Returning to Chess

By Ulli Diemer

It was one of those boxes that sits unopened for years. The treasures it contained seemed important enough – at the time they went into the box – to keep them safely stowed until the day they would be needed again, and retrieved from the box. Finally, on a recent winter’s day – after many winters had passed – I got around to looking inside at the all-but-forgotten contents.

There, among various strange and wondrous things, were my math books from high school and first-year university. In those days, I had entertained the notion that I might go on to become a mathematician. I didn’t, and it’s safe to say that the field of mathematics has not suffered as a result. Nor have I. It turned out we weren’t meant for each other.

So there I was, sitting on the floor, holding those old math books covered with my notes, calculations, and doodles. As I looked through them I was – what? Surprised? Bemused? Disconcerted?

I couldn’t understand any of it. None of it made sense to me any more. Here were algebraic problems to solve. I had solved them once, easily. Now I couldn’t even figure out how I would start.

No big deal, of course. What you don’t use, you tend to forget. When you haven’t looked at something in years, it’s not going to be as fresh in your mind as it was when you were immersed in it. I wondered, though, as I leafed through those old textbooks: could I understand math again if I put my mind to it? I didn’t spend much time wondering about it, because I quickly realized that there is no way I could ever motivate myself to study math again, even if I had the time. There was a time when mathematics interested and excited me, but that spark is well and truly gone.

Then I started thinking about chess, another one of my passions in the days when math was exciting. For about ten years, through to the end of high school, I was an avid chess player. I belonged to a couple of chess clubs, read chess books, played in tournaments. In my first term at university, I skipped so many calculus classes to play chess that I failed calculus. In retrospect, that wasn’t a bad thing: it made it clear to me that I wasn’t meant to continue in math. I took a history course to make up the lost credit, and the rest is, well, history.

But I also stopped playing chess. I wasn’t enjoying it any more. At the university chess club, we all seemed to be playing speed chess all the time. It was like an addiction. Whip through a game. Bang! Another game. Bang! Another game. Years later when I saw the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Game” it reminded me of my days at the university chess club.

With no time to analyze, I felt the quality of my play deteriorating. At the same time, I knew that if I was going to continue playing seriously, in tournaments, I was going to have to spend time studying chess, mastering more opening theory, moving to a higher level. That wasn’t what I wanted to do at that point in my life. I was getting more serious about academic work, more serious about politics. Time was precious. Nor did I want to be spending time in a virtually all-male environment, which most chess clubs were at the time. And if chess was becoming a drug – well, more enjoyable drugs were available in abundance.

So that was it for chess. I gave it up, cold turkey.

Until this past winter, when I sat there with my ancient and incomprehensible algebra textbook in my hand, and started wondering whether it would be fun to play chess again, whether in fact I still could play after 43 years away from the game.

What made me think seriously about it was the fact that, quite serendipitously, a chess club had opened up, not long ago, just a couple of blocks from where I live. What the hell! I wandered down, played a few casual games, lost most of them, but not too humiliatingly, and decided I’d give it a shot.

I signed up for a membership, and registered to play in the next tournament. The spark reignited! Chess was exciting again. The atmosphere in the club was enjoyable, people were friendly. I won some games. I felt the exhilaration of competing, my pulse beating faster as I struggled to bring about a winning position, my stomach queasy when I seemed to be slipping into a losing position.

One of the paradoxes of chess, indeed of any competitive pursuit, is the tension between winning and losing, or, more precisely, between the possibility of winning or losing. You try your utmost to win every game – but it would quickly become boring if you did win every game. Perhaps this is different for professionals, people for whom the game they play has turned into a job, and whose livelihood depends on winning as often as possible. For most of us, I think, the excitement comes from pitting yourself against someone who is close to you in ability, someone who has a good chance of beating you. We need opponents who are good enough to challenge us.

In fact, much as we hate to lose, we know that we often learn more from our losses than our victories. Back in the days of my youthful first chess career – ah, those were the days, when the Leafs won the Stanley Cup four times in seven years! – I used to play a lot of games against a much stronger player, Bruce Amos. It was a very good day indeed when I managed to win a game against Bruce, a very normal day when I lost. But I learned a lot from those losses – much more than from the games I won against weaker players.

