Startup Life, the Pandemic, and Chess

It was a gray, damp Sunday afternoon, one of the many such days in the Richmond District of San Francisco. I was working for the 7th day in a row, obsessed with fixing some obscure aspect of my startup’s website. As the afternoon wore on, though, and the caffeine kick began to fade, I started to realize I couldn’t go on for much longer. I needed a break.

Most days whenever I’d hit a wall like that I’d simply grab my puffer jacket and head out for a walk in the Golden Gate Park. But after months of my flatmate’s attempts to talk me into playing chess I felt I couldn’t evade the dusty chessboard in our living room for much longer. As we liked to say in our house, “it was about to go down.”

I loved playing chess as a kid, but struggled to find the time or energy for it these days. With the daily hustle of freelancing, building a startup on the side, and the seemingly infinite pool of personal errands, finding a couple of undisturbed hours to play was an increasingly rare affair. Besides, after a long day at work I rarely had it in me to do anything else but watch a show on Netflix anyway.

The pandemic changed all of that. Suddenly social activities and obligations were few and far between. Networking events and client meetings, along with the associated commute times, were gone too. Life, hectic as it’s ever been, for the first time maybe since I graduated college, seemed to slow down a bit.

Of course it wasn’t long before I started running out of things to watch on Netflix (haven’t we all). Bored and resigned, I started binging on classic games of chess grandmasters like Bobby Fischer or Garry Kasparov on YouTube. The slow, tedious moves on the chessboard coupled with the hushed and soothing commentary proved to be the perfect escape from the anxiety-inducing news of the day.

Still, that Sunday afternoon, having just worked for seven days straight, I was not in the mood to use my head at all. I couldn’t imagine playing a game of UNO, let alone spend hours hunched over a chessboard in full concentration. Yet, against my better judgement (or, perhaps, lack thereof), I finally caved in.

And so we dusted off the chessboard and sat down to play. It wasn’t until four hours later, a little before midnight, when the word “checkmate” finally echoed in our living room. Despite being on the ropes for much of the game, somehow I managed to pull off a simple, yet cunning attack with my king’s bishop and the queen. It felt like a hard-earned victory, not just against my flatmate but also against the limits of my own cognition.

It took me a while before I finally managed to fall asleep that night. The euphoria of narrowly winning the game kept me wide-awake long past bedtime. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about how quickly my fatigue vanished once we started playing. I kept wondering, after all the hard work of the past week, how could it be that I was able to snap back to focus so fast and so easily?

I can only speculate what was behind that sudden bolt of energy. Whether it was the rush of adrenaline that you get when you play a intensely competitive game, the trance-like state of flow you enter when you focus on the chessboard, or just how much fun playing a game with a good friend on a Sunday night can be. Whatever it is, though, I know I’ll happily trade watching Netflix for it.

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Product designer and occasional writer 🇪🇺🇺🇸

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