Playing Chess as an Illustrator

I started playing chess when I was a kid and as I get older I’m becoming more and more fascinated by the game. I just play for fun online and over the board with friends, when I have a chance. I try to get better, and I even study some theory, but I’m not a great player, and I don’t have any aims to become a Master. I play because it’s fun and it’s a great exercise for my brain.

The history of chess can be traced back nearly 1500 years, although the earliest origins are uncertain. The earliest predecessor of the game probably originated in India, before the 6th century AD. There is an astonishing tale about it’s origins: the story of the grains of wheat.

There are a lot of variants of the story, but the main idea is something like that:

King Shihram was a tyrant who oppressed his subjects. One of his subjects, a wise man named Sissa ibn Dahir, invented the game of chess for the king to play, to show him that a king needed all his subjects and should take good care of them. King Shihram was so pleased that he ordered that the game of chess should be preserved in the temples, and said that it was the best thing he knew of to train generals in the art of war, a glory to religion and the world, and the foundation of all justice.

Then King Shihram asked Sissa ibn Dahir what reward he wanted for this great invention. Sissa answered that he didn’t want any reward, but the king insisted. Finally Sissa said that he would take this reward: the king should put one grain of wheat on the first square of a chessboard, two grains of wheat on the second square, four grains on the third square, eight grains on the fourth square, and so on, doubling the number of grains of wheat with each square (an exponential rate of growth).

“What a dummy!” thought the king. “That’s a tiny reward; I would have given him much more.” He ordered his slaves to bring out the chessboard and they started putting on the wheat. Everything went well for a while, but the king was surprised to see that by the time they got halfway through the chessboard the 32nd square required more than four billion grains of wheat, or about 100,000 kilos of wheat. Now Sissa didn’t seem so stupid anymore. Even so, King Shihram was willing to pay up.

But as the slaves began on the second half of the chessboard, King Shihram gradually realised that he couldn’t pay that much wheat – in fact, to finish the chessboard you would need as much wheat as six times the weight of all the living things on Earth.

(London, 1843-1871, Biographical dictionary of Ibn Khallikan, vol. III, p. 71).

There are other astounding facts of chess that illustrates the depth and complexity of the game. For instance, the number of possible chess positions is higher than the atoms in the observable universe.

Besides those amazing facts, I love the strategy, geometry, beauty and creativity involved in a chess game. The more I get into understanding the game, the more impressed and attracted I am.

After playing regularly, I’ve noticed a lot of improvements, not only in my chess skills but also in other areas, like my skills as an illustrator or my day-to-day life. Chess is a mental exercise (and a sport) that helps to improve many cognitive skills and mental abilities.

Benefits and similarities between playing chess and being an illustrator

  • Problem-solving
    Chess is a problem-solving game. I find it very similar to developing conceptual illustrations. You have to solve particular problems in a given time with the available resources.
  • Time management
    In the past, I used to play without time control, but recently I’ve started playing 5 and 15-minute games online. And it’s a very similar when I work on rush assignments for clients as The New York Times when you only have a few hours to develop an illustration. Time management is about making the right decisions depending on the time you have left. Sometimes you can’t aim to find the best move, or the best idea, because that will put you in serious troubles later. You have to manage your time wisely. Sometimes, finding decent moves effectively is better than finding great moves but consuming most of your time.
  • Planning
    In chess, people say that sometimes is better to have a bad plan than not having one at all. When you have a plan, it means that you have analysed the situation, and you know what’s going on. You can modify that plan (and improve it) as the game goes by and the position changes or new opportunities appear. Not having a plan means to play without being aware of the situation, and making poor decisions based on the present, not on the future. Having a plan is crucial, not only for developing illustrations but also for managing your career as an illustrator.
  • Calculation
    It’s very related to planning. In chess, you need to calculate your and your opponent’s next moves. That allows you to make the correct decisions and see the big picture. Calculation is one of the fundamental elements of planning.
  • Candidates moves
    In chess, a candidate move is a move that you seriously consider to play before moving. It’s common to have a few candidate moves per turn, and then make the final decision considering the consequences of each of them. I find a direct connection between candidate moves and sketches. Sketches are the candidate moves for a final illustration, and you end up choosing the best one after considering them closely.
  • Creativity
    In chess, many times you must be creative. Sometimes, some opportunities can give you an advantage, but you must introduce creative ideas that allow you to benefit from that position. Similarly, when developing illustrations you need to be aware of those opportunities and do things differently to find the ideas that will lead you to end up creating a good image with a good concept.
  • Analysis
    One of the best things you can do to improve your chess level is to analyse your games (and other’s games), forcing yourself to see where you failed and the best alternatives. You can use that analytical way of doing things to improve your skills and your situation as an illustrator or as a person.
  • Sacrifices
    It’s very common in Chess to sacrifice a piece in order to open lines, start an attack or improve your position with compensation. I find myself doing those sacrifices as well being an illustrator. Sometimes I decide to sacrifice some of my time to accept certain assignments, on the other hand, sometimes I decide to sacrifice some assignments to free some time for my personal projects. Sacrificing it’s related to seeing the big picture, your plan and your strategy to reach bigger objectives in the future.
  • Brain patterns
    There are a lot of possible games in chess, and even though it’s almost impossible to repeat an entire game again in future games, there are certain patterns that repeat constantly. As you keep playing, your brain is learning those patterns and its ability to recognise them increases. I find those patterns as well when developing conceptual illustrations. Sometimes the elements of an idea are different, but the creative resource behind those elements is the same.
  • Accepting defeat
    One of the greatest things of chess is that challenges you, and that means that you end up losing many times. That’s a great lesson for your ego. You learn that things don’t always turn out as you wished, and that’s an opportunity to improve yourself and learn to be humble.

How to start playing chess?

If you want to start playing chess but you feel a bit overwhelmed by the game, here are some tips.

  • Learn the basic rules
    Learn how the pieces move, their value, the different stages of the game, and the game goals.
  • Play correspondence games
    That’s how I got hooked to chess initially. You can play games on the internet where you can have several days per turn. That means that you have a lot of time to think about your next move, and it doesn’t interfere with your busy schedules.
  • Play with time control
    As you feel more comfortable with your time management and your skills, you can play with time control. 30 or 15-minute with 15 seconds increment it’s a good starting point.
  • Practice some tactics.
    Besides playing games, you can also do tactics. Those are short exercises where you need to find the best 2 or 3 next moves in a given position. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes per exercise, and it will improve a lot your pattern recognition and your ability to detect the tactics opportunities. And it’s a lot of fun!
  • Watch some instructional videos.
    I follow some chess players that publish amazing content online for free. I strongly recommend John Bartholomew youtube channel. His Chess Fundamentals series are a great starting point.


Chess not only allows you to improve your cognitive skills and abilities in many ways, but it’s also entertaining and a lot of fun to play.

If my schedule allows it, I try to play a couple of games every day.

If you want to play, you can find me on or under the username mgz47.