Pocket Universes

The phrase “pocket universes” sprang into mind a couple of days ago. Out of nowhere, really, but I know what it means for me, in the way that an odd phrase from a dream strikes with direct resonance. It’s about games.

It’s about how my mind works, ever since I was little. Maybe there’s a little autism in it, in the manner of such a child mesmerized by ripples forming and forming and forming by raindrops on the street, ever repeating but different, while the interpersonal world of mother and father and siblings passes the child by. Games maze my mind, grab my attention, hint at a deeper synchronicity of structure between my perception and the world.

I think of the chess grandmaster Tal, in often poor health, a genius of complication and tactics, his entire life and mental space consumed by the intricacies and depths of championship chess. One description of him I recall said something to the effect that his eyes showed a mind deeply altered by this obsession, like the truly foreign mental state of a cat.

Chess and the game of go exemplify well what “pocket universe ” means for me.

Ananddiagram1Universe: the possibilities are endless, the variations vast and uncountable (except, unfortunately, in the world of chess, where the computer may finally make competitive chess tedious and almost unnecessary).

Pocket: the vastness is constrained by the rules and form of the game, which give it shape and allows its possibilities to cascade the way they do, as the sonnet form does the poet’s.

Item: four or five years old, baby-sat by friends of the family, awestruck by the multiple shelves of boardgames kept by the family’s young teenage boys (who also had a great wooden marionette puppet of Howdy Doody). I can still see those shelves and feel the awe and the covetousness.

goItem: teaching myself to play chess at age 7. Forcing my father to play me occasionally until I beat him. Unfortunately, I was not a chess prodigy: my dad was just pretty bad. I did go on to play competitive chess, but not at a very high level until I started to play correspondence chess quite a few years ago. I’ve managed to attain a correspondence chess master title, which almost certainly inflates my true ability.

Item: teaching myself to play every game possible out of the hardcover Hoyle Book of Games, from around age 9 to 12. They were mostly card games. I would carefully work out, following the directions, even the most baroque 3, 4 and 5-handed games, laying each hand carefully on the floor around me and playing through them. Each game would then conclude with my studious working out of the wonderfully arcane scoring mechanisms. Games with names like Euchre, Whist, Pinochle, Bezique, Piquet, Skat, Canasta, Baccarat.

Item: at nine or 10, asking that my father give me a large sheet of plywood. He complied, I think bemused by my enthusiasm. I began drawing a large map of England and began dividing it laboriously into tiny squares. I was inspired by a magazine game (I think it was in Life) about the Civil War. I wanted to do some kind of similar World War II game. I never got to the stage of making the tiny counters to go on the squares. I remember that particular piece of plywood was around our various homes for years, ignored and used for other things.

Item: Continuously playing chess against myself. I would set up the board, pretend I was white, then pretend I was black. I got bored playing games out of books, although I did that a lot too. I must have seemed the strange one… Every time the family visited anybody, this little boy would bring along his chess set, open it up on any available flat space, and intently play the game against himself. Of course, this was very unsatisfying, but I was the only one who’d play with me.

Item: Teaching myself to play go at eleven or twelve on a miniature set given my folks as a decorative gift by my grandmother. I followed the tiny rulebook included, and managed to get some of the rules wrong for many years… Again I tried to inveigle others to play with me, but I suspect that my intensity about games of all sorts just put people off, including relatives. Or else I was just unfortunate, with no other games enthusiasts, apparently, for miles around.

Item: When dedicated computer chess units first came out, at a friend’s place where he had one set up, I almost couldn’t manage a conversation with him and his wife. My attention was so captivated by the electronic gadget and the little plastic men that sat on it. I can remember the strength of that rude pull, struggling to redirect my attention to my friend’s conversation when all my thoughts wanted to do was focus on this machine that would play me.

To provide some balance to this view of a slightly… unusual childhood and mental direction, I also did the usual kid things of fighting with my brothers, running around with our dogs and playing softball.

But games have always been large in my life. Chess has actually been of positive benefit in surprising ways. I played chess with Gregory Bateson, the philosopher and academic, and had a chance to talk and know him a little bit on a personal level. Similarly, this also occurred with Lewis Balamuth, an elderly scientist and inventor whom I became fond of in the short time I knew him.

Chess even helped me once while working. Many years ago, in a period when jobs were hard to come by, I went to work for Pinkerton’s as a security guard during Expo 86, a world trade exposition held that year in Vancouver. One of the supervisor’s observed that I was up to my old tricks, trying to get people to play chess with me during our noon break. They were looking for somebody capable of looking after all the lock and key systems for a couple of big projects, and they figured since I played chess, I might be able to handle it. So I got out of that dreadful walking the perimeter of buildings in the middle of the night in a cold winter, and got to wear a normal sportcoat and tie and keep warm! And a pay raise at the same time…

ATI still play chess and go, both on the Web. Fortunately, I play those games against other people now… a lot more fun that way. I love computer games of course, especially the strategy and war game variety. I play now, for instance, Space Empires V, Galactic Civilizations II, Advanced Tactics World War II (turn-based) and Universe at War and Supreme Commander (real time strategy). Computer games, though, I still like to play against the computer — never really wanted to play multiplayer.

I haven’t explored at least one other dimension of the hold that games exert: the competitive aspect. Without that, games wouldn’t enthrall as much as they do. But in the end, it is the intoxicating pull of the mental activity itself.

