brown chess piece on chess board

On Chess

For the vast majority of my life, my dad ran “sep Computers” (despite looks, dad insisted on it as an initialism, S. E. P., even though he refused to write it that way.) It was the tech support style business that came to be dominated by Geek Squad (or Nerd Herd for Chuck fans.) For much of my adolescence he (and I) would solve computer problems for customers. Need a new home computer? Bought a new gadget and couldn’t get it to work? Need to network your office? Did you computer get infected with a virus? Ready to go Office Space on your printer? We helped solve all your technocentric problems.

Dad worked incredibly hard while also being a loving father. Being self-employed, he valued the semi-control over his schedule and the ability to be free during some afternoons and weekends to be with us.

As a kid, I remember dad being a night owl. He’d work into the wee hours of the morning, go to bed, be up at a normal time and then rely on naps through the day to get by.

It wasn’t until I was older that I came to appreciate that at least some of that was him bending his schedule to allow him to be around us during the day. And when he that wasn’t enough and he had to do work, he would often take over the kitchen counter peninsula in the middle of the house. Now, his office was often an utter disaster with massive piles on his work tables. And part of this relocation was unquestionably due to that, but I have also come to think it was partly so he could be around us and wasn’t shut away from us in the back office all the time.

When he didn’t have appointments in the afternoon, he would prioritize us and our lives. He loved watching us play sports, watching TV with us, attending church activities, etc. His work wasn’t making us rich monetarily, but it was keeping food on the table and enabling us to have dad be more involved in our lives.

Trust me, all of that was a necessary lead up to my discussion of chess.

I was in elementary school when I decided I wanted to learn chess. I think it was because some friends were playing it at school, or maybe I had seen Searching for Bobby Fischer, I can’t remember for sure. Searching released when I was ten years old which was probably a little late to have been the impetus for my learning, but even if that is true, that film is inextricably intertwined in my infatuation with the chessboard.

So, wanting to learn something new, I naturally went to dad and asked him to teach me. And… he directed me to the family’s set of physical encyclopedias. Writing that sentence has aged me another decade and makes me feel exceedingly old given that I was on the tail end of people who needed to consult the book encyclopedias before the arrival of digital encyclopedias and today’s marvelous Wikipedia.

Screencap from the film, Searching for Bobby Fischer.
To this day, I still romanticize the idea of playing chess in New York Central Park. I’ve never had the opportunity, but this movie engendered that idea in my head.

I think he wanted to see if I would keep the interest or if this hurdle would derail me. (Spoilers: It didn’t.) I read the entire entry that explained the game, discussed each piece and how it moved, went over the rules, including castling and capturing en-passant. And, that was my start with chess.

Armed with this knowledge I went back to my dad and said I was ready to play. My recollection is that the time we played was very brief, a span of a few weeks or maybe months. It ended because once I started being able to beat dad he stopped wanting to play against me. But that wasn’t something I, an elementary school kid, understood. I kept asking him to play with me over the course of days and weeks and he would always decline or redirect me.

Eventually, I grew visibly frustrated and wouldn’t take no for an answer without an explanation. I was upset because I enjoyed playing this new game, sharing it with dad, and on top of that: it was something I could win at! Do you have any idea how exciting that was? For a kid my age, it was a notable feeling to win based on skill and not the luck of cards against someone who I regarded as so much smarter than me!

So, I stood my ground and demanded to know why he wasn’t playing with me. He sat me down and explained that it was because he was working so hard for the family, and when he wasn’t working he wanted to just relax. Playing chess against me was becoming work. (He never admitted it, but knowing my father’s competitive streak, I think he also struggled to accept losing to his son.)

Looking back, I get it. He did work hard. He never, to my knowledge, said no to a job due to workload. If he had jobs that required an 80-hour week, he lowered his head and dove into the work since he couldn’t be sure if next week would be as busy. It could very well have been one of those times, I don’t remember, it was nearly thirty years ago now.

The other truth is that dad was never a big boardgame player, he much preferred cards. In college he was a competitive bridge player with his brother Herb. He also loved poker, and a game our family played that we called ‘Nasty’ – which is played with one (or two) normal decks of playing cards, and plays very similarly to Uno.

So, I get why dad wasn’t eager for the mental effort of chess just to face the possibility that his pre-teen son might bruise his ego. Looking back now, I understand.

But, even though dad wasn’t a willing victim for my nascent love of chess, he did continue to support me in it. He and mom bought me numerous chess books over the years (many of which I still have), small handheld chess computers, and eventually computer software such as Chessmaster. (Anyone else get nostalgic thinking about the old man on the software cover?) And when I got caught playing chess on paper against the pastor’s son during church, they didn’t get mad.

Box art for The Chessmaster 2000
I spent hundreds of hours “winning” against this software.

Eventually I got a copy of Chessmaster 2000. To me, this was Deep Blue. This was the unbeatable computer juggernaut. But more than that, once we got Chessmaster, I had a willing enemy for endless games of chess. Game after game after game. Hour upon hour. I would hog the family PC as I battled against it over and over and over.

