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How Is Chess Like The Socratic Method?

Let me start this post by saying that I’m fascinated by how things fit together. How is Mother Teresa similar to Richard Nixon? How is Facebook similar to UBS? It’s very easy to assume that many of these questions are unanswerable. On the surface Mother Teresa isn’t at all like Richard Nixon. But once you really force yourself to look at them objectively and dive into the subtle details that separate one thing from another, similarities almost always exist. Once you can figure out how one thing relates to another, you can begin to peel back the shroud of our every day assumptions, and reveal the golden strings that connect all of the things in our lives. Knowing how things connect means knowing how the world works. And that’s what I’m interested in learning about.

So now let’s address our original question. How is chess like the Socratic method? Let’s first start by defining exactly what we’re talking about. Chess is a “board game of strategic skill” where the object of the game is “to put the opponent’s king under a direct attack from which escape is impossible.” The Socratic method on the other hand, is not a game, but system of argumentation and discussion wherein the protagonist attempts to convince others of his viewpoint simply by asking questions. These questions follow a specific logical flow that eventually ends in proving an apodictic conclusion.

The Socratic method is a great tool to use in argumentation simply because your opponent doesn’t know that he is proving your case. It’s very easy to state what you think and attempt to coerce the other person into agreeing with you. Very seldom does that work. Have you ever watched a presidential debate? I don’t think I’ve ever been convinced of an opinion I don’t originally agree with by watching even the best politicians in the world try to force it down my throat. Certainly my perception of who I like might change, but my politics don’t. In my experience, trying to force my opinion on someone else makes them dig in their heels against me, and generally creates unnecessary tension and animosity. Generally I end up doing that anyway just because it’s easier, takes less thought, and is sometimes more satisfying. Somehow the words, “No you’re wrong” can be said with special glee that clouds the true objective of a conversation. But by using the Socratic method you don’t force your conclusion onto the other person, you take what the other person gives you and ask the questions that lead to that conclusion.

Well how is chess similar? Let’s start by asking another question, what’s the object of chess? To checkmate the other person’s king of course. Ok, so we have one similarity. Both chess and the Socratic method have a starting point and a known objective. In neither case do we know what the path to that objective will look like from the beginning, but we know what we’re gunning for. Now the next question: how do we win in chess? Now from my very limited knowledge of strategy in general and chess strategy in specific I know that you can’t beat your opponent. You can only make your opponent beat himself. You have to make him react to your moves in such a way that he exposes his king. If he doesn’t do that you will never be able to checkmate him.

Here the key similarity becomes clear. Think of every move you make in chess like it’s a question in the Socratic method. You make a move, or ask a question and see how your opponent reacts. Based on his reaction you make another move, or ask another question, that hopefully will further expose his position to logical fallacy or his king to checkmate. The best players are the ones that beat you before you even know what’s happening. Just like a questioner using the Socratic method they know exactly what they’re doing from the beginning. You’re the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on.

What are the takeaways from this post? Well it’s clear that you can’t make people give you what you want. You can’t force a person to reverse his opinions, or to lose to you in chess. In order for them to lose they have to want to make the moves that ultimately undermine their position. So next time you’re arguing with someone think about it like a game of chess. And next time you’re playing chess think about it like the Socratic method. Even if you don’t win the first time, your understanding of the game will increase. And your success will increase as a result.

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If you like this post you might like If you’re not failing you’re not trying or The Theory of Constraints (Or Why Bottlenecks Matter).



1 Jul 2011, 3:35pm | 3 comments


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