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Daily RC Article 133

Unraveling the Chessboard: The Essence of Concentration

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… Concentration is the sine qua non of the chess experience. In chess, concentration usually unfolds in quick succession through perceiving, desiring and searching. One could describe the feeling as a kind of evaluative hunting for trails of ideas that look and feel right… Good moves have the qualities of truth and beauty… The forces on the board are always embroiled, but concentration is particularly important when the pieces stop eyeing each other from a strategic distance, and come into direct tactical contact. At such moments, spotting a hidden detail could guarantee victory, while missing it could lead to inexorable defeat.

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Concentration is not like a bulb that we can turn on and off with a switch, because we are not just the bulb; we are also the switcher and the switch. Humans are like thermostats receiving and sending out signals, seeking the optimal ‘mental temperature’ as ambient conditions around and within us change, and we’re often abruptly adjusted against our will. We succeed in concentrating when we manage to convene the dispositions that matter for a task at hand and that is possible only if the right emotions co-arise and come along for the ride.

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… The process of concentrating is more like a method of corralling and coordinating fissiparous parts of our psyche… It is important to distinguish concentration from similar or related phenomena that provide different ‘meta-cognitive views’ – contexts of meaning and activity that are valuable because they allow the mind to become aware of itself. Chess thinking provides a rich metacognitive context that leads us to believe that we should tease apart three notions that are related but often conflated – attention, flow and concentration. Attention is fundamentally grounded in perception (how we attend), flow is fundamentally grounded in experience (how we feel), and concentration is grounded in praxis (how we purposively coalesce).

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We ask too much of attention and not enough of concentration. The recent cultural emphasis on attention risks subsuming too many variables of human experience, as if they could ever be held constant… All these variables are implicated in our capacity to attend, but they have their own kinds of agency, too, and they play with each other in unpredictable ways. The emergent properties arising from the psyche at play with itself in the world include amusement, enchantment, dissonance and distraction: these are not mere hindrances but more like a kind of data to be understood and integrated before we can exercise agency that is truly our own. We need to coalesce in order to concentrate, and concentrate to coalesce.

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Sans concentration, we cannot enjoy the state of consciousness – called flow – that is part of the chess experience. Flow is a mental state characterised by intense absorption, loss of self-consciousness, goal-related feedback from the world and an altered sense of time. Flow experiences are deeply rewarding, and they arise when our skill level and challenge level are optimally matched; too little challenge and we get bored, too much and we feel anxious. Chess is a great way to access flow, yet – as a lodestar for living – flow has limitations. Ultimately, flow is not a virtue but a form of pleasure, promoting which might not lead to desirable qualities of character; just as likely it could yield an atomised society of sophisticated hedonists with gaming addictions and virtual-reality sickness. Unlike attention or flow, concentration prompts an awareness of mood, even a commitment to meaning, and an appreciation for method.

The piece delves into the essence of concentration in chess, outlining its pivotal role in navigating the game's complexities. It differentiates concentration from attention and flow, emphasizing the synthesis of emotions and purpose in achieving it. While flow offers intense absorption, concentration fosters self-awareness and meaning, presenting it as a more comprehensive state for engaging in complex tasks like chess.
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