Except, here’s the thing. I wasn’t great at chess and no one had taught me how to actually study chess. I was just playing and playing and I was playing wrong.

A tangential story: dad had gotten a golf computer game (I think it was Links 386, but I could be wrong) and I would sit down and play it. One day I proudly called him in to see my 18-hole round where I had a score of just 25 strokes total. He was stunned and amazed. Then he saw I had taken something like 3,238 mulligans to get that score. He didn’t stop laughing for days.

The same logic which led me to this amazing round of virtual golf, was something I applied to my battles of chess with Chessmaster. I would play game after game, and when I screwed up I’d back up and let the computer tell me the best move and resume play from there. Essentially, I’d take a mulligan. Shockingly, using this method, I kept winning against the computer! I was clearly amazing at chess.

Narrator: I wasn’t.

Australian International Master, Andras Toth, gives a great example about how people learn chess or study chess incorrectly. He gives the example of a math teacher asking his students “What is 37 + 22?” The student he calls on says, “78!” And the teacher responds, “No, it’s 59.” – He immediately gives the answer and doesn’t walk the students through the exercise of how to get there. That isn’t teaching the student how to get the right answer, that is teaching the student the right answer. Two very different things. And in some areas, such as math and chess, exceedingly not useful for the student.

Looking back, I can clearly see how I was doing this with Chessmaster. I made a bad move, the computer told me the right one. I made the right one and proceeded in the game. I didn’t realize that the real exercise was to stop to ask “why is this move better and mine worse?”

And on top of that, even worse, as a kid I let myself be lulled into believing I was better at the game than I actually was. Look how much I was beating the computer! And I was better than most of my friends, and even my dad didn’t want to play me – clearly, I was a chess expert. Except, if you asked me to explain chess, such as why Chessmaster suggested I move the knight rather than my queen, I’d give you a wrong answer.

Portrait of Garry Kasparov
Garry Kasparov, considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time.

As I grew older, widened the pool of people I played with, and realized I was not the next Garry Kasparov. I eventually got better at studying chess and realizing these shortcomings as a youth. But I have only really had a breakthrough in terms of improving my game in the past year during the Covid crisis. This year has seen serious growth in my abilities over the chessboard.

In general, my most fond chess memories are when it was not a solo activity. This goes for most games, the way for me to maximize my enjoyment of games is to utilize them as a basis for socializing.

Whether I was playing chess to connect with friends in my college dorm, as part of the handful of clubs I’ve participated in, or even the few times when I took my chess set to the mall and set up in the food court with a sign offering games for random passerby (my closest parallel to play in Central Park.) I far prefer chess with people than against a faceless computer. And it is the clubs or groups I remember most clearly.

First was the middle school chess club. We would meet in a teacher’s classroom after school and compete on a ladder for ranking, each week we would alternate evens & odds who challenged up the ladder. In the ladder, the lower player challenges and if they win, they swap spots with the higher player. I remember being excited as I neared the top of the club’s ladder, though I don’t recall ever reaching it in the club.

The second club I think of was during college. We would meet up and play in the commons on Georgia Tech campus on Fridays. I found myself frequently winning any chess games played in my dorm hall, but when it came to the club on campus I was small fish in the pool of sharks. Even though I had realized I was outmatched, I still enjoyed the games and socializing.

I can remember playing bughouse. Bughouse is a chess variant that has four players face off in two teams and involves trading pieces between players rather than just making moves. I played Bughouse in high school and middle school as well, but my most fond memories of it are at college because we discovered it was likely to draw crowds of other students since it often was more high energy and could get quite boisterous. Fun times, but those days weren’t ones where I would sit down and study chess.

The third one is one I’m in right now, and it is entirely virtual (quite representative of our current era.) I came across the “Morphy Chess Club” which is named for Paul Morphy, one of the early chess greats. It’s a Discord server for people to come and chat about chess, but it also has amazing features like weekly classes for intermediate or advanced players, chess lectures by Masters, etc. (In fact, it was through them that I discovered Andras Toth, the player I quoted earlier.) It’s growing into a great community and I attribute lots of my recent growth as a player to having it as a hub and resource.

As I near the one-year mark since my most recent period of focus on chess, I am reminded that the reality is that my love of chess has not been continuous. It comes and goes, depending on what other distractions I have. I’ll get into it heavy for a few weeks or months and then I’ll burn out or get distracted or grow frustrated and go off to do something else for a while. But, I always come back.

I can’t be sure if this latest stint was caused by Covid-19 or just coincidental or not, but I have been playing chess almost daily since March last year and I’ve really seen my skill improve over that time. Since March my rating has gone from the low 1300s to cresting 1800 for the first time back in October, before I hit a wall and dropped for a while. Only this week have I regained my form and reached new peaks in my rating. As of this post, according to lichess.org, the site that I primarily play on, I am better than roughly 85% of players on the site.

My rating chart on lichess since March of last year.
My rating chart on lichess since March of last year.

