Andrii Ryzhenko

@andrii.ryzhenko

Chess and Programming: Busting the Myth that All Programmers are Good Chess Players

Disproving any myth starts with statistics, so we have asked around the office and found out that the majority of our clients’ software engineers at NCube are not good at chess or don’t play at all.

But what strikes us is that those who play chess turned out to be programmers by calling. These are the specialists who get things done, and more importantly, they love what they do. It is essential to understand that not all IT professionals, especially in outsourcing, are die-hard fans of coding. They do it because it pays their bills, supports their families or an expensive hobby like motorsports or going to a club.

Although we didn’t see a direct connection between achievements in chess and programming, it’s still possible to compare and find something common between these activities.

Can playing chess make you a better programmer?

Chess helps achieve laser-like focus

In today’s blip-culture, it’s easy to get distracted by a myriad of microtasks, social media and chats with coworkers. It takes 15–45 minutes for a programmer to get back into the productivity mode after a distraction. Playing chess trains the kind of focus one needs for a match game that can last for hours and see it through.

Adaptation to tedious work

What can be tedious about programming? Someone will say that it’s exciting to learn new frameworks and libraries. But let’s be honest — for those seeking adventure, there are plenty of other careers that are by far more thrilling. Programming is all about remembering and applying hundreds of similar tasks. At the same time, playing chess requires learning hundreds of typical variations and openings.

Skills needed to achieve long-term goals

On average, it takes 5 years to achieve meaningful results in programming. To become a dab hand at chess, many players start practicing at an early age. A child gets used to the fact that becoming a champion requires years of consistent practice. Professionals with this kind of a mindset are not likely to easily give up when faced with hardships. A sense of purpose helps them on their long journey to success.

Programming is a great option for successful chess players who want to make a career change. All of chess skills can be put to good use in data processing, high load systems, and machine learning or any other IT field with a high barrier of entry. Rewards like a high-paying job and plenty of exciting projects await those who dare to make the switch.

Mind training

Like any other strategy game, chess trains the executive function of the brain — deductive and analogical reasoning, including memory and attention. In addition to these skills, programming requires logic, mathematics, abstraction and language skills, namely visualization, semantical, and syntactical analysis of textual constructions.

Starting to play chess at an early age brings more tangible results from the effort. In fact, my school included chess into the curriculum as a mandatory subject in the first grade.

A downside of playing chess

Chess can be a waste of time. It’s better to exercise

Chess takes a lot of time. The skillset of a typical senior software engineer grows with every day. It’s is a true arms race where chess can be a distraction from sharpening your coding skills. If you have a few hours to spare, it’s better to spend them in the gym.

Lack of socializing and a strong community

Besides work, there are plenty of activities that help build career and network. You can go camping, play PC games with coworkers during a break or go cycling in the park. The chess community is too small — it’s even outnumbered by the “Warhammer 40,000” Universe.

First place is already taken

In 1996, world chess champion Garry Kasparov lost the game to Deep Blue, an IBM computer capable of evaluating 200M mover a second. This means that the champion has been already predefined — men won’t be able to beat machine at chess without significant technology upgrades like brain implants. The question is whether you are willing to devote years to mastering chess only to have a chance to compete for second place?

Impossible to make a living playing chess

Famous chess players do make good livings, but compared to Silicon Valley or India based programmers, their number is extremely small. Programming in fact has changed the lives of millions of people. It’s a social elevator accessible to everyone. Many great chess players have changed a career because they had to provide for their families. Programmers, on the other hand, tend to remain active professionally before retirement and become advisors, analytics or managers.

Final thoughts

If you are a good chess player, it would be easier for you to become good at programming. This being said, chess skills should not be overestimated — if you don’t know how to play chess, waste no time learning how to and go straight to working on your coding skills. This way has proven the most reliable and effective.

And the best way to start as a software developer — try to develop your own chess game.

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