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Chess: the nerd's answer to life

posted by Jon and Mickey on 5/27/03

Just like the great religion of Muslim, Nerdhood has five pillars on which it stands; icons that are always associated with it, and vice versa. The first is the collecting of model railroad trains. The second is the ability to speak Klingon. The third is obsession with anime TV shows, and the fourth is wasting time on the Internet, which I am certainly guilty of. (Read: I surf the net on the cash registers at work an average of four hours a day, I write for a website, and my AIM Buddy List is divided into two groups: ME and NOT ME.)

Yeah, I...yeah.

The fifth and favored pillar is chess, which means I'm nearly halfway to nerd Nirvana (much like the one the Islams have). I'd venture to guess that of the American populace, 30 to 50% know how to play chess. Of that percentage, perhaps 20% have given any thought to any sort of theory regarding the realm of chess, and of that, 10% have decided to erase any doubt of their virginity and joined a chess organization of some sort. And of that, less than 1% have gone on to win a state championship.

And that's where you'll find me. I like to think that my storied chess history makes up for my lack of interest in model railroad trains and utter hatred of Dragon Ball Z, and ensures me a spot in Nerdvana, surrounded by forty spectacle-wearing virgins who envelop me in their warm embrace and beg me for one more round of Rainbow Six.

Loser-aura aside, chess is truly an amazing game. Apart from Rubik's Cube, no game comes to mind that is this easy to learn, yet this difficult to master. One can test out theories, just as in the real world, only on the chessboard, there is no room left for extenuating circumstances. For instance, maybe your boss didn't give you that promotion at work because you don't communicate well. Maybe your boss didn't like your suit. Maybe he's just having a bad day. Or maybe you're a self-employed masochist. On the chess board, though, you see absolutely everything happen right in front of you. Whatever happens is the direct result of your strategy, and the credit/blame falls solely on your own shoulders. There is no luck, and there are no good or bad breaks, save for those allowed by your opponent. This is problem-solving in its purest form; an arm-wrestling match between your logical ability and your opponent's.

And the pieces are pretty neat, too.

The King

The emasculated old warrior of the chessboard. He'll fight if he must, but he's best at letting others take the blow for him. He starts the game at the side of the Queen, who has him whipped so badly that he can only get away with moving one space at a time.

The Queen

The abiliity to move horizontally, vertically or diagonally as many spaces as desired makes the Queen the most powerful piece on the board. As I've heard many a chess nerd say, "The Queen is more powerful than the King because the woman always gets her way." As if anyone in the chess scene knows jack shit about relations with the opposite sex. Stop quoting from Men are from Venus, Women are from Mars, you pubeless wonders.

The Bishop

The Bishop can move diagonally as many spaces as desired. Interestingly enough, what this means is that the square it's on can never change colors, confining the Bishop to the color it started the game on. Intentional or not, it's a fitting metaphor for its inspiration -- the Church. Just as the Bishop can never occupy opposite-colored squares, the Church is often known for its refusal to see things from any angle but its own.

The Pawn

The Pawn creeps straight ahead, one space at a time, and is the favorite metaphorical object of disillusioned/philosophically vapid punk rockers. Think of all the wildly original angles one could take -- just like the Pawn, we serve only to cancel each other out for the sake of protecting those in power, we have fallen prey to the myth of free enterprise (You can be any piece you want to be, as long as you reach the last row!), and we can only capture on the diagonal.

The Knight

My favorite piece. I tell people it's because I admire its unique ability to hop over other pieces, but truth be told, I think it's just because I think horsies are cool, and because all the other pieces either look a) unfriendly, or b) like a penis.

The Rook

The cornerstone of the chess board, the Rook can move horizontally or vertically as many spaces as desired. Which doesn't make a hell of a lot of since considering it's a building. Like most buildings, it possesses the characteristic of being such a thoroughly unfunny piece that it is literally impossible to come up with a joke. I even tried to make a tie-in with Farva from "Super Troopers" and his "stupid rookie" prank, but promptly lost heart for the endeavor when the only image I could find of him was a trading card.