I made a mention of it above, but this year I really feel like I’ve come to understand enjoying chess and the study of it. Sure, I’ve had books and used them to learn the game, but I never really mastered how to study my own game and improve it.

In fact, for much of my life, I consciously knew that my skill at the chess board was largely in being better to evaluate the current board position and find the better move. I wasn’t actively thinking multiple moves ahead, I just relied on being better in the moment.

Andras Toth had another quote that I really liked during one of his videos which was “You don’t play the present, you play the future.” He is speaking to the critical nature of analyzing, making moves and playing for the future of your chess games rather than simply addressing what is happening on the chess board.

Internalizing that, and working on it as a mindset for chess games, has been a major part of my focus. Andras’ video with that quote came out last month but it was an excellent distillation of the thing that has made my growth in ranking possible for the last year. Learning to better analyze and evaluate positions, as well as understanding the base theory of chess, along with the critical understanding that I have to mentally push myself to calculate positions, it isn’t something that just happens.

By that, I mean that if you show me a chess position, I can look at it and make an instant reaction of what I think of it, what I would do or what I think the move would be. But that is going back to what I was doing when I was younger. Instead I have to force myself to stop and begin looking into the future. If I do something, what might the opponent do? It is a conscious act to calculate deeper, not something that simply happens for me. I’ll play games of chess online and catch myself slacking and being unfocused and just playing surface level complexity, and I’ve reached a ranking where that is almost always going to be punished.

Two pictures of Bobby Fischer, left, during his prime, right late in his life.
Bobby Fischer was the first American World Champion at chess, and he ended up hating the game.

As part of the ongoing study, I’ve been seeking out the greats, including Bobby Fischer. Fischer was the first American world chess champion, and his victory came during the Cold War era when no one thought the Russians could be unseated. Fischer is a problematic character, he turned antisemitic and conspiracy driven as he grew older, but it is undeniable that he had a huge impact on the game. One thing I found interesting was an interview with him from late in his life, where he talked about how much he hated chess. This was when he was in his fifties or sixties in Iceland. He hated what he felt the game had become, that the game had become about memorization and preparation rather than the moves made in the moment.

This was brought up in the context of him discussing “Fischer Random” which is a variant of chess that he created. Today, it’s also called Chess960. The core is the same as chess, but what it does is it randomizes the back row of each players’ pieces, with a few rules, such as ensuring bishops end up on alternating colors, etc. This idea means that opening memorization goes out the window. You are forced to evaluate the board fresh each game. I’ve never played more than a handful of games of 960, but it is definitely interesting. I haven’t reached the stage yet where 960 / Fischer Random really entices me; I am still interested in seeing how far I can push myself at normal chess. But it’s there when I decide to explore it.

The truth about this post is that it has been in draft for several months, I wrote the very first draft in July of last year. It’s been that way because I didn’t know how to end it, to make a gratuitous chess reference: I couldn’t find checkmate. It was just me rambling about chess and talking about how I’ve interacted with it through my life. But I never reached a conclusion.

The ending to a game of Chess is always what one must keep in mind. My best rated victory on lichess came against a player 126 points better than me, and ended in 12 moves because my opponent missed an obvious checkmate. That sort of victory somewhat undercuts my satisfaction in winning that game, but the point is – I still won.

The winning position from the game I discussed.
Had my opponent played Nxc6 instead of Bxe3, they would have most likely gone on to beat me.

Playing for the future during games of chess, checkmate is what we strive for. Whether it’s an anaconda-like squeeze which slowly forces your opponent to retreat into smaller and smaller spaces for fear of losing pieces, or if it is a bombastic series of fireworks with pieces coming off the board after every move, so long as your king is left standing, that is all that matters. Or, sometimes, there are games where you just have to waste time, waiting for your opponent to make a mistake that allows you to slip in and capitalize.

Blog posts are worse than that. There’s no opponent to slip up. There’s just you and the keyboard and time. Time to write, rewrite, and rewrite again. Eventually though, you have to find your in, and exploit it.

When I sat at the desk in my room, the encyclopedia open in front of me, reading how the chess pieces moved I had no idea what this game would end up being to me.

When I sat across from my college dorm mates and played game after game after game of chess with them, I had some idea of what this game meant to me.

And now, as I write this, and think back over the past year of growth for me over the chessboard I see that this game means a lot to me. As a means of self improvement. As a tool for mental exercise. And as an outlet to channel some of my mental energy everyday.

Marketing graphic from Netflix for "The Queen's Gambit"
Overall I quite enjoyed the series, it won’t supplant Searching for Bobby Fischer as my favorite chess film but it is well worth the watch.

Chess is what you make of it. For some, that is as a narrative device in Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit – and that is absolutely okay. For some, like Fischer, they fly too high and burn out. Chess isn’t for everyone. Not because they can’t learn it, but because we’re all individuals who live unique lives and find fulfillment in unique ways. We play the game in our own ways, whether that game is chess, Magic, Fortnite, Settlers of Catan, or Dungeons & Dragons. It’s about getting enjoyment and enjoying the journeys these games take us on.