Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Chess Masters

Ah, chess, the game of kings ...

I bring this up because I somehow managed to beat my iPod version -- once! -- and got a couple of notes from more serious players, Jon and Dan. Jon posted a link to a game -- Paul Morphy versus Charles Le Carpentier, played in New Orleans in 1849, that is mind-boggling.

This game involved all kinds of sacrifices, ending in a mate I couldn't have seen coming if I'd looked at it until the cows came home -- and we don't have any cows ...

I learned the moves to the game about the same time I learned those of checkers. But knowing how the pieces move and the rules is hardly the same as being able to play well.

Still, I enjoyed it. When we moved to L.A. in the sixties, there was an impromptu chess club at work -- guys would play on their lunch hour, and mostly was what called rapid transit. In this version, the clocks were set for five minutes each, and whoever was ahead in pieces or position when the flags dropped -- depending on which version we chose -- was the winner.

I had the somewhat foolish idea that doing this every day, winning some, losing some, meant I was a pretty good player. I didn't do competitions, and was only dimly aware that there was a lot of that going on.

Knowing a few openings and terms like "fianchetto," or "Queen's Gambit" doesn't mean a whole lot. If you have no middle or end game, you ain't a player. Rather like training to run the hundred meters and then going out to do a marathon. You aren't going to get very far.

When we moved back to Louisiana in the 70's, I eventually got into to writing fiction, and after a time doing short stories, eventually sold a novel. Tularemia featured a couple of old friends/enemies who played chess, literally and metaphorically, and I cribbed a classic game from some old book and used it. But by then I already knew I wasn't ever going to be good at chess.

I've bumped into some good players. George R.R. Martin was, in his youth a ranked player. Phil Margolin, who writes legal thrillers, was also serious about the game, enough so that his charity is a local chess club for children. Not grandmasters or anything, but much further down the road. For me, being invited to play with somebody at their level would be like being asked to step up on the stage to play guitar in a jam with Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy. No, thank you. I've embarrassed myself enough in my life already ...

What disabused me of the notion I knew anything about chess came when I decided that maybe I'd join the local club and stretch out a little. This was back in the days long before the internet, and if you didn't know people who played, you could do it by snailmail, but if you wanted to get better, you had to test yourself against people who were better.

So I hied myself down to the club in Baton Rouge and walked in. The place was doing a good business, lot of players, mostly male, and I wandered around.

Came I upon a couple of boys, looked to be about ten years old. One of them said, "Let's play Fischer/Spassky Three, okay?"

They were referring here to the championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. That particular game -- the third -- was the first time Bobby had ever beaten Boris. This match was during the Cold War, and Americans saw it as something momentous -- Freedom versus the Commies. It was a major deal for the chess world. The first time in a coon's age an American could even play for the title, which the Russians had owned since 1948.

Fischer was crazy as a blue moon Hallowe'en in Bedlam. Considered one of the best players ever, he won the championship, went off the deep end, and lived a bonkers life that was the Chinese curse until he died a couple of years ago.

Um. Back to the club: The boys set the board up and then proceeded to replay the Fischer/Spassky game.

From memory.

Now, there was a reference book with the game on the table, but they didn't need it. I did, because no way in hell I could remember the game. I picked it up and they had it nailed.

Ten years old.

I had an epiphany: I knew right in that moment that I was never going to be a serious chess player. I didn't have what it took, and I wasn't gonna get it.

These days, I don't even know the move nomenclature, and I don't play, save for the odd game now and then against the Mac or iPod. Chess is a game where your skills rust and go dull if not used frequently, and whatever moves I had are long corroded.

Fianchetto? Yeah, right ...

Good to know one's limits in some things, I think.


Scott said...

Yeah, I could beat everyone in my high school chess club, so one Saturday I went down to the Wicker Park Chess Club, see if they had any competition for me. Ouch.

redcode said...

Chess is a technical skill with some art in it. I'm an artist who's been drawing since five years old (I'm forty-four now). I tell people who look at what I do, "anyone can draw if you can pick up a pencil". It's all technical and technique. The art comes from the creativity and style. Most people don't draw because it takes about 10,000 drawings to get rid of most of your mistakes. Not many people have the patience or passion. Such is chess.

heina said...

For what it's worth, I have had my share of losses to 12 year olds. I keep playing with no illusions about being a grandmaster, but I can see that I might get to the top or over club level play -- essentially the point where one stops making egregious blunders. Still a long road.

As for the Morphy game, glad you liked it. The part that's really going to boil your brain is that Morphy spotted Le Carpentier his Quen side rook. *jaw hits floor*

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, and that Morphy was twelve ...