Wait, I got one! Maybe it's his ROOKie card! Eh? Eh?

As I contended earlier, the rules of chess are not overly difficult to learn. Believe me when I say, however, that attempting to master or even fully understand the nuances of this game possesses the ability to drive one mad. The former world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, was certifiably insane. The great Paul Morphy suffered from dementia in later years and was known to repeat the phrase, "He will plant the banner of the Castille on the walls of Madrid, screaming : The city is conquered and the litte king will have to go." for hours on end. Bobby Fischer transformed from an American hero to an anti-Semitic hermit who applauded the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

And had I possessed the required dedication, genius, and attention span, it could have taken myself as well.

In our senior year of high school, we formed a chess team, and committed countless hours to the comprehension of the game. For a few months, it was our life. We held many, many after-school practices that lasted over five hours. We hired our own chess tutor. We began to have dreams regarding various chess scenarios. All of this certainly contributed to the gradual decay of my social qualities, but I think it was probably reading (or attempting to read) chess books that was most painful.

One thing that must be understood about chess books is that one must learn the language of chess notation. For example, if one wanted to move his Rook to square F3, the move would be recorded as RF3. It's really not that difficult, actually. Problem is, it reads about as well as a blind kid on downers. Following is an excerpt from the father of all chess books, "My System" by Aron Nimzovich:

"The game went on: 19....P-QB4; 20. Kt-KKt3, P-KR4; 21. P-KB3 (he does not show great expertness in the defense; if the Kts are not to go under altogether, the must fight for stations for themselves. Hence 21. P-QR4 followed by Kt-B4 would seem to be indicated), B-Q2; 22. R-K2 ? , P-Kt4!; 23. QR-K1, B-KB1!; 24 Kt(Kt3)-K4, R-KKt1 (in order to play....P-B4); "

Yeah, I stopped mid-sentence. I'm not re-typing any more of that garbage. To be perfectly fair, books such as these are meant to be read while in front of a chess board so that the moves can be played out while reading. But I had some high hopes for this book -- the back cover contends that "it is a very readable book, fir Nimzovich's methods sparkle with humor, pungent originality, and witty explanations." Unfortunately, Mr. Nimzovich's idea of humor seems to be limited to half-hearted personification, such as referring to the Queen as "her".

Wait a sec...Queens aren't really females. They're just chess pieces! What a wild and crazy joke!

After a few months of practice, it was apparent that we were ready for the regional chess tournament. Problem was, though our school was willing to pay hundreds of dollars to our perenially-lame basketball team, we didn't even get a chess coach. As a result, we were forced to miss the chess season, and jump straight in the tournament, where we played well enough to squeeze into the state championship.

At this point, the strain of chess was beginning to take its toll on me. I got to the point where it would be less exhausting for me to run a mile than to sit down for a game. We would have dreams about chess almost nightly by this point. I played five matches in all that day, and the last one was devastating enough to lead me to swear off the game forever.

I sat down against a player that was ranked much lower than I was. The game was going like clockwork, and I found myself ahead by two pieces. Then...disaster.

The scenario you see here is the embodiment of the most devastating nuance in chess. You can get ahead in pieces, you can put your opponent's King in check ten times, and you can appear on the brink of victory, but if you get cocky, it only takes one move to put you away. What you see above is close to how it ended. I was black, only I had several more pieces than he did. But that doesn't matter at all when he suffocates your King in a back rank mate.

When it happened, it took a minute to register that I had, in fact, lost. It was much like jumping on the side of a freight train, feeling like you're going 50 miles an hour and nothing can stop you, then smacking into a tree branch and being flung back, then hobbling to the nearest chess match and losing in a back rank mate. It could have devastated me. I could have used it as an impetus to get better, but I opted to remain true to my tradition, call chess a "stupid nerd game", and return to a life of simpler things.

