Open Road Press

Use It or Lose It!

On a recent trip to the roller rink, Debbie and I faced a stark awakening. It had been years since we’d attempted this feat. It showed. We acted as props for one another as we crept along the outer edge of the rink. With Debbie on one side and the wall on the other, I managed to stay on my wobbly legs and avoid any violent topples to the hard surface below me. Two are better yet again!

Our escapade teaches an interesting lesson. Our bodies had forgotten what roller skating was like. It really is a clever act–to balance on free spinning wheels on a flat, smooth surface, with others whizzing by at breakneck speed. We used muscles that had forgotten the sensation. And the more we tried to stay upright, the tenser those muscles became. Tense muscles aren’t what you need to navigate a roller rink. You need to relax so you can respond reflexively.

Our confidence had been shattered–at least once we stepped onto the rink. Our proficiency of years ago had provided plenty of confidence en route to the rink. But when you go years without exercising a skill, you begin to lose it. Your body and mind need to be reminded what it was like, perhaps even retrained. By the end of the night, we had become somewhat more relaxed. But we’ll need multiple visits to the rink to reclaim our skill.

The “use it or lose it” rule says that if you don’t use a particular skill or gift, you will eventually lose it. Although there’s Scriptural grounds for this, I don’t totally subscribe to the theory. For when you learn how to ride a bicycle, you don’t forget. It becomes ingrained in you. With each successful ride, you develop more confidence that you can do it anytime you so desire.

Maybe I need another lesson or two in humility to embrace this truth. And…well…maybe that’s why I’ve been meeting with limited success recently in a long-held passion of mine. The “use it or lose it” rule has met me in another endeavor.

In younger years, I played a lot of competitive chess. I became quite proficient and topped out as a chess expert, one who is rated between 2000 and 2200. That’s actually pretty good. A master has reached the 2200 level, a grandmaster, 2400.

My love for the game has kept me periodically engaged with “solitary chess” (where one plays both sides of the board), and occasionally reviewing games published in periodicals or playing some “speed chess” online. However, I’ve not competed in an over-the-board (OTB) tournament since 2002. Since the 1980s, I had played only sporadically.

Recently, I’ve entered a few OTB tournaments at a local club with stronger competition than I’d been accustomed to. While I like a challenge, I’ve experienced the same confidence reversal that Debbie and I had at the roller rink! My confidence crisis has manifested itself in several ways.

First, I’ve been more nervous than I would normally be for a chess game. I’ve always been nervous before a chess game and, to some degree, I expect it. It tells me I’m ready to play. But, having shaky hands feels awkward.

I’ve also been calculating moves too slowly. When you play in an OTB tournament, you are timed. If you use all of your allotted time, you immediately lose the game–regardless of whether you hold a winning position, or are getting crushed. It’s a harsh, but fair, reality. I’ve lost some recent games because I’ve poorly allocated my time, even though I’ve had better positions than the opponent. Sure, there’s rust to shake off after years away from the board. But, much of the slow play is excessive caution symptomatic of a lack of confidence.

My lagging confidence is also altering my perception. I’m not seeing my positions objectively. I’m assuming my higher-rated opponents have something up their sleeve. When  I review my games later, I see the positions more for what they were. And I had better chances than what I was telling myself over the board. Confidence is such an important aspect of a mental game like chess. And it’s difficult to accumulate any without experiencing some successes.

My game this week demonstrated these phenomena well. My opponent, a master, played an offbeat variation of an opening I was quite familiar with. On move six, he strayed from what I thought was the “book” move. Sure enough, several deep thinks later and I was in severe time trouble. Yet, I had developed a strong position. At a critical juncture, I was left with one minute to make 20 moves. I made some mistakes before losing on time.

After the game, my gracious opponent admitted that he probably shouldn’t deviate from the book on move six anymore based on how I handled it. He also showed me a crushing move I had missed in time trouble, a move I would not have missed with adequate time. Knowing how close I had been to a decisive win over a strong player is a “moral victory” that bolsters my confidence. I suspect my confidence will grow further as I reverse the effects of the “use it or lose it” rule.

Have you walked away from a long-time passion? Is there a skill you once mastered that you’ve not used for awhile? Consider rekindling your fire. Your mind will stay sharper and you will soon brim with self-confidence. Don’t find yourself on the wrong end of “use it or lose it.” You may regret it later. You’ll be playing catch up trying to reclaim past glory!


Here’s the game described above. The opening is known as Alekhine’s Defense. On move 21, Nxd4 should win.

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