Thursday, January 27, 2011


Right now I am a dude into playing chess online. There may be better venues but I am using Why am I playing chess? In some ways the more relevant question is why I haven't played for several years. As I've mentioned before, I was home-schooled, and so pretty much destined to play. We tended to have Napoleon complexes, and it's not hard to imagine why: our mothers cut our hair, we had no idea how to dress, and we were generally shrimpy shut-ins. It was inconceivable that we would succeed as social entities or even soldiers, but we might be good at telling other people who to shoot. (Notice this is also a hobby of the would-be ruling class, which was how many of these kids also understood themselves: no one had told them you've got to be able to talk to human beings if you want to rule anything.) For my part, I've always had a feeling I would die alone in a ditch, but I wanted to beat those kids at something. So that I would play chess was maybe what you would call over-determined. I'm consistently embarrassed by the fact my first e-mail address was Not, mind you, because I was good at chess, but because I was deluded.

Of course Tim's posts re: fairy chess pieces may have also had something to do with it.

Anyway, I played through most of my childhood and into college, though it was only in undergrad that I would actually join a chess club, where I was one of very few regularly attending members. Several of the other attendees were friends who are no longer friends, though not because I beat them at chess -- historically, I've had trouble beating much of anyone. I've always had a pretty unstable game, the sort where I could hold my own against players of nearly any skill level but very rarely sealed the deal. I was a constant victim of knights, which would fork my king and rooks regularly. (A fork is when a piece is moved into a position such that two of your pieces are endangered: you can move one out of the way, but not both. Knights are good at forks because they can often do them from less-than-obvious positions.)

An extremely unlikely example of a fork.
Part of my problem is aesthetic: for years, in childhood, I was playing to make the board look pretty. I would spend turn after turn arranging my pawns into a jagged, seemingly impassible barrier at the center of the board. It was more sculpture than strategy.

Eventually I moved beyond this rather hopeless maneuver and started building intensely complicated series of trades, often in the king's column, with the idea being that we would swap pieces back and forth for a while and then, because I had more pawns, bishops and etc. trained on the spot, I would eventually end up with a rook alone in the center of the board, pointed at the king. Which would mean the king was in check. Which would, well, not do me much good: you need two rooks for a mate, or at least a rook and some other piece, most of the time. And anyway, the epic trading sequences never really happened. Those things are so complicated, rely on so many assumptions, that they never really quite pan out. It comes apart, and everything the opponent's been building in the way of a contingency plan is one more contingency you haven't got.

A big part of my problem was I didn't understand how to checkmate. Like, at all. This was partly a result of my second problem, which was that I never quite learned how to deal with a world where you could only do one thing at once: the reason you need two rooks to mate is once the first has his eye on the king there has to be another waiting to catch him where he wants to go next. And by that same token, if a piece is aiming at your king, you can't do anything but deal with that piece. The closest thing in chess to making two moves at once is hiding one piece behind another, say a rook behind a knight, so that when you move the one the other is aimed at the king -- and yet the other piece, the one you actually moved, has gone on to do his own thing.

Mate with two rooks.
In the college chess club I learned the necessity of trading. When you're as easily distracted as I am -- and I was often just a little hungry in college, not starving but slightly underfed, such that by midday I was sometimes light-headed, which made me a bit of a spazz -- you have to remove pieces from the board to simplify things. I learned the concept of development, which is more or less what it sounds like: the degree to which you have created a structure, a system, a machine at the board's center. (Usually the center, anyway.) I learned how to checkmate with nothing but a king and a rook. I learned how to avoid stalemates, which were back then how my games ended maybe half of the time, even when I really should have won.

Mate with one rook.
I learned a lot of this from Reid, a pharmacy major who had been nationally ranked. I don't know how high, but very high, in a game where being anywhere near even the middle upper ranks requires some wild combination of intelligence, concentration, and memorization. There's a level of play where if you lose the coin flip and therefore play black and therefore have to go second, you've already lost, or the best you can hope for's a mate. I beat him one time, because he (more a teacher than an adversary) was kind enough to suggest I reconsider one disastrous move, and because he played me in a way I understood: trading. It was thrilling. Sure he'd gone easy on me, but his "going easy" was better than most people ever play.

So I've been coming back to it. And sucking. And but also, for the first time, learning to play properly. Slowly climbing the ranks. Odds are you'll hear more about it, because presently I'm obsessed.


  1. This is good. I do want to hear more. Last night I told Sarah that all my thinking about fairy pieces and complaining about the game has resparked my interest. I am really awful, though.

    Update: I just went to and a wave of anxiety ripped through me. My online games always kind of wobble okay for maybe six turns, and then my pawns basically start tripping over landmines.

  2. We'll have to face off for the Uncanny Valley trophy.

    And, yeah, that's how it was for me too for a couple days. Now I seem to be finding a groove, am winning more than I lose (but also playing lower-level players.)

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