We ended up sharing the state championship. Our school, the same school that wouldn't fund us or give us a chess coach, demanded that we bring it to them for display in the principal's office. After we graduated, we returned to the school and stole it back. We had sacrificed our after-school hours, our money, our ability to get laid, and most importantly, our sanity, for this trophy, and they found the gall to claim it as theirs. The utter distaste for this, coupled with my devastating defeat, sealed my decision to never play seriously again.

Though, to this day, whenever I go to the grocery store, I stare down nervously at the checkered tile floor, plant my feet squarely on a tile and hop knight-style all the way to the medicine aisle, where I may drown the realization of my wretched state in sleeping pills and cough syrup. For the love of God, stay the fuck away from this game.

AIM: Boiskov

Bobby Fischer, the Eminem of the Chess World

When I was about 15 years old and going to a Catholic private boys' school in Brisbane, Australia, at lunchtime the class I was in would break into a number of different social groups. There were boys who liked to participate in various brutal sporting contests; and there were other boys who liked to smash bottles; and there was a gang that liked to spit (or “golly,” as we called it) onto the roof in the shelter shed area, trying to produce the perfect “hanger,” i.e. an expectoration, the bigger and greener the better, that would turn solid in the process of descending from the roof, and would remain there as a kind of stalactite-like monument to impress future generations of schoolboys. Those were the days! Everyone might have looked pretty hideous, what with everyone's face breaking out in acne; and the teachers may have been mostly uninterested in anything to do with education; and the physical surroundings may have been as ugly as hell; but, by jingo, when I remember the time and patience and snorting up of mucous that went into producing those “hangers,” I become so nostalgic for the lost ideals of youth that I almost wish (not quite, but almost) that I could return to those days.

As for my particular group, our chief occupation during lunchtimes was smoking. I don't mean smoking marijuana. I mean smoking cigarettes. However, this was just as forbidden in the school grounds as cannabis use, so my friends and I had to slip “out of bounds” through various weak points that we knew of in the chain wire fence, and we would reassemble at The Grotto, which was a cave-like area not far from the school chapel that served a double function i.e. it was a memorial to the appearance of Our Lady at Lourdes, and it was a big ashtray for my friends and myself.

Having gotten to The Grotto at some some peril to ourselves, to make our adventure seem worthwhile we felt we had to drag our way through about 6 or 7 cigarettes each in the 45 minutes or so of available time, before making our way back to the halls of the classrooms, where we undoubtedly reeked so much of tobacco that I am sure it would have been no problem for our teachers to identify us, if any of them had cared less. And that is how I spent lunchtimes, until I learned how to play chess.

I probably learned too late to be really good at it. Like music and mathematics, chess is a pastime that produces prodigies. I was always pretty good at playing draughts (checkers), and, if I say so myself, I am an outstanding Chinese checkers player. Seriously, if the fate of the planet ever hangs on the outcome of a game of Chinese checkers between the Chinese checkers champion of the belligerent force of evil alien invaders and Earth's best Chinese checkers player, well, Earth could do far worse than put me behind the board. But my parents didn't play chess; and my friends were more into destroying their bronchial systems than playing board games, so there was no reason for me to learn how to play, until one night I watched an English television show called “The Master Game,” which was designed to do for chess what “Pot Black” had done for snooker. The episode I saw just happened to be the grand final episode. The game was between a British grandmaster named Tony Miles and the then-chess champion of the world, a fine-featured but squeaky- voiced Soviet named Anatoly Karpov, who instantly caught my sympathy and became and remains my all-time favourite chess player (at least of the modern era).

