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Paul Morphy was a 19th century New Orleans child prodigy who was the de facto world chess champion for much of his short life. He rarely lost when playing across Europe and the United States. He was also an attorney who graduated from what is now Tulane Law School. As a student, he is said to have memorized the Louisiana Civil Code in English and French.
His father was a noted judge in Louisiana.
There are other talented lawyers who play chess, although in my opinion none is as brilliant at chess as Morphy. Three 20th century champions all agree that Morphy is one of the greatest chess players of all time.
The general view is that if he were alive today, he would have the chess grandmaster title, the highest title in the world of chess.
As a law professor and senior amateur player, I believe playing chess is a great education to be a successful law student and attorney. Here are five reasons why.
1. Intellectually strict
Similar to law school, chess is intellectually strict. Playing chess at the highest level is so difficult that Microsoft founder Bill Gates lost after only nine moves in an exhibition blitz game with the current world champion, Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen. One would have expected Gates to last longer given his genius.
A chess player has to concentrate up to five or six hours in serious tournaments, and a single mistake can result in a loss. Concentration learning is invaluable to law school as well.
Aspiring law students often enroll in undergraduate courses that are part of a “pre-law” program. Government or criminal justice majors are typical as they focus on the legal system. These are important intellectual fields.
However, informal studies suggest that students studying in particularly difficult areas, such as philosophy or math, do better on the LSAT – the exam required to enter law school. Just as math and logic serve lawyers well in the courtroom in making their arguments, so too are chess players on the chessboard making their moves.
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2. Requires identification of problems
Students who perform well on legal exams and the bar exam must be able to successfully perform issue spotting. That said, unlike undergraduate exams, where the student may need to summarize what they have learned, law school exams require students to find out what legal issues are buried in the facts of a particular case. Then the student should apply the correct legal principles to the facts. The student often needs to draw analogies and see patterns. Lawyers also need to identify problems and draw analogies when their clients have problems.
Similarly, good chess players survey the chessboard with a ticking clock and must find a strong move among many possible candidate moves. You will look for patterns, such as typical methods of attacking a king. Sometimes the move is a tactical blow, like the daring sacrifice of a queen who leads to checkmate. Those players who cannot see many opportunities will not win many games. Both the chess player and the lawyer need to discover the key aspects of a situation.
3. Strategies essential
A strong performance in law and chess requires effective strategy development. Chess can therefore be the most common metaphor of the law.
Success requires the ability to plan, imagine how the opponent will react, and then figure out how to respond. As a former trial attorney, I had to think not only about what to do but also assess whether my opponent would have an effective counter-plan. I also had to know the weaknesses in my case. Likewise, a strong chess player knows the problems in his position.
4. Principles and rules apply
Both law and chess have rules, general principles, and exceptions or loopholes. The law is often codified as law. Likewise, chess has rules, although they often lack the ambiguity of statutes. Beginners then learn accepted principles. For example, they are taught that during the first part of the game they should put certain pieces into play, use those pieces and pawns to control the center of the board, and put their valued king in a safe position, by making a special move known as “castling” and keeping moves of their precious queen in reserve. Strong chess players, however, can violate these principles for surprise or other purposes.
Prosecutors also have common approaches. In criminal cases with several defendants, public prosecutors are trained to first look for the “little fish” and then use these successes to land the “big fish”. It’s like capturing the pawns before the king is checkmated in check. The press even uses these chess terms to describe criminal cases.
5. Takes competitive zeal
Success in both law and chess requires competitive instincts. In fact, chess has a player rating system and the law school has a class grade for students. Chess requires the will to win strong enough to maintain focus.
Chess players often experience ups and downs in individual games and tournaments. You have to deal with adversity, including losing. Likewise, a single law exam can be the only basis for the student’s grade, so everything is at stake at once, even though the student has likely worked the entire semester. Lawsuits can last for years and require perseverance. My cases and attempts have always been roller coasters with good and bad days.
Another similarity is that the chess player and lawyer must be well prepared. In chess, one can often find an opponent’s games online and see his style of play. In the law, one can learn about the judge hearing a case and change his approach accordingly.
Granted, chess is just a game, so most people play it for fun, while practicing law is a profession. Few chess players will reach Paul Morphy’s height. Even so, I believe that as someone who has played high-level chess and litigated in federal and state courts, chess develops important intellectual, emotional, and competitive skills that are very useful in the legal field.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
Mark Kende is a member of the United States Chess Federation and the American Bar Association.