When I was in middle school I had a tenuous relationship with our school's TAG program. TAG stands, in Iowa at least, for Talented and Gifted, and my relationship with the program was tenuous because I had nice standardized test scores but earned a D- in some actual class (I think math). For a while I was enrolled in these afterschool enrichment courses, in which a leather-jacketed woman guided me and other quiet and stooped children through exercises in toothpick bridge building and tangram shuffling. Then I got the D-. For a few days it was a fluke, then somebody decided it was more than a fluke.
I still had this idea, unfortunately, that good times were to be had by sticking around the building after hours, so I obeyed a flyer in the hall and joined the chess club. The first thing I had to do in chess club was rank myself by playing a veteran. A boy my age sat across from me in a fluorescent-lit room and we moved plastic pieces at each other until his ride showed up. He started packing up his backpack and said something like, Um. And I said something like, Well. We looked at each for a while, both awkward. I started taking down my pieces and the other kid said, Oh, you forfeit. You forfeit.
So I quit chess club.
Then I pretty much gave up chess. To hell with chess, I thought (except I didn't swear much then). Sometimes I played with the girl who lived next door, and sometimes I'd set up the pieces (now fantasy pieces, bought at a garage sale, tall and intricate, three-inch kings and knights and ladies) and narrate while I video recorded my three-legged cat knocking them off the board. In college I dated a woman who was interested in chess, and who was probably at least as good as me (I remember us being evenly matched, although she might argue against that evaluation), and the game gave us something that seemed intellectually engaging to do while we swallowed vodka or ate pizza. I even went online and bought a new chess set, a nice folding thing, for $50, and then went mad with impatience while I waited for FedEx to bring it.
But then, again, I grew bored with the game, and impatient with my own impatience. My thought then, as it is now, is that it would be pretty sweet to be really good at chess, but much in the same was as it would be pretty sweet to know three languages perfectly, or to know how to kick box, or to train to control a plane.
This probably explains why I can't stop thinking about those fairy chess pieces I mentioned a few days ago. They're interesting in so many ways: chess is just crazy old, old enough to have gone through all these variations, and then even when it didn't go through certain variations on its own, some people decided it should go through some variations, and then really all these variations are moderately to fairly valid, in that few of them do anything that much different than regular pieces, or at least anything so different that we couldn't imagine them, with straight faces, as valid in a universe only slightly different than our own.
I am going to tell you about some of the fairy chess pieces that strike me as most interesting. Of course, you may want to check out the Wikipedia article or your favorite casual research resource to determine which fairy chess piece you love the most, and will dress as next Halloween:
The Basilisk: This piece moves like your average and, okay, kickass queen, but also immobilizes enemy pieces within a knight's hop of itself. It just sits there and stares at them. Come on, it says, but of course the other piece can't come on, because it's turned to stone, and the Basilisk laughs and laughs and laughs, until an enemy Basilisk comes along, and then nobody's laughing anymore.
The Amazon: This is a queen who has also trained as a knight. It is honestly also called a superqueen, which was probably a band name at some point in the past few decades.
The Kraken: The Kraken goes wherever it will, but rather than swim there it hops there, tentacles swinging, flailing, water everywhere, soaking the board, infuriating all players and spectators, which is to say that the Kraken produces by itself the natural effect of most chess games.