How Playing 1-Minute Speed Chess Improved My Game and, By Extension, My Life

One of the few assets the smartphone has brought to my life, since I first got one around 2012, is reconnecting me with the game of chess.

As the son of immigrants from the former Soviet Union — a nation steeped in the game — chess played a large role in my childhood. I studied it, played in tournaments, even took my commitment so far as to remain a virgin through high school.

And while I was relatively good (by no means a prodigy, but nevertheless a formidable opponent), the way I conducted my game was revealing of my flaws as a thinker (and, by extension, a liver of life) — namely, that I was stifled by a fear of risk.

Ever the perfectionist, when time allowed for it I would not make a move until I was absolutely satisfied that it was the best move I could make — or at least that it wasn’t a wrong move. My thought processes were marred by indecision and inaction, and ultimately my moves were often simply just safe.

When the iPhone presented an opportunity to pick this game up again in adulthood (with an app I could now play anytime I wanted, with anyone in the world), it became my main form of procrastination. But since one game could take forever if not limited by a clock, I quickly whittled down my preferred format to the shortest game you could play: 1-minute*.

Now I could squeeze in a game or two even while waiting on line at the post office. Which means I play a lot. In fact, I’ve now logged so many games in the past 7 years — exponentially more than in all my time playing as a kid, since back then I was limited by the need for an available board and an available opponent — that the sheer volume alone is one obvious cause for my improved playing. My brain’s memory now has such a large variety of moves and strategies and positions to call upon when I find myself in familiar territory.

But another major reason for my advancement is how the 1-minute constraint has affected my behavior.

(On the one hand it does make you form bad habits for sure: sometimes you make wild moves just to psych out your opponent and stump them long enough for their clock to run out — moves that in any other context would represent fatal blunders. Plus, growing accustomed to this pace makes you needlessly and dangerously impatient when playing non-speed chess with those who prefer to take their time.)

But — especially for an overthinker like me — there is a highly beneficial flipside. With time unrelentingly against me (every second literally counts), I am forced to rely on my gut instincts. Rather than picking the absolute best move, I make the move that feels best. And often I’m right and I surprise myself. Moreover, often it’s a better move than I would have made using the slow-thinking, non-intuitive (not to mention fearful, defensive, and self-preserving) part of my brain’s processor. Thus, I’ve grown more confident in my intuition and learned that I can depend on it.

I also have become far more adept at predicting my opponent’s next move, since responding right away can give me a real edge on the time. (Whereas in normal play there’s no special urgency in considering your opponent’s move before they’ve made it.) In essence, I’m using my opponent’s clock to make my move, rather than my own. Again, I am amazed at how good I’ve become at anticipating what they’ll do. I even tried a new feature that allows me to commit to my next move ahead of time so that my response is instantaneous, which I’m sure causes many players to wonder if I’m using some sort of cheat code.

Most important of all, these exercises in relying on intuition, committing to decisions, taking calculated risks — all with full confidence — have translated to every aspect of my real life. Expect nothing, but trust in yourself and have faith.

After all, worst case, even if I fail — even in real life — I can always play again.

*Really a maximum of 2 minutes, since each player gets 1 minute on the clock.