How I learned that chess could be much more than just a game.
My mom was the “smarter” one between my parents, at least that’s what Dad used to say. He had more formal education than she did, but that was only because she was busy rearing my sister and me. He often talked about how lucky he was that such a smart, sexy lady like Mom consented to marry an “ordinary doofus” like him. Mom was well-spoken, quick to learn, and sharp, so that once I started showing strong potential in my studies, Dad claimed that it could only have come from Mom’s side.
Mom and I loved to play board games together. A couple times a week I would run up to her and eagerly ask if we could play Scrabble, the game in which she was the insurmountable champion, a true walking and talking dictionary. I, however, loved a challenge, and consistently attempted to defeat her. I loved that she never let me win– kids can tell when you’re taking it easy on them. I wanted to get better, and beat her on my own merit. Of course, I never did. Not once.
So one day she suggested that I learn how to play chess, a game that she knew how to play but hadn’t ever truly mastered. I assented to learn because I was just a kid with nothing better to do, but also was eager to beat her at something. (Even back then, I was the same unapologetic competitor that I am today– I need to win.)
I still remember the board that I first learned on. It was made of cheap cardboard, and the sixty four squares were alternating black and red, not the standard black and white. The pieces were small, thin, and plastic– you could blow them over if you weren’t careful, and with my increasingly frequent screams of delight, I often almost did.
I fell in love with the game because it made such absolute sense. The best part about chess, I soon found, was that Chance played absolutely no part in the game, as it did in so many other board games I had no interest in playing. In Monopoly, for example, you are the victim to all sorts of external forces that are beyond your control– there’s dice, Chance cards, not to mention the rule-breaking, backstabbing assortment of alliances that people insist is “part of the game.”
Chess has none of this. It’s cold, clean logic. If you lose, its because you were out-thought, plain and simple. When you play enough chess, you realize that it requires so much planning ahead, forward thinking, and strategy, that it’s less a game and more a war between two intellects, a perfect test of forward thinking, cause and effect reasoning, and critical analysis. It only takes a couple of days to learn the rules of chess, but they say that it takes a lifetime to truly learn the technique, which, like may other things in this life, is labyrinthine in its depths. People dedicate their entire lives to learning how to play chess, and on their deathbeds swear that they still never fully mastered it.
I started taking lessons after school, and soon was beating Mom whenever we played. She soon grew tired of playing me, I think, because I tend to be a bad winner. (My friend Kevin once said that he hated seeing me win only because he could see how much it meant to me. Just thinking of that right now makes me want to call up Kevin and beat him at something.) Mom told me about a children’s chess league that met on Mondays in the local gymnasium. I was pretty cocky that I had this chess thing all figured out, so I was eager to go find out just how good these kids were.
Turns out they were pretty good. I still remember when Mom and I arrived at the sign up table, and the man sitting down asked me what my ranking was. I had never heard the term ranking, so I said, “Ten.” Little did I know that chess rankings were not on the same scale that you rate how fun your day was, and that an average score was around a thousand. The man smiled, said okay, and signed me in.
I was immediately humbled that night. Mom picked me up a few hours later, and asked me how it went. I had lost every game I played. Those kids, most of them my age or even younger, were incredible. Their pieces moved with such agility, cunning, and smooth coordination that I suspected some sort of foul play. One kid even put me in checkmate in four moves. The hard truth that I had to swallow was, of course, that they were much, much better at chess than I was.
I played in that league for a few months until Mom got sick again. After she died, I didn’t play for years. I think that part of me associated the game with our time together, and I wasn’t ready to pick it back up.