Now I am gradually sharpening my chess skills again and, once again, I find I learn more from the games I lose – though certainly I don’t like losing them.

I’m not sure to what extent I am learning skills over again, or reawakening skills that have been there all along, dormant. It’s like the return of rain after a long drought. New life springs up from the ground, some of it from seeds that were there all along, buried in the ground, some from new seeds that blow in.

But my attitude to the game, and to learning, is different now. I don’t have the patience I used to have – certainly, I don’t have the perseverance to spend time learning something that doesn’t interest me.

That applies in particular to opening theory. Openings are the most thoroughly analyzed part of chess. Every opening variant has been extensively studied, by humans and computers. Some opening lines have been analyzed through twenty or more moves. At the highest levels of competitive chess, it is common for grandmasters to rattle off the first dozen or more opening moves in a few seconds, following “the book,” before they play an original move.

Learning openings, therefore, requires a lot of memorization. After 43 years of not playing chess, my knowledge of chess openings had largely evaporated. Certainly, if I was motivated to do so, I could study them again. But whereas before I willingly worked at learning openings, now I can’t be bothered. It doesn’t interest me, and I don’t like doing things that don’t interest me.

I do, however, enjoy studying chess endgames, which are like puzzles, depending more on pattern recognition, technique, and logic than memorization, so I sometimes sit down with a book on the endgame. This suits me, but it’s not a great strategy for winning more chess games because, unfortunately, the opening always comes before the endgame. If you lose the opening, you don’t get a chance to apply your endgame skills.

Something that didn’t exist in my first chess career is computer analysis. When I took up chess again, I was bemused to learn that my opponents in the club would often analyze our games with a computer program afterwards, to see what moves the computer would recommend. Before computers, we would do essentially the same thing, of course: sit down and analyze our games to see where we went wrong, what we should have done differently. And today, as then, any lessons learned apply to future games: the game we are analyzing is in the past, decided by the moves we found on the board, not the moves we wish we had played when we analyzed it afterwards.

Since my opening knowledge is weak, my typical strategy is to veer off the beaten track as quickly as possible, to bring my opponent into unknown territory. Moves that may not be the ‘best’ theoretically, can still succeed if the other player doesn't know why they aren’t the best. Club-level players who have learned the standard openings aren’t necessarily up on what to do if their opponent plays a variation that isn’t standard.

Going for the unknown suits my style, in any case. I like games with some excitement, some risk, rather than quiet positional games. In the outdoors, I am drawn by tangled forests and rock, bored by cultivated gardens. I prefer playing against opponents who attack, who seek the riskiness of sharp play.

It strikes me that there is some irony in this preference, since I learned to play chess as a child, in a time of great turbulence in my life. Chess offered a refuge, an ordered logical world of 64 squares. If you went wrong, you could see where and why, and you could learn not to make that mistake over again. And you could start over: once the game was finished, you could start a new one with a blank slate, without the baggage of the past. Chess offered something I could control when so much else was out of my control.

But then we often tend, in our lives, to replicate what we know. I had a stormy life as a child, so playing chess games that went to the edge of the precipice and still turned out OK – win or lose – may have held a subconscious appeal.

The chess world has a long history of debating what chess is. A game? A sport? A form of art? Logic? All of these, and much else, of course. The Marxist writer C.L.R. James, in his wonderful memoir, Beyond a Boundary, stresses the dramatic dimension of sports and games, and certainly chess can also be seen as drama. James draws attention to the fact that the original Olympic Games of ancient Greece featured drama competitions, as well as dramatic poetry reading and history reading. He writes: “all games are dramatic. Two men boxing or running a race can exhibit skill, courage, endurance and sharp changes of fortune; can evoke hope and fear. They can even harrow the soul with laughter and tears, pity and terror.” All this is true even of the ordered world of the 64 squares of the chessboard.

I used to take part in competitive sports – judo, wrestling, and running – and felt they were the same kind of thing as chess, for all their outward differences. In all of them, it was necessary to spend long hours getting into shape and developing skills – whether on the mat, the track, or the chessboard. And in all of them, mental factors were also of often-decisive importance. It was necessary to be in top shape, of course, to compete in a track meet, but it was also necessary to know when was the right time to make your move. Hang back, wait – now! Not so different from a chess game.

