A Love Note to Amateurishness

I’m an amateur word nerd. Nobody pays me to rave about etymology or to irritate my friends with my Wordle score every morning. But I like it that way. Being an amateur is wonderful. After all, the root of the word is “one who loves”. Is there any better reason to do something than love?

When I think of amateurs having fun, I remember an internet craze from last year: a little-known game called “chess.” For a period following the release of The Queen’s Gambit, chess was suddenly absolutely everywhere.

Chess’ surge in popularity is both unsurprising and massively bizarre. It’s unsurprising because the game is over a thousand years old, so it clearly has some lasting appeal. But chess is a famously difficult game to master, and—if we’re honest—most of us prefer to avoid difficult things, particularly if they’re competitive. It’s demoralizing to realize that a super grandmaster will almost always beat a grandmaster… who will almost always beat a master… who will almost always beat a good player… who will almost always beat a bad player… who will almost always beat me.

In other words, my stance towards chess has historically been, Sounds cool, but no thanks! My ego is built on a solid foundation of only doing things I’m already good at, thank you very much.

But last year’s wave of mass enthusiasm* was enough to overcome my natural reluctance to be bad at something, and it finally got me into chess. This was in large part due to discovering Pogchamps.

* Enthusiasm: a word derived from “being filled with divine inspiration”, which—like being filled with love—is a good reason to do something if you think about it.

Amateurs + Experts = Magic

Pogchamps is an online chess tournament in which amateurs are paired up with professional coaches to battle amateur vs. amateur across a chess board over several weeks.

Before this, I’d never really considered watching a chess tournament. I always figured it would be so far beyond my level that I couldn’t possibly enjoy it. So, although there is some joy to be found watching experts operating at a higher level than I could comprehend, I’d never been gripped by chess.

But I immediately discovered that the most compelling part of the Pogchamps formula was the amateurs themselves. They were having fun. Rather than being held back by the fear of looking silly in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers, they played their best and laughed about the mistakes afterwards.

Their mistakes also brought me a lot of joy. It was fun to watch a game swing from extreme to extreme as players traded huge blunders, but I preferred the seemingly innocuous moves which caused the commentator to gasp. To me, nothing different had happened, but this could only mean I’d missed something dramatic. In other circumstances, failing to follow such a simple game might make me feel stupid. But, in keeping with the theme of the tournament, there was usually an amateur co-commentator who also needed an explanation from the expert sitting beside them. I never felt behind, because the whole broadcast was aimed at bringing me along.

The dynamic of experts interacting with amateurs, in both the coaching and commentary, is fascinating. It turns out I love watching people learn. Seeing a player get coached on what they could do better, and then watching them do better afterwards was almost as satisfying as experiencing improvement myself.

Learning from learners

My weeks of addiction to Pogchamps taught me a couple of lessons.

First, it’s fun to learn without shame. I know this to be true, and yet I often struggle to let go of my ego enough to genuinely not care. As a multipotentialite, it’s important to aim for the mindset of the happy amateur, where just doing something for fun is enough and the outcome doesn’t matter—at least some of the time.

Second, surprising and exciting things happen when you take an activity that’s traditionally reserved for elites and make it more inclusive. Watching people from all walks of life learn to play chess was exciting. It also made me admit to myself that, while I might not be cut out to be a grandmaster, I could actually have fun playing a few games.

That said, the reaction from the wider world of chess wasn’t all positive. As you might expect, some were worried that opening up to a wider audience could be bad for the community. That seems silly to me – it’s not as if anybody is advocating for traditional chess tournaments to be scrapped. Adding enthusiastic amateurs to a previously insular landscape seems like it could only be positive.

Lastly, improvement is addictive. Whether it’s my own improvement, or becoming emotionally invested in the ability of a random person to develop their Sicilian Defense, nothing beats a feeling of progress. This is an overarching theme that runs throughout everything I enjoy, from writing to video games to speaking to playing music. Improvement itself brings me joy, and it doesn’t even have to be my own improvement.

The Bearable Lightness of Amateurism

There are many reasons that I’m telling you about this. Maybe you’d like to check out the recordings of the tournament. Perhaps hearing the story will make a connection in your mind and inspire you to shamelessly enjoy something you’re bad at, or to make your own entrance into a traditionally closed and elite pursuit.

But I’m mostly telling you just to share my enthusiasm and enjoyment. I’m enthusiastic about enthusiasm and in love with acting out of love. That’s the best bit of being an amateur: you don’t need a reason to do something.

Sometimes it’s just fun to have fun.

[this article was originally written for Puttylike]

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.

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