I THINK I closed my eyes as the other boy pounded my face, punch after punch. It seemed I had no defence. Trying to hit him back or to block him was just useless. The minister eventually broke us up, and it was only then that I burst out crying. “I didn’t come to church group for this! I don’t want to box!” He looked at me sadly. “I had you do this for a reason: it’s good for 14-year-olds. It helps you grow up.” A hundred thoughts filled my head. I was normal, why did I need to grow up? How does getting beaten up somehow mature you? Is there something religious about suffering being good for you? But I replied meekly, “I just want to play chess”. He shook his head slowly. “Chess? Chess will never get you anywhere.”
Despite the advice, I never boxed again, and I played lots of chess. I played competitively, all over Australia and later internationally. I loved it. To me it was gymnastics with the mind, a pure contest, one-on-one, with no discrimination for wealth, education or age. It was perfect for me too, a small, shy, lonely, backward and awkward boy growing up in a loveless foster home.
Beating adults was the most fun. It was puzzling that despite their supposed superiority they were so clumsy with their pawns and bishops. I improved quickly and by the time I was 15 made it into the newspapers by beating the adult state champion. As a top junior, I gave exhibitions, playing lots of people at once in supermarkets or schools. I made good pocket money and learnt to hustle playing the park players for stakes.
Chess was good for me. Despite the obsession, my school results soared, my confidence blossomed and I made lots of friends. A beautiful girl fell in love with me, watching me win two games at once – I was blindfolded. I learnt to think too. After all, are there any other activities that will get a teenager to sit quietly, absorbed in deep concentration and mental analysis, while carefully choosing an option? Certainly not computer games.
But at around 20, I abruptly gave it up (until recently). I realised I wasn’t world class, and I also realised the diminishing returns involved – more and more effort to get a little bit better. I also realised that chess has its limitations. It’s a strange game; you don’t talk to an opponent while playing, it’s rude to even look at him. The big weaknesses, though, are that in chess there is no randomness and that all the required information is in front of you. If you play the right moves, you’ll never lose. My finance and business careers were held back until I realised that, just like in life, the right decision doesn’t always win, and success doesn’t always reflect the right decision. You need to expect the unexpected and anticipate human reactions. Observing the world around you is not required in a chess battle.
I’m far more worldly now than when I was beaten up in church. But I’ll always be happy to be a little bit of a nerd, because far from getting me nowhere, chess was my salvation.
Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.