struggles she faced in childhood. I learn that her much-loved mother, whom she describes as an angel on earth, suffered mental health problems that were so severe that when she was eight and her parents divorced, she was sent to live with her father’s parents. They were very strict remote old-fashioned immigrants who did not speak English, and she did not speak Italian. She rarely saw her mother and felt alone and abandoned.

More complexity is introduced in a later session as Isabelle reveals that no matter what has happened in her childhood, she’s determined to build a wonderful future and has enrolled in a course to become a life coach. With this goal in mind, at the turn of new year, she’s started to eat more healthily, is trying to exercise, and has incorporated a meditation practice into her day.

In this part of the therapy, the middlegame, I’m searching for patterns. It’s both a science and an art. Isabelle relaxes, and story after story comes spilling out. I’m receiving reams of information and have to make continuous decisions about which pieces are vital to attend to and which not to “take.” I could focus on a tantalizing piece of information that Isabelle shares (capture a knight that’s available to take but which won’t advance my position), but I have to make sure not to make a move unless it contributes value. There’s no doubt that I could chase the pieces all over the board, but I need to develop a plan that will guide my choices.

Over time, the essential issues are brought into focus and, in the endgame, many of the peripheral bits have been eliminated so that only the primary core issues remain. There are fewer pieces on the board, but every one is vitally important. We’re narrowing our focus on the need for Isabelle to forgive herself for having left her mother, who later died of cancer, and working on helping her develop a deep well of self-compassion. The search for the love of her life will have to wait until she’s very comfortable with the love of herself.

Isabelle is not, of course, my opponent, and a course of therapy is certainly not a process of win or lose, but I like to think of strategizing how to help my client in her struggle (our chess game) as the mutual challenge for both of us. The pleasure of checkmate comes from feeling that we’ve shared a profound experience together resolving something important, and that now Isabelle and I can celebrate that positive change has happened in her life.

I've found that there have been many surprisingly meaningful aspects about life during the pandemic, and discovering chess is certainly high up on my list. I smile when I think about it and look forward with anticipation to the next game. Where it’s going to fit into my uber busy life, I’m not sure. But for the moment, hey, set up the board and let’s play!

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections