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Fri, 29 Sep 2006

Knight-Errant at the Royal Game

It has been said many times that too much proficiency at billiards is the sign of a misspent youth. While I have no such level of skill at shooting pool, I have devoted a not inconsiderable amount of time and effort, from the days of my youth to the present day, trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to develop my skills at another game that has tantalized many down through the ages: chess.

I actually learned the most rudimentary mechanics of how to play chess at a very early age -- around six. At my grandparents's house, in a cabinet with the playing cards the adults used for Bridge and Canasta, there was a masonite eight-by-eight checkerboard, and a box that held not only the red and black checkers, but a bunch of other pieces with very exotic shapes. I particularly remember picking up the piece with the horse's head, and taking it over to my grandfather, asking him, "What is this?" He took me over to the kitchen table, told me that the game was called "chess", and showed me how to set up the board and pieces, naming each piece as he placed them on the board. It took a while just to memorize the pattern of where the pieces went, especially as I had trouble distinguishing the King from the Queen, and would often place them on the wrong squares. Finally, having successfully set up the board from scratch, I asked, "So how do you play?" "Ah, that's for the next lesson!" my grandfather replied, and so, a little frustrated, my first chess lesson ended.

But I was already infatuated. The symmetry of the pieces and their placement on the board had a deep attraction for me. There had to be some powerful reasons why they were placed where they were. I could not wait for my next lesson.

I spent the next couple of days pestering my grandfather for "my next lesson" like he had promised, and, seeing that I wasn't going to leave him alone about it, he finally gave me that lesson a few days later. This time, it was all about how the various pieces moved. This actually turned into a series of lessons over the couple of weeks, taking just one piece at a time. First the pawns, whose movements initially seemed straightforward (no pun intended), but then it took a while to remember the exceptions -- capturing on the diagonal and the en passant rule. Bishops and rooks were pretty easy to understand, and the queen was just a combination of the rook and bishop. Then the king, just like the queen, but limited to moving one square at a time.

Finally came the knights. It figured that the distinctively shaped piece that caught my attention in the first place would turn out to be my nemesis in starting to learn the game of chess. For the life of me, I just could not understand or figure out how to remember its jumping, L-shaped move. Finally, after several tries, I settled on the mnemonic of "two squares like a rook, then one square sideways to that", which I could finally keep in my head (and still find myself repeating in my head from time to time to this very day).

So in the space of the next week, I had learned the moves of all the pieces. "So, how do you play?" I asked again. "Next time," my grandfather replied, chuckling.

What I had no way of knowing at the time was that my grandfather really didn't know how to play chess. He knew the moves of the pieces, but for some reason had never progressed further than that. At our next lesson a few days later, he explained that chess was a lot like checkers, the main difference being the ways the pieces moved, as opposed to the strictly-diagonal moves of checkers. Oh, and you didn't jump over pieces to capture them, you just moved onto their squares with yours. The player with the last uncaptured piece won the game.

Well, that was all right; I was already reasonably good at checkers, so I figured chess was not going to be a big deal. So my grandfather and I played a series of "chess games" with each other. I won about as often as I lost; being a kid, I thought was pretty good. Chess was just a weird variation on checkers, akin to the relationship between standard checkers and Chinese checkers. In fact, in my head, I thought of the game as "chess checkers".

And that was that. Nobody else in my family was really too interested in learning this newfangled form of checkers from me, so I put chess off to one side in my mind. I would occasionally see references to chess in magazines or books, and I would convince myself that, yeah, I understand that -- but I really didn't. Chess as a game just faded out of my consciousness for a number of years.

Fast-forward now to the summer of 1972, a time of transition for me between elementary school and the brave new world of high school that was going to start in the fall. Other than the usual chores around the house, I would spend a lot of my spare time riding my bike, going swimming, reading, or just watching television -- typical summer vacation kid activities. Early one afternoon, as I came in from a spin on my bike, as my mother was making lunch, she offhandedly mentioned to me, "You know, they're showing chess on Channel 13." (Channel 13 was WNET, the local PBS station in New York City.) To this day, I have no idea how my mother even found out about it -- she doesn't remember, although I suspect that she was probably tuning in a show there for one of my younger siblings earlier that day and caught a promo announcement about it. She also doesn't remember why she thought it important enough to mention to me, except that it was her father who was my original chess tutor years ago, so that recollection may have tickled at her that day.

So after lunch, at 1:00 PM, I turned the TV over to Channel 13, and sat down to watch the chess show.

Well, this was not just any old "chess show". It was titled "World Chess Championship". (You could be a world champion at playing chess? I thought there was the World Series, and the Super Bowl, and that was about it as far as "world championships" went.) And it turned out that the player challenging the world champion was an American, Bobby Fischer. That seemed to be a big deal. The host of the program, a soft-spoken and genial man named Shelby Lyman, explained that all of the chess champions and their challengers since World War II had been Russians, and that Fischer was the first ever non-Soviet challenger for the chess title. Well, I had developed a rudimentary level of geopolitical knowledge by that time, and understood about competition between the Americans and the Soviets -- I saw that kind of thing all the time at the Olympics and other such sporting events. So to me, it was, "Wow, interesting!" and I continued to watch all afternoon (the program ran non-stop from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM on days when there was a game scheduled to be played).

After about 30 minutes, I was hooked.

It was fascinating to watch. The game moves would be relayed into the studio, and Lyman would update a large display board with the latest position. Then he would talk about the moves, and discuss them with various guests he had with him in the studio or on the phone. I very quickly realized that chess was not just about capturing pieces the way my grandfather had taught me. The kings seemed to be immune from capture at all. And there was a lot more maneuvering in these chess games than happened in mine (where, like in checkers, the pieces relentlessly but mindlessly made their way forward, capturing and being captured, until only one was left on the board). This chess had strategy. It was based on ideas and plans. And I had only the barest glimmer of understanding of what was going on. But I watched -- and learned.

Five hours of chess presented by some of the top American chess players, four or five days a week, every week for over three months, was an incredible osmotic learning experience. I was drinking it all in, much to the annoyance of my siblings, who were upset that I was hogging the television most afternoons, keeping them from watching their cartoons or such like. (Bah!) To try to keep peace among the warring family factions, my father dug out an old television set he had stored in the basement, and set it up down there for me to use to watch the chess games.

Over that summer, the detritus surrounding chess in my mind was slowly cleared away. I learned about the idea of checkmate. I learned that there were certain moves and counter-moves at the start of the game called openings, and that some openings were better or worse than others. I learned there was this thing called the middlegame where typically most of the action took place. I learned about the existence of the endgame, a delicate ballet of strategy and counter-strategy, where a single wrong move could transform a won game into a draw, or a draw into a loss. (And yes, the notion of a draw sunk in as well -- chess was a pretty unusual game if the players themselves could agree to call the game a tie!)

I learned that there was a world of chess players out there in the larger world. (The United States Chess Federation's membership would soar from a few thousand to over 50,000 during that summer of "Fischer fever".) I learned that there were resources available to people who wanted to learn how to play better chess: books, magazines, even teachers and tutors.

Most of all, I learned that I really didn't understand anything about chess. That is the first plateau that a beginning chess player has to achieve, on the long road towards mastery: the Zen-like realization that having learned the moves of the pieces and all the formal rules, you actually know almost nothing about how to play the game.

So I set out down that road. I purchased a couple of beginner's chess books, including a telephone-book sized compendium of chess openings. I would use them as references as I watched the Fischer-Spassky games on PBS. But inevitably, Bobby or Boris would deviate from the "book", and I would have no idea why, or whether that was good or bad. I would try to memorize the opening lines that Fischer played in his games (if Bobby plays it, it must be good, right?), but would either misremember things, or get back in that foggy state when they played something I hadn't memorized and I didn't know what to do about it. But, against players at the same level of experience, I could hold my own more often than not, probably mostly by sheer dumb luck.

So over the next year or two, I very slowly began my ascent towards greater chess knowledge. Empirically, I figured out that in most chess openings, the most important things to do were to bring out your pieces, and to get your king someplace safe on the side of the board. I found that certain openings resulted in the kinds of piece formations that I was somehow comfortable playing, so I decided to learn more about those and paid less attention to the others. The middlegame was still a big mystery to me, and endgames were likewise pretty much hopeless, unless I had somehow accumulated an overwhelming material advantage. I played whenever I had the opportunity at school, and even somehow managed to earn a spot on the school's chess team in my freshman year (which is an indication of just how desperate the chess team must have been for players). My level of play (in hindsight) was pretty poor, but I felt I was making good progress.

The next skill level one attains in playing chess involves learning to anticipate and calculate. After having one's queen snapped off by an opponent's bishop that you didn't see on the far side of the board, or succumbing to a two-move forced checkmate, the beginning chess player quickly recognizes the importance of being able to anticipate possible outcomes from a move, and to work out the consequences in advance before moving.

Many people, chess players and non-players alike, believe that the whole trick to being good at chess lies in being able to calculate accurately and to see deeply into a position. For decades, people trying to program computers to play chess concentrated most of their efforts on developing efficient algorithms for calculating the possibilities in a given position -- yet these programs almost inevitably played at a fairly modest level.

I won't take you for a spin through the combinatorics of a chess game, but suffice it to say that any attempt to compute all the possibilities in a given position on the board is pretty much hopeless. The "average" middlegame position has several dozen legal moves for each side, and the number of possible variations involved in looking even two or three moves deep easily numbers in the hundreds to thousands. It's simply impossible for anyone to try to keep it all sorted out in their head, and, as noted, even when computers (which have no real problems in keeping track of so many such things) did so, their results were not terribly good. Why?

After I had spent several years playing chess regularly and acquiring a modest arsenal of chess books (mostly about specific opening variations, like French Defense: Modern and Auxiliary Lines), I came across a modest volume on the history of chess. This was my first real introduction to the games of great chess players from before the modern era, and one chapter that particularly intrigued me was about Richard Reti, a master who was one of the world's leading players in the 1920s and 1930s. He developed a major opening variation that I enjoyed playing myself (called Reti's Opening, naturally enough), so I read that chapter with great interest, hoping to pick up a tidbit of additional insight into the opening. But what I found instead was a shocker: when asked in an interview how many moves ahead he typically calculated during a game, Reti replied, "As a rule, not a single one."

Imnpossible! I thought. How can you play chess without trying to calculate, to think ahead? Reti's snappy reply was obviously purposefully meant to burst the reporter's bubble, but could he have really been serious? How could you play chess by just looking at the position on the board right now and pick out the best move without worrying about what came before or what might come after? Reti's quote gnawed at my chess soul for years, while I toiled away at the game, my skills improving only modestly. Slowly, by working it out for myself and by reading other articles and books, I came to see that one key area that separates the masters and grandmasters of chess from the rest of us unwashed masses is not necessarily that they are better, faster, or deeper calculators than anyone else (although they clearly can do so with considerable skill when necessary). What the best players have is a kind of mental filter so that, when presented with a given position, their minds almost automatically ignore nearly all of the merely possible moves and usually focus on the one, two, or three moves that are "best" in that position. Their calculating skills are essentially much more efficient than most, as they do not generally waste time on inferior possibilities. Reti's smart-alecky remark now started to make some sense to me - - he was trying to say that skill at chess was not so much about calculation as having proper insight into the position.

Acquiring positional insight is the last climb most serious chess players make. I have spent many years trying to rise to this level (and am still trying to this day). Although my understanding of the game is deeper now than ever, this skill is the most abstract, and thus the hardest to pick up. I play through grandmaster games, and, covering up the moves, I try to think what I would do in the given position. Sometimes I hit the nail on the head; sometimes I even do better (that is, my move will sometimes jive with the annotator's notes saying that such-and-such a move would have been better); but far too often, I flat-out fail to catch the "drift" of the position. My own chess games today are ample evidence of this. Mikhail Botvinnik, world champion (with a couple of brief interruptions) from 1947 to 1963, wrote several books where he annotated his own games. I read through them, and see comments like (after his opponent's seventh move), "Quite possibly the losing move! Now Black's position will be permanently compromised on the queenside, and White will make his space advantage there tell." I look at that and say to myself, "Boy, I wish I could spot 'the losing move' so early in the game like that!" It only serves to remind me just how much further along that particular climb I have yet to go.

But for all the time and effort I have expended learning chess, and all the frustrations I've experienced along the way, I still love the game just as much as I did that summer thirty-four years ago. Because for all the work you have to put into it, and for all the study and memorization you have to do, chess is one of the few games where success is not limited to those best able to follow a formula or a pattern or a technique or a style of play. Chess is the best of games because a chess game is a reflection of the person playing it -- a player's game has a style that is just as individual and unique as the player himself. To me, the real beauty of chess is the way it allows for diversity within order, wit within discipline, style within substance. It's not only about who knows more, or who has better technique, or who has prepared more carefully. It's also about ideas, and personalities, and spirit, and imagination.

And may the better player win.

Chess Koans

To play chess, you must learn the rules.
But the rules do not tell you how to play.

You must know openings, middlegames, and endgames.
But knowing them alone will not make you play well.

You must learn how to calculate.
But calculation in chess is only skin-deep.

You must learn to plan.
But these plans must often be abandoned or changed.

You must study from the greats.
But you will only advance by being true to yourself.

The wise chess player, then,
Sees that the game is a refection of life itself,
Reduced to thirty-two pieces on sixty-four squares.

Posted Sep 29, 2006 at 15:34 UTC, 3250 words,  [/richPermalink