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The Expert Approach to Recovery.

Barak’s Let’s Talk Corner

There are important differences between experts and beginners that are well documented by research . One way research has been investigating “expertise”, is tapping into the thoughts of Maestro (expert) Chess players and comparing them to the thoughts of beginners. We know that the differences are striking.

Novice players (beginners) look at the Chessboard and ask, “What is the best move I can take right now”? They look at the immediate, dealing with momentary impulses, on a “take what I can” basis. They lack in experience and insight, see few options if any, fail to recognize patterns and often, feel overwhelmed when faced with challenges.

In contrast, the Maestros look far ahead. It is the enemy King they wish to overthrow. The Maestros are patient, wise and know the road to success is long, painful and treacherous. The Maestros are willing to sacrifice (their own soldiers), can tolerate a few lost battles, successfully manage quick temptations and cheap thrills in the forms of taking down some relatively unimportant enemy players, and they never underestimate the enemy King’s wits. In addition, The Maestros are experienced, flexible and prepared to deal with any difficult situation. In short, the Maestros want the ultimate prize: True Victory!

Similarly, the experts on recovery show important parallels. The Maestros of recovery plan ahead, are willing to sacrifice and understand that winning true recovery takes time, patience and pain. Like in Chess, Addiction is the enemy King that needs to be conquered. You may very well need to sacrifice something/s important to you. For example, give up some important friendships with drug and alcohol using peers and your relationship with your drug of preference/s. Like playing Chess, you need to avoid giving in to impulses and quick temptations in the form of using mood altering substances. Like playing Chess, you must understand that winning the end game involves the experiences of winning and losing series of many small battles that progressively move you into a winning position. These experiences will allow you to gain an expert perspective and the flexibility needed to deal with reality without drugs and alcohol. Like playing Chess, you must also think of your long-term goals and short-term strategies. Finally, you should never underestimate the power of the enemy king, AKA addiction. Addiction is an external (negative) force that tries to manipulate the situation and yourself into relapse. Addiction tendencies (cognitively, behaviorally, emotionally and socially) need to be recognized, challenges and mastered.

Please take a moment to reflect on your very last relapse (or lapse). What were the triggers, the social context, your emotional state and was there any ‘game plan’ to help you manage a difficult situation without relapse? If you could re-play that situation in your mind, how could you approach this as a Maestro?

A good place to develop recovery expertise is individual and/ or group therapy. Remember that like in Chess, in order to win recovery, you must understand the rules of the game and work tirelessly at acquiring the skills to become a Maestro.



Bilalic M., McLeod P. &Gobert F. (2007). Inflexibility of experts – reality of myth? Quantifying the Einstellung effect on chess masters. Cognit Psychol. Apr 4; [Epub ahead of print]. Abstract retrieved on May 9, 2007.

Campitelli G., Gobert F. & Parker A. (2005). Structure and stimulus familiarity: a study of memory in chess-players with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Span J Psychol. Nov; 8(2): 238-45.

Krol NP., De Brun EE. & Van Den Bercken JH. (1992). Diagnostic classification by experts and novices. Acta Psychol (AMST). Oct; 81(1): 23-37.

Onofrj M., Curatola L., Velentini G., Antonelli M., Thomas A. & Fulgente T. (1995). Non-dominant dorsal-prefrontal activation during chess problem solution evidenced by single photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT). Neurosci Lett. Oct. 6; 198(3): 169-72.