My All-Too Mortal Game
an inept chess player
Source: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
I recall filling out the personal information on the Profile page of this blog when I started this thing. Favorite Movies and Favorite Books, as well as my occupation, were easy fields to fill. Where I got stuck was on the Interests field; I had none. This is not exactly true, but unlike my sister, who enjoys golf, hiking, snowshoeing, kayaking, and a plethora of other healthy activities, I had none — or at least none that I wanted to list. I mean, at the time I was entering the information, all I really liked to do was sit on my ass and watch movies, listen to music, and read — that’s it.
Since that initial entry, I am happy to say I have added an interest that requires some movement besides operating a remote control — working out. The thing is, it’s not really an “interest,” it’s more like a chore — like washing my cars. Another interest I listed that is more of an on-again, off-again/love-hate affair is chess. Chess can also at times seem like a chore. It is during those times — usually during a correspondence chess tournament that can become long and drawn out — that I lose whatever transient passion I had for the game, and the rest of the moves become obligatory.
I first became interested in chess back in 1994, after seeing the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. After the initial excitement of discovering something new, it became like anything else. In that first year or so, I bought a chess set, chess software, and a couple of books on the game, and as if I knew I was going to become a tournament player, I became a member of the US Chess Federation. This kind of behavior is not unlike me — diving into the latest interest with an open wallet and myopic vision.
The next thing I did was visit a Sacramento Chess Club meeting in hopes of making some friends. I found the chess players there very competitive and aloof. After losing games to a couple of people who thought I was some kind of a joke, I decided to ask for help. The first person who agreed to help me was one of the club’s best who mistook my request for personal training as a request to train my protégé son. It turned out he was not interested in teaching someone who was old enough to grow facial hair. I left discouraged. Online gaming was no better. I joined the Internet Chess Club only to find I was the worst player in the world. I was thoroughly humiliated on a couple of occasions by members who mated me in less then ten moves and then said things like, "My mom wants me to get off the computer and go to bed." or "37, you're older than my dad!"
Shortly after this, I discovered that a top-ranked Sacramento Chess Club member was a fellow civil servant and accessible by email through the State email list. I emailed him and asked if he would teach me the basics of chess. This is embarrassing to admit, since most players learn through reading how-to books and playing in club settings; but the books weren’t helping, and I felt I wasn’t good enough to show up at club meetings. The fellow State worker and top-ranking chess club member agreed, and we met at a café in midtown once a week.
On our first meeting, we sat down with our lattes and began a friendly game. A couple of moves later, he asked, “What system are you using?” “What system?” I replied. I never heard of “systems” in chess. (Over the years my "what system" joke has become a tired joke among friends as well as my Blogger account handle. Nobody gets it and for a good reason.) I realized I never learned an opening system for either white or black. Chess was getting more complicated by the game.
About six sessions and two months later, we had our last meeting. I told my own personal chess master that I decided to give up the game. This was in fact a lie; it was getting more embarrassing with each time I paid him to teach me what most people could learn by just playing the game more often then I was playing it. My personal chess master was also getting tired of teaching me. Though he did not say this to me directly, on more than one occasion, when he was frustrated that I could not give him an intelligent reason why I made a particular move, he would say through a sigh, “Look, if you are not going to respect the game, you should stick with checkers.” I know he didn’t say it to hurt my feelings, this guy is a USCF Senior Master and loves the game, I think he was hurt that I was disrespecting that game that he has studied for years.
I also felt tired, and this game requires a lot of concentration and dedication that I no longer wanted to dole out. Take for instance how the number of possible moves in a game grows geometrically with every move. The first move of the game is easy: the player has twenty legal moves, but as the game progresses, the permutations become mind blowing especially when the Queen, Rooks, and Bishops get moving. Perhaps I was taking this all too seriously, but I felt I wanted to learn the science of chess and play in rated tournaments – not just how to play a friendly game. This was my downfall. Ultimately, chess ended up like the drums when I was a kid. When the instructor told me I would not be the next Gene Krupa unless I practiced many hours a week for many years, I dropped the sticks and said forget it.
One of the positive things that came out of these sessions was that I learned the first few moves of three opening systems: for White openings, the Colle System; for Black openings, the Center Counter Defense and the Tarrasch Defense. I purchased books on these three opening games, but as par for the course, never got past the first few pages of each book. In this period of training, I bought many other books on chess — most I don’t think I ever opened! There they sit on my bookshelf, right next to the books on web design, in-line skating, Argentine Tango, and all the other things I thought I would be an expert in by now.
I experienced a renewed interest in the game some time later when I started playing email chess with Gus, an acquaintance from work. The outcomes of the games were not much different from playing either online or at the club -- my opponent would beat me or we would draw. Still, Gus was humble and never belittled me. It may sound childish or immature, but it is amazing how small you can feel by losing to someone at chess. If I lose at basketball, I can say I am not athletic. If I lose at a video game, I can write it off as a child’s game. Even if I lose at dominoes or backgammon, I can laugh at how bad I am with numbers. Since chess is all smarts and there is no luck involved, when you loose it is as if your opponent just placed a dunce cap on your head and then proceeded to laugh in your face – it can be that brutal and humiliating.
Last year, Gus and I played another series of games. The outcomes were the same until I started reading the book Logical Chess: Move by Move: Every Move Explained by Irving Chernev. I beat Gus in the last two games we played. While I’m only talking about two games out of probably a half dozen, I think it rattled him; he never lost to me before, now he lost two in a row. We agreed to play OTB (over-the-board), but it never happened. I should have been inspired by these victories and continued to work my way through Chernev’s book (which requires playing through many games while the author explains his tactics). I should have started mixing it up with the guys at the club, and dispatching those pubescent punks online; but for some reason I stopped working through the book and didn’t get back into the game. Perhaps I was comfortable losing — man, that sounds pathetic!
Though I have not played much chess in the last year, I still eagerly await the paperback release of David Shenk’s acclaimed book, The Immortal Game: a History of Chess or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science and the Human Brain. The book attempts to illustrate how chess has been an omnipresent factor in the development of civilization, from its invention in India around 500 A.D. to its importance in the development of artificial intelligence. Shenk tries to explain why chess, above the thousands of games invented and played throughout history, thrived within every culture it has touched. Just about everyone has played the game at some point in their lives, and its rules and pieces have served as a metaphor for society, influencing military strategy, mathematics, literature, and the arts.
After browsing through the hardcover edition of Shenk’s book, I bought Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess — a collection of chess puzzles that I worked on during my commutes. I felt inspired that I could solve some of the puzzles that were taken from real games with the greatest player America ever produced. I stopped when the puzzles became too difficult, and I decided to spend my commute time doing something easier on my brain: napping. Recently, I tried to pull out my chess set. I don’t know why exactly. There was no one to play against; I guess I just wanted to lay out the board and pieces. Even with a cheap set like mine, chess is one of the two most beautiful games to behold (pool being the other one; unfortunately, I don’t have a pool table). I looked for my set for half an hour before I quit, picked up the remote control, and watched The Simpsons. I’m doomed to be a patzer-for-life if I can’t stay focused on the game, but I feel so warm and toasty (read superior) watching Homer make an idiot out of himself. If only he played the Immortal Game!