Anatoly Karpov: helium-voiced communist pawn superstar

At the end of the game, with both players in deep time trouble, and banging and shuffling those weird looking statuettes of lacquered wood at a million miles an hour, Karpov moved one of his pawn to the 8th rank and thereby promoted it into a queen. However, there was no queen chesspiece to hand, so he just squeaked out that it was a queen and continued to play, and in the ensuing confusion missed a chance to deliver checkmate within the next few moves before finally winning the game and the championship. While I was watching all this, and not understanding anything of it, I could nevertheless tell from the way the commentators were going apeshit, that if only I had had the least clue about what was going on, I would probably have been impressed.

The next day I went to Ashgrove Library and borrowed a book called “Learn How to Play Chess.” I don't know if I noted even at the time who the author was, but this admirable book contained all the instructions I needed to get me started. Unfortunately, I had neither a chessboard nor chess pieces with which to teach myself. The board was no problem. I used the reverse side of the front of a family-sized packet of Kellogg's Corn Flakes on which to draw up an 8 x 8 square grid. For pieces, I improvised. For pawns, I used 16 one-cent pieces; the white pawns were the ones with the head of the Queen facing up, while the black pawns were the ones with the Australian fauna facing up. For the more important pieces I used stuff around the house like cotton reels, screws, and Cuisenaire rods to represent the rooks and the bishops and the queens. I was particularly proud of my replacement for the knights- inverted asthma inhalers that, with the least little bit of squinting, looked appropriately equine.

That was my chess set for the next couple of weeks. When my dad bought me a set of proper Staunton chesspieces along with a wooden board, one sunny Saturday morning, I could have cried with happiness (although, remembering what I was like at that time, I probably didn't acknowledge my gratitude in any way whatsoever). In no time at all, I had taken to chess the way other teenagers take to skateboarding, or promiscuity, or drug use, or slagging at the roof of a shelter shed in search of a perfect hanger. For a few months I mainlined on chess. It was an obsession, an addiction, an illness. I studied the history of the game. It ought to have been a cautionary tale. Without wanting to go into this at any length here, I will just say that any disinterested observer who casts his or her eyes over the biographies of many of the world chess champions from the 19th and 20th centuries can not fail but be struck by the remarkable recurrence of insanity and despair as the guiding themes in these lives, along with a lot of beautifully played games of chess, of course. This is a post about me, and not about famous chess players, but a little way down the track I would quite like to write about human chess disasters, perhaps as part of a post devoted to a hugely entertaining movie that came out a few years ago called “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” Although the movie is not actually about Bobby Fischer, his story, which is sad enough for anyone who likes a good chess tragedy, is a framing device for the film. Since it might be a while until I get around to writing about this movie, let me just mention that the movie features Laurence Fishburne in a role that, in some respects, anticipates his performance as Morpheus in The Matrix films.

Note awesomely cool "chess glove" on Laurence Fishburne's right hand.

The hero of the film is a child chess prodigy who has to face up to another child chess prodigy. The filmmakers, confronted with the question of how to make this opponent, who is, after all, just another chess playing child, into a plausible villain, obviously decided that this boy would be a lot more sinister if he was a fatty. In other words, while you're watching the film, and sympathising with the hero, what you are supposed to be thinking, is “OMG, how is the hero going to be able to beat that kid at chess. I mean, look at him. He is the size of a tank!”

My personal equivalent of this fat kid, getting back to my chess career, was a boy at my school whom I will call Kevin Kwan. During the months that the chess fever was upon me, I quite often deserted my nicotine-appreciation subculture to join the scarcely more healthy, and much more despised, chess subculture. It very quickly became apparent that I was one of the two best chess players at my school. The competition between Kevin Kwan and myself as to which of us was going to play first board for the school team was not unfriendly when we were not facing each other over 64 squares, but when we were, make no mistake, we were trying to rip one another to pieces. Happily, neither of us ever succeeded in quite annihilating the other. So far as I know. Look, can I be perfectly honest here? If a friend of Kevin Kwan was to email me to let me know that Kevin has spent the last decade or so in a padded cell, speaking gibberish about “Mickey”- if someone was to email me like that, would I truly be disappointed that I had been responsible for Kevin Kwan's mental breakdown?; or would I break into a broad grin and think to myself, “Hey, mission accomplished, after all”? I don't know. I really don't know.

