Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Overcoming Idolatry (and bad chess)

I do not think I’ve mentioned this here, but I am something of an avid chess player.  I’m rated in the 1700s in over-the-board play (as opposed to online play), which is above average for tournament players but nowhere near chess master territory.  But the time and effort I have devoted to the game is surely a bit more above average.

And that leads to a problem I had earlier this year.  My chess was not progressing and seemed to have not been progressing for some time.  Instead, it was apparently regressing.  And I was so unhappy – and angry – about it, it was dragging me down in general.  The effects of my bad chess were spreading to elsewhere in my life.

I saw something had to change.  Increasing my efforts at chess was not an option as I only have so much time and energy.  Not to mention I think that would have given chess too much priority in my life – a subject to which I will shortly return.  Continuing my level of effort and prioritizing of chess was not working.  And continuing such an exercise in frustration was not acceptable.

At the same time, just giving up and discontinuing serious chess altogether would have been wasting – and tacitly admitting it was a waste – all those years of effort at the game.  The thought of all that wasted effort was discouraging to say the least.  I hoped there was another way.

Then there was the issue of idolatry, of which I previously hinted.  In the back of my mind for some time, I wondered if chess was too important to me.  I knew for one thing that I was spending too much time playing 5 minute chess online (which many chess players can tell you can be both very addicting and very frustrating, frustration compounded by those who think short time controls online exempt them from decent sportsmanship).  I was already making some effort to cut back on that.  But otherwise, I did not think I was making chess too important to me – until my bad chess was becoming more persistent.

The unhappiness my bad chess was creating and the fruitlessness of the time invested in it showed me I probably had made chess too important, that it had become an idol for me.  Idols are annoying; they never give back the time and effort spent on them.  I was certainly experiencing that.  Now I certainly never came close to making chess more important to me than God.  But I do not think I am being too hard on myself when I say that making something too important can be idolatry – making a little god if you will – and that I had likely done that with chess.

After much thought and prayer, what I decided is that I would make chess a hobby and only that.  If I felt like playing or studying, I would do so without expending too much time and effort.  I would do so only when I wanted to (and when more important matters were not pressing, of course).  Chess had to be a fun thing to me, not a very important thing to me.  And if the results were unimpressive, well, the results of making chess very important to me were not only unimpressive but frustrating and discouraging.

I thought about but at least put off a complete retirement from serious chess.  I chose a semi-retirement if you will.

Now, I did see that it was possible that being more relaxed and casual about chess might actually improve my game.  A poor attitude, particularly too much fear of losing, can stifle chess abilities.  (“Trying too hard” can as well but explaining that would take a whole ‘nother post.)  I also saw that my chess results could continue to decline.  But my results were not good anyway, plus I am at an age when one’s chess tends to begin declining.  Regardless of my results, I wanted to have a positive attitude about the game and not let all those years of past effort go to waste.

Well, to fast forward to this past Fourth of July weekend, a funny thing happened.  For the first time in months, I felt good enough about my game to enter a tournament.  And my play was pleasing, not perfect, but good overall with no egregious blunders (Well, I have found a serious oversight with my PC.  But anyway…) and some very pleasing moves I probably would have missed in the past.  And I had the energy to complete my games well.

Now energy had been a serious downfall in past tournaments.  I did not sleep well at tournaments and my play declined as tourneys progressed because my energy declined.  On two past occasions I missed fairly simple moves in the last round that would have won sections for me in part because I was too tired to see and think.

But this time, I slept better at a tourney than I had in years.  And I never konked at the board in part because I was more able to relax and not waste energy on nerves.   Surely, that chess was not quite so darn important to me helped with that.  Perhaps it also helped give me the clarity of mind to see things at the board fairly well, for me at least.

In addition, God was providential in a number of ways to the point where I was even a bit lucky.  (Yes, there is good and bad luck at chess, and it helped cost me at least one tourney.  You do not want to get me started on that unhappy episode.)

The result of all that is that I got a monkey off my back and finally won my first Under 1800 section, and that at a large tourney.  (Well, I tied for first, but who’s quibbling.)  That and the good time I had made for a very happy weekend.

Now I did not expect the results of fleeing idolatry to be so immediate and gratifying.  And certainly one should not expect the results of efforts at obedience to be so immediate.  But I do think my happy weekend illustrates that fleeing idolatry and putting things in their place just works better than the alternative.  (Read Isaiah 44:9-20 for a pointed commentary on that.)

I was a bit slow to apply this to my chess.  But I thank God that he allowed me to suffer a little so I would finally make chess less of a brazen idol.  And I am thankful for His providence and grace so quickly bringing about happy results of the same.

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