Months later, I can still see her jaw drop, her eyes widen with fear at the thought of being vulnerable to a stranger again.
As Clare’s therapist, I was discussing how a divorced woman could embrace dating again in her mid-50s.
She had met a man but had no idea what to do next. What I told her came as a surprise — she should think of a chess move.
I’ve found in my 16 years as a therapist that chess moves can be handy analogies to guide one through tricky matters of the heart.
Today, love of chess is back in fashion — Netflix success The Queen’s Gambit has made a game once reserved for male grandees sexy and accessible. The show became the most-watched limited series in the streaming service’s history and caused a surge in sales of chess sets.
Psychotherapist Jenny Merriot (pictured) explains how the game chess can help in your dating life
Beth Harmon, the show’s orphaned protagonist and chess prodigy, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, learns what experts have known for a while: chess can be great for women.
Indeed, the moves involved in a game of chess provide a template for behaviour that can reassure those less sure of themselves.
When you play chess, you engage in an intricate game with endless possibilities. You visualise scenarios that could result from one move, study your opponent’s reactions, in a sophisticated practise of empathy.
When I saw how anxious Clare was about her romantic future, I thought of the Sicilian Defence. This, I told her, is an opening move, often taking your opponent by surprise — a display of assuredness, that serves to deny your opponent a potential double pawn.
Why not, I suggested, make a confident real-life gesture, in the manner of the Sicilian Defence, that will have an impact on your new love?
The Netflix success The Queen’s Gambit (pictured is Beth Harmon on the show) has made chess accessible again for women
As it turned out, Clare was a chess fan. She played with her son. And so she enacted the Sicilian Defence and invited her new man over for a glass of wine, making the next move in what looked like an early romantic stalemate. On a cold November evening, with a smouldering fire in the background, Clare was surprised to find her display of confidence created a sense of ease between them. A flame was lit.
Sometimes we women have to make a move. In this online world, love can seem a passive purchase.
In that spirit, I encouraged a reluctant client, Andrea, to keep her eyes open for love everywhere. She seemed to believe love could only come via a dating app. I told her to behave like the chess move En Passant. This is a capture of an enemy pawn as it ‘passes’ through the first square, in a move that can surprise less experienced players.
The same is true with relationships. I know women who met their partner ‘just passing’ in a queue. I always encourage people to keep their eyes open for romance.
It’s not just chess analogies that have helped my clients, but playing too.
Jenny says how sometimes women have to make a move in their romantic lives
I discovered the power of chess with my partner this summer. (I first learned to play as a child.) Men tell me they love playing chess with women — it brings competition and intrigue to a date, with both parties needing to work out the next move.
Chess also encourages you to appreciate another’s position. Developing such empathy is vital in relationships. Playing chess helped one of my clients whose husband would not stop talking when they were with friends, stealing all attention.
When they took up chess, he was not allowed to comment on her moves (in a tournament, this can lead to disqualification). This habit eventually influenced his daily behaviour, too. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by relationship problems, here’s my guide to some useful chess moves…
FOR ALL SPARKS
THE GAMBIT This move is about starting as you mean to go on, or setting a new course. A Gambit (from ancient Italian gambetto, meaning ‘to trip’) chess opening in which a player sacrifices a piece to get ahead. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices in romance.
Maybe you want to train as a yoga instructor while doing your existing job. It’s worth considering how this would impact your love life if you are studying round the clock with little respite. Sometimes you can’t have it all. Personal sacrifice can help new love flourish, and also deepen an established bond.
FOR THOSE WANTING LOVE TO ENDURE
PLAYING FOR A DRAW In chess, as in relationships, the goal is not always to win. Sometimes you have to compromise.
Relationships generally follow four stages — forming-storming-norming-performing. The early part of a relationship, or ‘forming’, is about getting to know each other. Both parties are on their best behaviour but often focused on themselves.
Next is storming, when conflicts can arise. Resolving clashes, or ‘norming’, can result in greater intimacy, which ultimately leads to ‘performing’, or compromise in order to work towards a common goal. Playing for the draw in chess avoids unnecessary loss. And in love, too. Don’t throw away harmony by failing to back down.
MOVING TOO FAST TOO SOON
SCHOLAR’S MATE Falling victim to Scholar’s Mate is like jumping into a relationship too soon, only to see it quickly fail. In four deft moves — using the valuable queen and bishop pieces to attack a vulnerable pawn at the start of the game, clearing a path to your king — your opponent has put you into checkmate and the game is over.
Maybe you are starry eyed, newly on the dating scene and have been swept off your feet. I generally advise clients to beware, after quickly going through the motions of ‘real’ romance, some men can dump you before you know it,
If that’s the result, don’t despair. Real love should not be a quick four-move strike.
Jenny says that chess also encourages you to appreciate another’s position. Developing such empathy is vital in relationships
FOR ROMANTIC STAYING POWER
PAWN PROMOTION Losing your queen early on can be the end of the game for some less experienced players. This is similar to a fledgling love affair fracturing, as early euphoria begins to fade. You see the object of your affection as they really are, warts and all. Tempers may flare, break-ups can occur.
Yet a quietly effective move called Pawn Promotion provides a model for a deeper connection, one which leads to a more mature relationship. This can be achieved by distracting your opponent with other more dramatic chess moves while your pawn creeps surreptitiously across the board.
When there, you can replace the pawn with a new queen, castle, bishop or knight. The gentle, cautious progress of the pawn is a model for how trust develops over time. Indeed, through trust, co-operation and acceptance of each other, a real intimacy can develop.
TO HELP UNDERSTAND A SENSITIVE SOUL
CASTLING Castling is about getting your king safely tucked away behind a wall of pawns. In romance, this is what many of us do when we feel wounded after a row — retreat into our shells to avoid being hurt further.
One woman, Alice, wanted to avoid conflict when she and a new boyfriend rowed. She worried about how best to convey this to him and ended up using the chess analogy to explain her need to defend herself.
He in turn revealed what it was like to be on the receiving end of detachment and it led to better communication.
Interview by Maxine Boersma. All names have been changed. Stories are based on Jenny’s casebook history.