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On Chess: How Chess Can Prepare You For Medical School

International Master Dorsa Derakhshani plays in the 2018 U.S. Women's Championship in St. Louis.
Austin Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club
International master Dorsa Derakhshani plays in the 2018 U.S. Women's Championship in St. Louis.

Growing up, I was always told how chess, music and math go together. So, in high school, I decided to choose math and physics as my concentration because I assumed since I liked chess, I would like math and physics as well.

In high school, I was already a three-time Asian youth champion, and by the time I had graduated high school I had secured both a Woman Grandmaster and an International Master title. 

While I did enjoy math in my younger years, in 2017, I accepted a scholarship to play for the St. Louis University chess team and to pursue a degree in biology.

Knowing what you want to study and what you want to achieve with your degree is challenging to most people. I chose to major in a subject that interests me, biology. For my sophomore year, I added another major, clinical health sciences — mainly to understand the U.S. health care system better. 

International Master Dorsa Derakhshani (right) playing in the 2018 U.S. Women's Championship against Woman's Grandmaster Irina Krush (left) in St. Louis.
Credit Austin Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club
International Master Dorsa Derakhshani (right) playing in the 2018 U.S. Women's Championship against Woman's Grandmaster Irina Krush (left) in St. Louis.

I knew what I wanted to do with my degree when I started shadowing different specialties. I got the chance to see how the surgeons apply what they have learned in school through biology and anatomy, in actual operating rooms.

Looking at health care professions got me thinking about how closely related chess is with being a doctor.

For example, as a surgeon, you prepare for the surgery beforehand by reviewing the general techniques in textbooks, keep updated by reviewing current journals and talk to your team of health care professionals to decide how to use this knowledge for your patient’s specific case.

In chess, you need to know the theories in the opening, keep up to date on recent top games and have a good general understanding of middle game and endgame principles. Sometimes, you get the chance to prepare against your specific opponent’s style of play and opening choices.

In the most recent tournament in which I played, the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championship 2019, I had the opportunity to prepare against my opponent by researching their previous games and by looking for specific weaknesses in their opening repertoire and general style.

My preparation resulted in a more comfortable position right out of the opening and allowed me to enter a middle game where I had the upper hand.

Another comparison that has fascinated me is how, both in chess and surgery, you need to keep calm under pressure, assess the needs of the patient or the chess position and think about prophylactic moves in your plan.

In chess, having time-management skills is critical. I used to always get nervous under time pressure, but by training myself how to think critically and make the most practical decisions, I have conquered this weakness.

In the operating room, a simple mistake could cost a patient dearly. As the surgeon, you have to have significant knowledge about the human body and that specific technique you are going to perform in order to decrease the patient’s risk factors.

Overall, working on chess and having played it for so many years has prepared me for my life more than anything else. Chess embraced my ambitious, it taught me to manage my time better and to be more decisive.

I got the chance to understand the definition of being practical, strategic maneuvering, evaluations, analysis and apply them in my daily life.

Dorsa Derakshani is an Iranian American Women’s grandmaster and international master. She moved to America in 2017 and has been representing the U.S. ever since. In 2019, she gave a TEDxTalk about freedom of choice and accompanied her team to achieve bronze in the World Prestigious University Chess Invitational in Tianjin, China. She is a member of the St. Louis Chess Club, a partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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