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It was my first chess tournament. I was extremely nervous, especially because my parents had come to watch – both of them. Typically my dad didn’t watch my competitions as they made him nervous, which in turn made me more nervous. That was the case that day.

I remember the first pairing. The opening was the Four Knight’s Defense, which at the highest levels tends to lead to draws. Only we were scholastic players, meaning it was a perfectly reasonable opening. We were even through the opening and the middlegame. Then in the endgame I snaked a couple of pawns through and queened them. Game 1 was a win. My nerves quelled some then. Why had I succeeded in the endgame? The reason is because I played constantly against a couple of gentlemen who were significantly better than me in that phase of the game. I had taken a lot of lumps playing, and losing, to them.

Game 2 I had the White pieces. There is an opening that is considered “unsound” at the highest levels and luminaries like Bobby Fischer proclaimed they had developed counters that refuted it (they haven’t). That opening is the King’s Gambit and there are still grandmasters who play it and play it well, so it’s anything but refuted, though there are stronger openings for White. Because of its reputation, it wasn’t played by anyone at that tournament, the SC state scholastic tournament, except one player who liked to attack, attack, attack. That was me. I opened with it in my second game and my opponent crumbled quickly. Within the first twenty moves, my opponent’s queenside pieces were sitting off the board, having been captured in a massive onslaught my opponent didn’t know how to stop. The King was hunkered down behind his defenses but would fall a few moves later. I had earned another win.

Up until that point, I had lost every single game of the King’s Gambit I had ever played. I had played it well over a couple of hundred times and my chess backside was black and blue with the beatings I had endured playing my pet opening.

Some of those games I had lost badly. Others reached the endgame where decisions I had made in the middlegame came back to haunt me. But each of those previous games was against an opponent who was significantly better than me. This opponent had also played the King’s Gambit for years before switching over to other openings. Every time I forayed out the first few moves, I was going against someone who I knew was going to have a significant advantage over me in this particular opening. However, I wanted to learn it. So I challenged myself by playing the King’s Opening against this particular gentleman. I learned just about every way you could lose playing the King’s Gambit. When I got to the state chess tournament and uncorked it, I was ready to win with it.

The secret to my success that tournament was I had challenged myself greatly leading up to it. I had intentionally played the toughest opponents that I knew, especially in openings I wanted to learn that I knew that they understood and had played. In the end I made it to the final round with a perfect record, eventually losing that final game to the state champion.

Challenging myself was the key to my success. I have found this to be true whether we’re talking about games, about sports, about work, or about life. I rarely improve when facing situations that don’t require my best. This is true of most people. If you find yourself in a rut or you don’t think you’re improving fast enough, ask yourself, “Am I being challenged?” If you aren’t, that might be the reason you aren’t growing.

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