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How Emotionally Intelligent People Use the ‘Rule of the Chess Player’ to Strengthen Relationships and Perform Under Pressure


When I lived in New York, one of my favorite activities was taking a stroll through Washington Square Park, where I’d make my way to the chess tables. There, a few of us novice players would gather around, watching the older gentlemen hone their skills and talk trash.

But every time, the same thing would inevitably happen:

Whenever a player made a big mistake, the rest of us recoiled in horror. We’d let out loud gasps of exasperation, so as to say:

How could they make that move? 

Of course, the funny thing is, while we were all astonished that a skilled player could make such a thoughtless mistake…

We often made the same mistakes ourselves, when we were in the player’s chair.

There’s an easy explanation for why this happens: It’s easier to see potential mistakes when we’re not in the hot seat. We’re not emotionally attached to the game. Our heartbeat doesn’t quicken when we see a potential good move. And we don’t feel the stress once the pressure mounts.

I like to refer to this as “the rule of the chess player.”

The rule of the chess player is founded on principles of emotional intelligence, and it can help you not only in chess, but in business…and life.

What is the rule of the chess player? And how it can help you build better relationships, and better habits?

(If you find value in the ‘rule of the chess player,’ you might be interested in my full emotional intelligence course — which includes 20 more rules that help you develop your emotional intelligence. Check out the full course here.)

What is the ‘rule of the chess player’?

The rule of the chess player simply states:

When you’re in an emotionally intense situation, your perspective will be drastically different than when you’re not in that situation.

The rule of the chess player is based on a psychological principle known as the perspective gap, which states that we often misjudge how we would react (or even how we have reacted) when facing an intense set of circumstances.

Sounds simple enough, right? But acknowledging this rule is only the first step. You can then use it to do two very important things.

Show more empathy.
Because of the perspective gap, often when we see someone make a big mistake, we tend to judge what they could have done differently. We may even think to ourselves, “Well, that’s what they get.” Or, we might underestimate how painful the experience is, thinking, “I’ve been there before. This will help them toughen up.”

But those reactions don’t help. They don’t do anything for the person who’s suffering, and they don’t help your relationship with them, either. That’s because even if you don’t voice what you’re thinking, it will come out naturally in how you deal with them–likely creating (or deepening) a rift between you and them.

In contrast, the rule of the chess player helps you to realize that facing similar circumstances, your thoughts and emotions could cause you (and have caused you) to make big mistakes. In doing so, your perspective changes to something more like the following:

Oh yeah, that’s tough. Let me think about this…How can I help?

When your default changes from “judgmental” to “helpful,” you build a bridge instead of a rift–which makes an emotional impact on your teammate and strengthens your relationship.

But besides strengthening your connections with others, the rule of the chess player can also help you in another way.

Perform under pressure.

You know what sets the great chess players apart from the average ones?

Chess Masters and Grandmasters have played more games than they can count. They practice real games, against real opponents. But they also practice in their heads, imagining scenarios they might encounter and how they would deal with them.

By practicing the same moves over and over, these players develop habits and processes that they can repeat almost effortlessly. This allows them to speed up the game in their minds, to the point that they can think several moves ahead. They rarely encounter situations they’re not prepared for, and when they do, they rely on core principles to help them determine the best way to move forward.

You can do the same thing with your emotions.

Like a master chess player repeatedly practicing the same moves, you must train your feelings and emotional responses. When you repeatedly practice emotionally healthy routines and habits, you rely on those habits when under pressure. You can also fast forward a situation and see the results of specific actions, allowing you to see “several moves” into the future.

And when you’re under emotional stress, you’ll avoid panicking and go back to your core principles, which helps you make good decisions.

So, whether you’re striving for better relationships, or striving for a better you, remember the rule of the chess player.

It’s a great reminder that everyone makes mistakes–and it will teach you how to reduce yours.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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