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Learning and Mastering Chess: Serotonin vs Dopamine

These are two of the four happiness chemicals released in the body.

They are both neurotransmitters which are chemical messengers in the brain that communicate by neurons.

Serotonin can be considered the hormone for willpower and delayed gratification. It is associated with feelings of calm, focus and happiness.

Dopamine is your trigger for instant gratification. It is associated with feelings of rewards and motivation.

How do they apply in real life?

Let's consider the game, Chess.

I spoke to Ambrose Cooke about his journey of learning and mastering Chess.

"It may surprise you if I told you that learning Chess helped me discover more about myself and my personality. Chess is a multilayered prism. It is a science, an art and a sport. Because of this, there is no "right" way to learn or master chess. As you go deeper and deeper and discover your play style, you can specialize as you like. You can learn chess for a lifetime and still not be done.

I started playing chess for fun. My workmate kept beating me over and over so the competitive side of me stepped in. We played blitz chess, a form of speed chess with just 3 minutes on the timer each. Each time you made a move, you gained an extra 2 seconds to your clock. These made for exciting but intense and sometimes chaotic matches - full of dopamine hits. Each time you made a move to strike through his defence, destroy his pawn structure, or folly his queen you had an instant sense of gratification and even bragging rights. The sweetest moment would be in the end game where you form a mating net and corner his King. Check mate.

At least, this is how it was at the beginning when I was purely playing for fun and just trying to beat my workmate. Soon, I became curious on how to actually - you know - get better. Like most sports, sciences or arts I needed to start with the foundations. I learnt about the three stages of a chess game. The Opening, the Middle game, and the End game.

The opening was simple to learn. Just like mathematics, there were a handful of key principles that you needed to learn, of which could be applied to a foray of limitless conjugations:

Principle One: control the center. The centre of the board mathematically gave you a strategic advantage to attack or defend from. A knight in the center for example is attacking 8 squares, whilst a knight on the side or corner would be attacking as little as two.

Principle Two: develop your "major pieces" first. By placing your knights, bishops and castles in the action, you would already build up tempo and control key areas of the board.

And finally, protect your king by "castling" it to saftey. Without your king you lose the game, so this is a good one to get out of the way. The opening phase would pass within the first 10 moves (each) of the game. After learning these opening principles, I found I started playing with more consistency. Gone were the fast paced dopamine fuelled games where I take my Queen out early (your most powerful piece) and attempt the 4-move "scholar's mate". Through learning the fundamentals of opening theory, I traded dopamine with serotonin (neurotransmitter for focus and calm) , as I saw my ELO score rise and rise and rise, as I now effortlessly beat my workmate, without even thinking."

Ambrose Cooke has been learning Chess for five years. He ranks in the top 10% of all players on When not on the chess board he is an avid salsa dancer of which he says has many similarities with chess. He is also co-founder of the hugely successful company, Fanbytes.


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