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Can Chess Make or Break a Relationship?

Set Up

I opted to play chess with my boyfriend, Ben, for the sake of game reflection, dissection, and journalling in my Games and Learning course at CU Denver. When we began to play at a quaint coffeehouse, I felt quite confident that I could showcase a couple interesting moves, but Ben did not mention that he was quite skilled at the game. What began as fun, turned into a fierce competition and ended in checkmate, Ben’s favor.

Key Questions

I asked myself the following questions while playing the game:

  • What is Ben’s skill level?
  • Are we comparable?
  • What is is Ben’s strategy?
  • How many moves ahead is Ben planning?
  • How long does he take to decide his next move?
  • How should my strategy change to combat Ben’s strategy?


Difficulties & Surprises

As we played, I realized Ben was much better than he let on. I quickly saw by his third move, he was playing the long game. He wasn’t interested in my pawns, but more about setting the board up to his advantage. This posed as both a surprise and increased difficulty for me. I gathered that he was planning more than three moves out, which was beyond my mental capabilities. His moves began to put me on the defense rather than the offense. Not long after that, I was begrudgingly obliterated.


Game’s Design

Chess is the perfect game that requires strategy, planning, composure, and skill. I was constrained by my lower skill level and inability to hide my emotions. I kept telling Ben to play his game and not let me win. Ben kept asking if I was sure about that, indicating that his constraints were to not upset me. I might go so far as to say the game was a reflection of our relationship. We both can play the game, but I want a partner who will challenge me. Ben certainly does just that!


Scholarly Connections

Ben and I achieved the first question of Will Wright’s litmus test for a game’s engagement and success, “Can we try?” (Salen, 2008, p. 11). There was also a critical moment for Ben when he decided to fully play his best even though he knew he had the advantage. As the game progressed and I began losing, I asked the second important game question, “Can I save it?” (Salen, 2008, p. 11). I played my best until I realized I couldn’t save the game. After my ego healed, I felt I needed to learn from Ben’s superior chess playing abilities.


We have not yet played again, but our next game’s goal is to employ Gee’s theory, “learning should be a collaborative dance between the teacher’s guidance and the learner’s actions and interpretations,” (2004, p. 68). I see Ben as the teacher since he has a better grasp of chess. If we slow the game down and talk through moves, then I have a greater opportunity to learn. Our last game was not necessarily fun for either of us because we came from a place of competition rather than curiosity. True, I learned a bit, but I would benefit much more by learning Ben’s skills than acting like I can play at his level.



My experience of playing chess seemed like inception. Chess is complex even without the added challenge of playing one’s significant other. I learned about the dynamics of our relationship through play. One major realization being that I sometimes ask for what I cannot handle. It would be wise to remember this experience and apply it in my daily life. I should ask myself, “Am I really capable of challenging Ben now or would this be a better opportunity to slow down, communicate, and learn from Ben?”


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4 thoughts on “Can Chess Make or Break a Relationship?”

  1. Susannah,Thank you for sharing your experience playing chess as a newbie against (of all things) an intimate opponent such as your boyfriend. Playing loved ones in games is always an interesting psychological battle! I like how you confirmed with Ben that it is “okay” to play his hardest and not go easy on you. This reminds me of the Stevens readings from cycle 2: “In-Game, In-Room, In-World: Reconnecting Video Game Play to the Rest of Kids’ Lives,” Reed Stevens. It’s sort of like the “apprentice-master” relationship, and you telling Ben to not go easy on you confirms your desire to learn regardless of failure or consequences through game play. Perhaps even if he advised against it? After doing this did you think it was highly likely you were going to lose? Do you think that affected your play? Reflecting on this experience, and allowing Ben to “play his best” against you, does that make you want to learn how to beat him in future games?


    1. You ask great questions Kirk. I always appreciate the perspective you bring :)Initially, I wanted to impress Ben. Once I realized that wasn’t an option, I decided to not go down without a fight. It was a really humbling experience because I realized how many assumptions I made about my opponent and partner. Never assume!
      Now, I would love to be able to at least play at his level because I can see that winning is a further-off goal. It would be nice to at least challenge him so that playing chess can become a fun experience for both of us.
      I can see your comparison of us as the apprentice and master. Perhaps this first game was assessing our baseline and establishing those roles. Before we even played there was no real way to know how our skill levels matched.

  2. Hi Susannah,
    I really enjoyed reading about your experience with playing Chess with your boyfriend. It’s always difficult to play such a serious, strategic game with a significant other. I do not let myself play chess against my husband because he is so good, and I am not. Usually when we play games together, he’s all about teaching me how to play well, except with Chess, he just wants to crush me!

    Looks like we have different interpretations of the the “Can I save it” aspect of the litmus test. Because they were writing about video games in that reading, I took it as “Can I save this game to a file, take a break and come back later” not “Looks like I will not succeed, are there any strategies to help me recuperate”.

  3. Hi Susannah, what a great blog entry! I am really fond of your writing skills and style you have: clear to the point but humorous, detailed at the same time and well structured. I particularly liked how you tied the learning experience to the peer reviewed readings we had. The quote from Gee’s article is something I completely agree with. One thing to consider, though: not always subject matter experts are great teachers. When you sit with Ben to learn more about the game, look for and emphasis on specifics such as strategies, tactics, so on. Look for the guidance not necessarily information.

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