There is a curious pleasure in the activity of thinking. If one ever has the opportunity to observe one’s mind when relatively still, and then sees again and again the tiny eagerness and pulse of pleasure that any thought brings with it, and how that positive reinforcement might easily build complete systems of philosophy, it’s easier to understand the order-of-magnitude greater thought-binding attractiveness of the platonic Game, in all its variety.

I still like games, too much…

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11 Comments on “Pocket Universes”


  1. Hi Fencer,

    Lovely post. My father was an avid chess player, and learning to play was sort of mandatory in our house, along with the high-energy (i.e., loud) and high-stakes games of Scrabble. The real coming of age was when one could beat Daddy at chess, not something I ever managed to do, although my brothers did. I did best him, finally, at Scrabble in my late teens :-) The description you give, though, of being drawn to the details, mesmerized even, while the world moved about is one that feels very familiar to me, moments of “seeing” and conjuring, in one form or another, from what is seen. How cool is that? Thanks for sharing

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mary,

    I did play some games with my brothers: Milles Bornes, and the fabulous Pit, which is a Very Loud stock market game which requires lots of screaming… so loud and raucous that my mother banned my brothers and me from ever playing it in the house again.

    I do love words and I remember playing Scrabble a few times… never very good at it for some reason. It is fun to beat the parents!

    Regards


  3. Chess was very popular amongst the students where I grew up. We started playing when we were about ten. If nothing else it teaches strategizing and teaches it well – a useful life skill. I read a lot of chess books and everything but never got that good at the game. I recall giving a chess beating to a very smart Conservative boy I visited once for a few days when I was in my teens. He could not believe a Canadian punk had beaten him.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Mr. Beer N. Hockey,

    As you say, a good case could be made for the educational benefits of chess: it teaches problem solving, the consequences of thoughtlessness, the value of thinking clearly, the need to get back up and improve when you fall (lose), the importance of self-discipline. Should be in the curriculum! And it is fun to beat people, especially certain people…

    Regards

  5. forestrat Says:

    My father was a Euchre man – said he used to play it for money in the bunkhouse on a ranch in Montana where he worked for a few years. My mom was a Gin/Rummy player. So I’ve been playing card games since I was old enough to understand the basic rules. For some reason though I’ve never caught the mania. I play just for the social aspect (and my skill level reflects it I suppose).

    I work with computers for a living and have played a bunch of “video games”, but I never caught the bug there either. I like multi-player games, but only if the other players are in the same room and we can do a team kind of thing.

    This seems weird because most people who know me would classify me as an introvert. I guess maybe I’m really just a closet extrovert.

    I recently read a book called “The Art of Seeing” by Csikszentmihalyi (really) and Robinson. They like to study what they call the “flow experience” in various activities. Including things like games/sports and art appreciation. The idea that certain people when doing certain things begin to flow with the activity to a point of blocking out all other stimuli like pain or whatever. Kind of interesting.

    MDW

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    An Euchre man! Few and far between these days, I bet… When I was a kid in rural BC, cribbage was the common recreational game, and very occasionally, Canasta.

    I will look around for that book by that unpronounceable person’s name and Robinson that you mention…

    Regards

  7. qazse Says:

    ” If one ever has the opportunity to observe one’s mind when relatively still, and then sees again and again the tiny eagerness and pulse of pleasure that any thought brings with it, ”

    I love that observation.

    I agree that chess ought to be taught in school. We in the states would wait until high school to teach it. Make sure the students are at the height of disinterest.

    Great post and comments. I love to play backgammon online and in real space. I would loose myself for hours on end playing in the universe of half court basketball. Always moving and always thinking ahead. Visceral/cognitive connections.

    Best

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    I think there are a number of scholastic chess programs in different places in the States… they probably start before the rebellious teens though.

    I always liked backgammon… there’s a lot of skill to it, but I never quite got the knack of it.

    Basketball shares some qualities with martial arts, I’ve always thought… like you say, physical, instinctive movement, in the moment with the right weight shift to accommodate the sudden turn that dekes the opponent. And there has to be some intelligence involved too.

    Regards

  9. Eliza Says:

    Fencer, thanks for sharing. A Belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year wish to you. Am trying to get my kids interested in chess and they loved the first few games then sort of lost steam. Any computer programmes you can recommend that teaches (and plays) chess well?

  10. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Thanks for your good wishes and Happy New Year to you as well!

    There are a number of strong free chess programs available.

    Here is one of the older Fritz chess programs, very strong:
    http://www.pcgo.de/aktuell/ausgabe0103/fritz.zip

    Here is another fairly strong program, Faile:
    http://faile.sourceforge.net/download.html

    [Edit: It turns out Faile needs the Winboard interface, which may be more messing around than a casual chess player wants to engage in. There are many chess engines or programs which use the Winboard graphic interface that are better than Faile.

    Another reasonably strong program, Arasan, comes with its own graphic interface (although it can also use Winboard) and should be easier to use: http://www.arasanchess.org/ .]

    For teaching chess there are some available but not for free. The commercially available Chessmaster series is probably pretty good for teaching. It has tutorials and that sort of thing…

    Regards

  11. Eliza Says:

    Fencer, thanks. Will check those links out. I hope your Christmas and New Year holidays were good. Am just very sorry my time off work has ended. :-)


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