Despite popular belief, being good at chess does not indicate high intelligence. Kevin Kwan was not so bright. Hell, Bobby Fischer was not so bright. In fact, people can be seriously retarded and still remain strong chess players, and people who are out and out genius's at more important stuff, like Bertrand Russell and Stephen Hawking and Eminem, are not necessarily good chess players. The reason it is such an addictive game is that it is so beautiful. The mirror hall of variations, the bewildering, endless, musical possibilities offered a rich alternative to the rest of my 15 year-old life. Also, I already had a pretty canny idea that when a lot of hot babes entered my life, which had to be pretty soon, they were going to be impressed by a guy who had strong, manly views on the exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez as demonstrated so memorably by Emanuel Lasker's famous defeat of Jose Raul Capablanca at the 1914 St Petersburg tournament.

So, what happened to my chess obsession? All that happened is that, after a few months, it stopped being an obsession. I still enjoyed (and still enjoy) playing, and playing out and analysing, grandmaster games, from time to time, but it stopped being the thing that I drifted off to sleep dreaming about then woke up thinking about.

It is is a lucky break for me that I did not stay obsessed with the game, since I am not now and never was, and would never really have been, any good at it. I mean, I am OK, but I am not really, really good at it. If I was playing a game of chess against an evil alien chess mastermind on which the fate of Earth depended, then the whole future of humankind on our planet could very well be rooted. Honestly, I would try my heart out, but I would be perfectly capable of winning an exchange by playing twenty careful constricting moves honing in upon some slight weakness in my opponent's pawn structure, and then leaving my Queen en prise for no other reason (let's face it) than pure stupidity.

Years afterwards, I went to see Anatoly Karpov when he visited Sydney. His first public appearance was a simultaneous exhibition against 20 or so opponents at a ritzy hotel called The Regent . Now, in another one of the function rooms of the hotel, some other event was taking place, that had resulted in the hotel being filled up with a lot of incredibly inebriated young men and young women in dinner jackets and strapless red tafetta gowns. The chess crowd does not look or dress like this. To imagine the chess milieu, you would be better off imagining all the characters from Jerry's parent's generation in “Seinfeld,” except, obviously, the female ones. At some stage, however, someone at the formal must have said, “I say, let's go check what those eggheads are doing,” and the two parties had somehow merged. Karpov, as I mentioned previously, was from the Soviet Union. It must have been a strange experience for him to find himself playing in front of a gallery full of people dressed like a parody of young mercantile capitalists, who were squinting at the moves just as if they were concentrating on them, and contributing comments like, “Geez, mate, I think I am going to chunder.” And, indeed, from time to time, one of the young aristocrats would detach himself or herself from the other observers, and would find a potted plant to retch and vomit into, and, having relieved himself or herself, would not generally return. At the end of the exhibition, I stood in a queue to get my broken-spined and beaten-up copy of “The Best Games of Anatoly Karpov” autographed, and to swap a few words with one of my heroes.

VON HANGMAN (In a low drawling uninflected voice). How are you going, mate? Good on you. It is a pleasure to meet you. Could you write on it, “To Mickey, check, mate”?

KARPOV (In a high pitched Russian whine). Shakmat? I don't understand.

VON HANGMAN. It is kind of a joke. It is a pun.

KARPOV. In Australia, checkmate is a joke?

And he scribbled onto the flyleaf his signature and the symbol for checkmate in algebraic notation, which is like the grid for a game of naughts-and-crosses. When he returned the book I stuck out my hand, and, looking someone startled, he offered his to me and we shook hands. That book is now falling to pieces, but although the sole value of it to anyone else would depend on recognising that the scrawl on the flyleaf is actually the signature of its subject, it remains one of my most treasured possessions.

Karpov recalling his conversation with the Australian Keanu Reeves lookalike

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