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Pushing Pawns

Every day I meet with clients, I have the opportunity to have interesting conversations. The other day it was a candidate who told me quite casually that he played chess when I asked him about how he handled stress. I've always been interested in chess and how it molds people, and so my curiosity was naturally piqued. I suspect he was probably relieved to get questioned about a subject which was easy for him and which served as a welcome departure from the usual interview questions such as probing one’s strengths and weaknesses, recovery from life's inevitable failures and the like.

I was introduced to chess when I was a child by my grandparents. I don't remember being particularly impressed -- it was just something that you could do after dinner to occupy the time. I learned what each piece did in the most rudimentary way, but that was all. I never really thought much about the game for decades until I interviewed a residency candidate during my early years as a program director. I had already discovered that discussing the unusual items on someone's residency application often yielded much information about who they were. Out of college as a nationally ranked chess player here in the States, he had been recruited in Europe to play chess. As part of his chess-playing contract, he was required to teach kids the fundamentals of chess. I can still remember how he spoke passionately about the teaching and mentoring role he had assumed - a role which changed not only his life, but the lives of at least some of his students. He spoke about the ability of these kids to focus better in their other studies, to feel good when the won games and small tournaments particularly when other "wins" in their lives were absent or infrequent, and how they improved scholastically having acquired skills from chess. And although other details surrounding his trajectory have long since faded from my memory, I do remember that he had decided to pursue medicine as an outgrowth of his experiences as a chess mentor to kids. He didn't come to my program, but he was one of my top picks that year.

And so once again, I found myself listening to another candidate -- no doubt a much better player than his modesty would allow him to admit, who spoke about how the game of chess mirrored many things in life. He talked about the importance of one's opening move and how such could increase or decrease one's chances of taking home the win. He reminded me that in a match, you must consider all the possibilities before committing to action and that there were consequences to each and every action taken. He talked about the supreme importance of the "small pieces" and how the intense focus and mindfulness of a chess game helped him to manage stress. And he told me that he embraced chess as he embraced life. The rest of his mock interview with me had many highlights, but this topped all the rest. After our session, I suggested that he look into the film "Queen of Katwe" - an achingly beautiful movie about a teacher who takes chess to a remote impoverished town in Uganda, teaches an entire classroom how to play the game, and ultimately his students win a National Championship.  I am no longer a Program Director, but this candidate too would have earned a top position on my rank list.

That same night I found myself looking at various TED talks about chess, until I landed on one which was the US equivalent of the movie I've already described. Kids from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Wilmington Delaware who, if only defined by their zip code, would rarely succeed. But here again, the school decided to make chess accessible to its students along with the provision of coaching excellence. They learned the game and in turn, learned about focus, strategy, determination and passion -- in essence, the essential qualities that allow us all to move forward in life. And many of these kids too eventually stood as champions on the top of a podium at the National Chess Finals after suffering many prior defeats and near misses. In his talk, their teacher and chess mentor described the capabilities of each chess piece, leaving the pawns to the end in recognition of their crucial role. He talked about "pushing pawns" -- the critical importance of pushing pawns forward, the only direction that they can move, recognizing the possibility of potential promotion but also their ability to influence the mobility of other chess pieces and a host of other things that are best left to those who understand chess to describe. And he ended by commenting about everyone's role to help students and others who need our support - metaphorically to "push the pawns" and help them to flourish.

Why do I feel so compelled to chose this unlikely blog topic for my audience, the majority of whom are IMGs seeking residency in the United States? There are at least three reasons.

The first is to impart the most straightforward and direct message: Don't forget to highlight things about you on your residency application that you may discount, but that others may find not only fascinating, but could fundamentally change your position on a rank list.

The second is to remind everyone that getting a residency is a "long-game". Each of you knows much better than me that this is a journey that requires tremendous focus, dedication and resilience. It can feel merciless at times, particularly when one's year of graduation or USMLE score falls just below an arbitrary cut-off and prevents what appears to be an insurmountable barrier. But I have seen candidates with many odds against them and only one interview invitation who ended up with a match letter in hand.

And finally, to remind us all that we must help each other along this path in whatever way that we can, especially when our success allows us to do so.


To those who have interest: From Pawns to Kings: Chess Champions of Murdertown USA | Walter Nathan Durant | TEDxWilmington – October 2016

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