Friday, April 01, 2005
Perhaps you’ve been there yourself, on a Thursday in the coffee shop of the local bookstore. Around 7:00 p.m. the players start filtering in, looking for empty tables, unrolling their chess boards, and setting up the handsome weighted pieces and the chess clocks. The regular players greet each other, the newcomers are introduced, and pick-up games begin. Usually Roger invites everyone to an informal tournament, and by about 7:30 the pairings are announced and the tournament games commence. If you walk into the coffee shop then, you find silence and concentration at most of the tables.
Once in awhile a game ends in just a minute or two – someone blunders, the opponent seizes the opportunity, and checkmate follows. But each player has ten minutes on the clock for the entire game, and many games use most of the allotted time. Chess games often grow more interesting and exciting as the minutes pass – first the center pawns and the knights and bishops come out, and the players set up their basic positions. Then the kings are shuttled off into safety behind a row of pawns, and the rooks and queens start looking for ways to throw their weight around. Positions grow more complex, traps are set, attacks are launched, and pitched battles commence. All of this while the chess clock ticks down toward zero. You have to be careful of the time – if you think too long about an early move, you might have to rush your later moves, leading to an error that your opponent can capitalize on. A close, well-fought game, especially if there are no mistakes, is a real pleasure. All the better if you win.
Like other competitive endeavors, though, chess night can be quite humbling. There are youngsters who can make a so-so adult player like me really sweat. The last time I played the most powerful of the pre-teen players, he assembled a huge attack against my king while I aimed all my forces at his king. It became clear that the player who could launch his attack first would probably win. I was lucky – I was able to make the first move, and after a series of captures and checks I trapped his king and won. His queen and rooks were still lined up and ready, just a move away from unleashing their devastating attack. So yes, I worked hard and defeated a player one fourth my age, but I should give the full context – for this sharp young man had won our previous two games. As I say, chess night can be a humbling experience.
Maybe that’s why there’s something oddly un-American about the whole thing. We could be sitting home watching the latest incarnation of Must-See TV, munching on microwave popcorn and flipping from channel to channel hoping to be entertained. I have in mind especially the younger players – there they are studying the board, thinking hard about complex positions, learning from their mistakes, shaking off defeat and starting the next game with a clean slate. No wonder when one of the kids makes an older player like me really work hard over the chess board, you usually find people gathering around the table, watching the moves, nodding their approval at the ten or twelve year old who’s pushing himself or herself to play well. These youngsters bounce back from the humbling defeats, they delight in the beautiful patterns that unfold across the board, the insights that come to players, the combinations of moves that suddenly break open a game and create checkmate. They shake hands at the start and say, “Good luck,” and they say “Good game” at the end, and they come back week after week to play. When you watch them, you get the impression that some of them may already know that chess, like life, is about character.