Chess is the most elaborate waste of human intelligence outside of an advertising agency.
— Raymond Chandler
Time is limited. I’ve come to the conclusion that I must say goodbye to chess so that I can more reliably work on the writing of a novel.
Chess has in the course of my life been a refuge, a welcome distraction, an intellectual pleasure and training tool, a means of job entry, a way to relate to others of similar bent, and a major presence on my book shelves.
In the last decade or so, I have come to play competitively what is known as correspondence chess: chess by mail and with the rise of the internet, chess online. I only play over-the-board occasionally with friends.
Correspondence chess online retains roughly the same format as the postal version. You receive a move, give it your consideration as you move the pieces around the board, and return your move within a few days. Tournament games can take a year or more. It may seem longwinded to the non-enthusiast but part of the pleasure of chess, it seems, is to take a lot of time thinking about it.
Chess as a refuge
I was an odd youngster and youth. At one time, just before and after puberty, whenever I was along on one of my mother’s visits to family or friends, I would always pack a board and men. I never seemed to come across kids my own age who shared my enthusiasms, including chess.
I would find someplace to sit by myself and set up the game. Sometimes I would have a book, like the Dover edition of the James Mason’s The Art of Chess, written in 1895. The Dover edition had a more recent appendix by prolific chess author Fred Reinfeld that covered many of the openings. I pored over that section particularly, trying to memorize and understand the moves. I found to my disappointment in eventual play with others that nobody ever followed the book moves!
In addition to the book study, as I sat in some corner, I would attempt to play chess games against myself. This was a peculiar kind of exercise to even attempt. As white I unfortunately knew exactly what black was trying to do, and vice versa. It was most unsatisfactory as an enjoyable way to play, and yet I persisted.
I was kind of nuts about games. Sometimes when I got tired of chess, I would haul out an old edition of Hoyle’s Rules of Games, an antique hardback with a facsimile of Edmund Hoyle’s autograph, and a deck of cards. I would read through descriptions of the rules and deal out the hands, even for five player games, and try to work out how Bezique, Euchre, Écarté, Loo, Whist and many other games played. The book also had articles on billiards and tennis, but I never got around to playing those against myself.
There was also a fascinating section on betting systems, including something called Martingale. So to add to all that “fun” of playing against myself, I could also place bets!
There’s a hint of Asperger’s Syndrome in this, a kind of mild autism, perhaps… but I don’t know. Maybe I just had the kind of brain that wanted to exercise itself this way. If the word “nerd” had been invented yet, I might have fit into that description: bookish, introverted, glasses, keen about science fiction. (But on the other hand, outside our cabin in northern British Columbia, I also set up a high-jump pit, an archery target area, and a boxing ring where I could put on gloves with neighbourhood tough guys.)
Chess can allow for a kind of masculine social life, going to chess clubs, playing over the board in tournaments, and that’s what it was to me from time to time through university and beyond. Chess can also become addictive, and many eminent scholars and intellectuals have had to put aside its siren call to pursue their studies. I read, for instance, that the philosopher Bertrand Russell was one of these.
Fortunately, I guess, in my case I was never quite good enough to pursue chess as other than a persistent hobby. I have slow sight of the board and play speed or blitz chess poorly. In the Canadian correspondence chess arena I did arrive at the Correspondence Chess Master title, but I’ve played inconsistently at that level.
Chess and the unruly world
I do believe that, despite its potential lure as a time-sink and undue distraction for some, chess also has much to teach us. It should be in the mandatory curriculum of elementary and high schools. It has within it valuable lessons for kids facing an unruly world.
It teaches the following about life:
There is winning and losing.
Losing does not have to be final. Pick yourself up, learn from what happened, and try again.
Thinking has to be independent and critical to be effective.
Rote memory cannot cope with the unexpected.
Having deluded ideas about what the position is will always defeat you. Clear mindedness is key.
Hating somebody who beats you is another kind of defeat which clouds your mind.
Chess over the years helped get me better jobs — once, my employer saw me playing, and when they had a position that required more responsibility and analysis, they hired me because of the intellectual image that chess maintains.
Although I’ve never been able to appear to be an intellectual, with good reason, chess has also allowed me to know and play the philosopher Gregory Bateson and the inventor and scientist Lewis Balamuth.
But for me, at this stage of my life, at my ripe age of 60, I can only look up at my cherished chess books on their shelves. I’ve always loved the opening phase of the game, ever since that James Mason book, even though still today nobody plays exactly like the books say they’re supposed to. The majority of my books are about the openings.
I feel a little sorry about not having a reason to crack them open any more. I will finish the online games I have and that will be done. It’s become more important to me now to reduce distraction and arrange my time better for writing.
I don’t do high jump or archery any more either, and I haven’t suffered too much from those “leaving behinds”. But there is something majestic and crazed about chess. I reflect on what people said about the great grandmaster and brief world champion Mikhail Tal, whose entire life was focused on chess at the highest level. One person wrote that when they looked into his eyes, his gaze was as alien as a cat’s, its attention entirely channelized by the abstractions and complexities of the interactions of 32 pieces on 64 squares….
So I sacrifice chess as my move, and by this gambit, I hope to come to better writing.
Note on images:
1) The chess diagram is from the fabled “shower of gold” game played by Frank Marshall in 1912, when his opponent resigned after the described move by Black, placing his queen right beside the Black rook or castle. Black’s queen can be taken three different ways, but still White loses. Supposedly onlookers were so impressed, they threw gold coins at Marshall in appreciation.
2) The Hoyle’s cover is from a 1796 version. The one I had as a kid was considerably more recent than that, but had the same typeface and general old-fashioned appearance.
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