I was fortunate in having a judo teacher – Frank Minoru Hatashita – who saw it as his role to teach his students about life as well as judo.

Judo, he told us, was “the gentle way.” It meant using the least amount of force required to achieve your goal. That was a hard lesson for us to grasp. In our adolescent minds, we were all going to be superheroes, battling evil-doers with our amazing martial arts skills.

“Sensei,” one of us asked. “What should you do if you see someone coming toward you with a knife?”

He looked us over for a while, in silence, before he spoke. “Run away”, he said. “Fast. I don't want anyone getting hurt.”

Later, he showed us how to disarm someone with a knife if running away wasn’t an option.

Hatashita believed in the indirect approach. “By indirections find directions out,” as Polonius advised Hamlet. So he told us about his experiences with an opponent who had defeated him in several judo tournaments. “I couldn’t find a way to beat him,” he said. “So finally I took him out to a bar and got him drunk, and he told me his secrets. Next tournament, I beat him.”

Like Hatashita’s opponent turned drinking buddy, chess players are commonly generous with their knowledge. They’ll defeat you in a game, then sit down afterwards to analyze it with you and help you figure out where you went wrong and what you might have done differently.

This helps to counter-balance the solitary nature of a chess game, when you sit silently across from your opponent, never speaking except to say “check.” Talking about the game – or something else – afterwards helps to release the tension that built up during the game.

It’s also a recognition of the fact that we need our opponents, for without their creativity and skill matched against ours, we can’t play the game. The better and more resourceful our opponent, the better and more resourceful we are forced to be.

In this sense, chess can be seen as an art form, a dialectical effort in which two individuals create something together by, paradoxically, trying to thwart each other’s ideas.

Marcel Duchamp, the French-American artist who gave up art almost entirely to play chess, maintained that “Not all artists are Chess players, but all Chess players are artists.” Duchamp’s “ready-made” 1917 piece Fountain, devised to express his contempt for the commodification of art by collectors and critics, embodied his idea that anything was “art” if an artist said it was. If that is so, then chess is “art” by definition. Of course, Duchamp’s edict begs the question: who gets to decide who is an “artist?”

Duchamp could also be taken as representing the archetype of chess player as addict, and indeed he once described himself as “a victim of chess.” In 1927, he married Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor – and then proceeded to spend their honeymoon visiting chess clubs during the day and solving chess puzzles during the evening.

Lydie had undoubtedly expected something more from the artist whose works included The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, and Nude Descending a Staircase. One night, frustrated beyond measure, she descended the staircase herself and glued Marcel’s chess pieces to the chessboard. Had he been consistent, Marcel should have appreciated this as a brilliant piece of “ready-made” art. He didn’t. They were divorced shortly afterwards.

In 1968, there was a happier marriage of art and chess when Duchamp came to Toronto and played a chess game with composer John Cage, in which the movement of the chess pieces upon a specially constructed board produced avant-garde music as they played.

My own chess games would be unlikely to be mistaken for art. Sometimes I see a move which seems like it could be the key to breaking open the game, calculate the sequence of moves to see whether the key move works out – and then lose my nerve. I don’t trust my calculations, worry that I’ve missed something, and end up playing something safer and less artistic.

So can I still play chess after a 43-year hiatus? Yes, but perhaps not as well as I did before, though it may be too early to tell. So far, my rating (chess players who play in tournaments acquire numeric ratings which act as a measure of their playing strength) is lower than it was. It may be Caissa’s way of whispering in my ear: “Study the openings. Study the openings.”

Or maybe it’s just that the competition has gotten tougher. Recently I lost a game to a six-year-old prodigy named Harmony, who may well have the ability to elevate chess to an art. It was the first time I lost a game to someone who had to stand up to be able to reach the pieces on the other side of the chessboard.

In any case, I’m enjoying chess again. In a time of my life when I’m immersed in challenging intellectual work, chess has become, oddly enough, a break from heavy-duty thinking. It’s fun again.

Well, maybe not quite so much when I lose...