Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I don't know when exactly I started playing chess. I know that I learned the basic moves from my mother when I was perhaps seven or eight years old, and used to play with her, or with one of my visiting cousins, on those rare occasions when I could talk someone into a game. The problem with chess is that unless you belong to a club or have a large pool of possible candidates to play with, it is hard to find an opponent at your level. Chess is a game, like table tennis, which has such a range of skill levels that it's very hard to find a good match. A good C level player is going to beat a recreational player consistently, but get crushed most of the time by a good B level player. The B level player stands no real chance against a master, and the master isn't going to win very often against an international grandmaster. So it's hard to find someone with whom you can have a game which isn't a drubbing on one side or the other. It wasn't until I got to college and made the acquaintance of two college professors who liked to play that I began to play with any regularity. But I enjoyed playing with those two, and came to enjoy the focused, microcosmic gestalt of the chess board. It's an interesting little world down there, with its patterns and its formalities and its surprises. One comes to understand and appreciate the distinction between strategy and tactics, and to learn how pieces with remarkably different individual capabilities can be made to work together. Or not.

During my first year of teaching elementary school in Massachusetts, I organized a little chess club as an afterschool activity for my fifth graders. That was in 1971. The following year was the year of the Fischer-Spassky showdown in the World Chess Championship, the moment in my lifetime when suddenly a chess match was big news and was being followed all over the world by newspaper and television reporters. My kids were mesmerized. Membership in the chess club doubled. Suddenly, chess was the in thing. In 1973 I moved from my (small) elementary school to our (large) brand new Middle School, and some of the kids who moved with me wanted me to keep the chess club going. Word got around, and soon we had 20 or 30 kids after school twice a week coming to chess club. It turned out that several other local middle and junior high schools had chess clubs as well, so the next thing I knew I was president of the South Shore JHS Chess League. Those were interesting years. During the season, I'd take a group of kids in my car once a week to a neighboring town and we'd play a five-board competition. Many of my players also got hooked up with the USCF which was sponsoring local tournaments on weekends. Attendance was way up due to the Fischer-Spassky phenomenon. Because the students were playing, I often wound up playing in the adult sections myself.

Fast forward forty years. It's 2009, and technology has solved the problem of finding people to play. There are a number of sites which allow you to play online, either against a chess program, or, my preference, against real people in real time. I've become a big fan of Instantchess.com. When you go to the site and log in you are started off with a rating of 1500. It's a regular ladder format. You are matched up against other players online at the time, and you can choose whether or not you want to play them. If you defeat a higher-rated player, you get more points than if you defeat a lower-rated player. If you lose to a higher-rated player, you lose less points that if you lose to a lower-rated player. The interface is easy to use. To move a piece you just drag you just drag it from where it is to where you want it to be. You can choose play in various time formats. My favorite is Rapid Chess, in which each player is allotted fifteen minutes. If you run out of time, no matter what the position on the board, you lose. You can sign in to play as a guest, but if you choose you can also pay a subscription fee and be a regular member, in which case it keeps stats for you and allows you to save favorite games so that you can review and/or analyze them.

Here's a screen shot from the end of a game I played last week. I have just played my rook from f1 to d1, and Abu has a problem with his bishops.

I've gone through several stages in my experience with Instantchess. I often will subscribe for a couple of months and play for an hour or two a day until the whole scene starts to get old.  Sometimes I let my subscription lapse, then resubscribe a few months later. But I always wind up coming back. It's just too much fun.  What I like about chess: there are no excuses. There is no luck involved. Either you play well or you don't. If you screw up, it's on you. It's a very pure game in that respect. In the beginning I tended to be streaky, winning a series of games and running my rating up to 1700 or 1800, and then going on horrendous streaks where I would play like a patzer, making blunder after blunder and seeing my rating sink away. During the last two months, I've been more consistent, my rating hovering in the neighborhood of 1850. (Some of the players online have ratings above 2400.) I've been playing the same openings oten enough now that I remember the patterns and feel them in a way I hadn't before, and in a way that it is very tedious to try to learn from books. If someone makes a move that gives me a little advantage, I've learned how to take that advantage and drive a wedge into it: a little space here turns into a pawn advantage there turns into a positional advantage there that turns into an attack that wins a piece. Theoretically. But there's always the humbling meltdown that comes when you least expect it. The other day, for example I briefly cracked 1900 for the first time, at which point I went into a free fall all the way back down to 1760 in a matter of a day and a half. Now I'm trying to stabilize.

Anyway, for those of you who have been wondering what I've been doing on all those days I never got around to posting anything on Throughlines: now you know. And for those of you closeted chess aficianados who can't get anyone to play you, now you know where to go. In fact, I've got some free prepaid one-month subscription vouchers. If you're interested, let me know and I'll send one along.


Michael Goeller said...

I agree: "What I like about chess: there are no excuses. There is no luck involved. Either you play well or you don't. If you screw up, it's on you. It's a very pure game in that respect." There is a great essay by Primo Levi in Other People's Trades where he makes the same point and suggests that's why chessplayers are so irritable....

I like Instant Chess, too, and find that if I play from various computers (which I do) I can keep playing for free. Chess.com and ChessCube are also pretty good and have free options. If you get more serious, I suggest ICC.

Check out my blog, The Kenilworthian.

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks, Mike. Liked your site a lot. I'll be back.Also signed up on ChessCube and took it for a spin. The first game turned out to be a Chess 960 game, which I hadn't heard of but figured out. That was interesting. Thanks for the comment and for the interesting links on your site.

- B