Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Game of Kings

A few weeks ago a sophomore student at my school found out I like to play chess and asked me if I wanted to play a game. We started playing and it turned out we were pretty evenly matched, so every few days he would stop by my office and ask if I had time for a game. We've set up a rhythm now where we play a couple of times a week, and, I've got to say, it's all coming back to me now.

My mom taught me to play chess when I was maybe seven, and I played off an on in high school. In college I had two professors at Fairfield University, Tom Loughran and Bob Bolger, who were serious chess players, and I spent many hours in their offices over a chess board.

I began teaching sixth grade in Massachusetts in 1971, and there were a number of students in my class who liked to play chess. So we formed an informal little club. Then in 1972 the chess world became the focus of international interest when Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky competed for the world championship in Reyjkavik. It was a brilliant match, with two terrific and innovative players representing the two countries locked in an ideological struggle that was mirrored in the playing styles and in the methods of preparation represented by the two contestants. The series was televised in the Boston area on PBS television, in a style that was from today's perspective decidedly low-tech: Shelby Lyman, the commentator, stood in front of a large board on the wall behind him with stick-on pieces, and waited for the phone to ring with the latest move. When it rang, he'd make the move on the wall chart and then spend the next minutes, and sometimes hours, talking about the implications. The match made Shelby Lyman a national celebrity.

The excitement generated by the match led to an explosion of interest in chess among kids. In 1973 my school system opened a new 6-8 middle school, and the kids I had had in sixth grade were now 7th graders and eager to continue with chess club. When I announced the first meeting, I was stunned when more than 20 kids showed up. So we began meeting each week and set up a ladder system to arrive at in-house ratings for each player. The following year we set up the South Shore Junior High School Chess league, and put together a competition schedule where the best five players from one school would travel to another school for afternoon matches. It was exciting. It was intense. It was fun. I started buying books for the chess club library, and spent some time studying them myself.

Some of my better players joined the USCF and began playing in weekend tournaments as well, so I often went along and signed up to play myself. At about the same time, my oldest son was in upper elementary school and he decided he'd like to play in some USCF tournaments as well. As he got more into sports, his interest in chess waned, and I stopped going to tournaments. It had become obvious to me that as a full-time teacher and full-time dad, I was not going to be able to put the amount of time into preparation that was going to be required if I really wanted to get The Next Level. It had also become obvious to me that in chess, as in most other endeavors, The Next Level, even if I got there, was not going to be anything spectacular. Chess is one of those games that is pretty rigidly hierarchical. No matter how good a club player you are, you're going to get killed by a master. And no matter how good a master you are, you're going to have a hard time winning a game off a grandmaster. And then there are the international grandmasters. And then there are the prodigies, like Fischer, who was destroying very good players when he was eleven, or the more esoterically talented geniuses like Najdorf, who once played 49 opponents simultaneously blindfolded, winning 39, drawing 4, and losing 2. Against that kind of competition, there's not much hope. So I turned my attention elsewhere. I'd play the occasional game with a neighbor or friend, or with one of my sons if I could bribe them into a game, but mostly the chess board just sat on its lonely shelf.

Like Jason, above, I tried computer chess, but that was not much more encouraging. There's a chess program that comes bundled with Macs that is almost impossible to beat even when it's playing at half strength. There's not a lot of satisfaction to be take in getting drubbed game after game by a box of wires. So it's now been maybe twenty years since I've played with any regularity, and it's taken me about two weeks to get the cobwebs out of that part of my brain. I'm starting to get a feel for the openings again, and a sense of the positions I like and the ones that are going to get me in trouble. I've found a couple of web sites, like, that offer competition against real people in real time, and that's been interesting. I've also started going down to Waikiki where there are some benches where the local legends hang out to play:

The student I've been playing is taking private lessons with a grandmaster, and it's only a matter of time until he's going to blow right past me, at which point I won't be much of a challenge for him any more, and the chess set can go back to gathering dust. In the meantime, I'm enjoying being back in the game.

(Foxtrot source:


Anonymous said...

Chess - it's only a game. People say that chess helps you to think, but if done excessively, and not inmoderation, then it's like a drug. And now chess will haunt me forever. I've been playing chess for five years now, and as you already know, it's more than just a hobby for me. I've also played in Waikiki and am overwhelmed by the locals who play there.
I think
everyone should give up this's just a board game. Why be obsessed with it? I don't know, but all I know is that there's something magical about this game. You won't stop getting better and there will always be someone better than you. Thank you for reminding that I still have to challenge you at a game of chess. If I win, can I get extra credit?


Bruce Schauble said...

Sure, Charles, I've been waiting for you show up for a game... extra credit is always an option. Although you might get more if you manage to lose. (Just kidding.)

Sarah McIntosh Puglisi said...

I'm writing a coincident story..related to chess tonight.
Amazing I then read this here, just no time to write it up.

Sam Grumont said...

We began a chess in schools project last year which has taken off with astonishing success. The success is in the number of kids participating in this rural area of Australia. We mainstreamed the chess session, they are held during maths time and we paid a session fee for tutors from the community to take the lesson with the classroom teacher present.

One of the biggest surprises has been the number of kids, especially boys, who are not achieving success as school, yet somehow chess grabs them and they begin to develop some strategic thinking and resilience.

We have a blog which outlines more details.