At Play: A Personal Odyssey in Chess
“New possibilities appeared, but still no one could say which side had the advantage. Luzhin, preparing an attack for which it was first necessary to explore a maze of variations, where his every step aroused a perilous echo, began a long meditation: he needed, it seemed, to make one last prodigious effort and he would find the secret move leading to victory. Suddenly, something occurred outside his being, a scorching pain—and he let out a loud cry, shaking his hand stung by the flame of a match, which he had lit and forgotten to apply to his cigarette. The pain immediately passed, but in the fiery gap he had seen something unbearably awesome, the full horror of the abysmal depths of chess. He glanced at the chessboard, and his brain wilted from hitherto unprecedented weariness. But the chessmen were pitiless, they held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess? Fog, the unknown, non-being…”
Vladimir Nabakov, The Defense, 1930
For a brief span in the 1970s, every American was a chess player. This, it is said, was the impact of one Robert James Fischer becoming the first world champion of the Cold War era who was not from the Soviet Union. But Dad had discovered the game earlier on. He was fond of his set; he had bought it long ago, in the mysterious before-time when he and Mom did not even know each other yet. I was permitted to play with them, but I understood there was something special about the carved pine- and ebony-wood toy soldiers in the box with the sliding top. Their usual field of battle was a solid, smooth plain of alternating squares, also made of wood and also to be handled with great care, as it already had enough small chips and scratches to suit its owner. These were special objects, not to be thrown or lost. For in those days adults played with toy soldiers, too.
Of course, whenever adults were in command there were rules, and many were quite strange. Towers and horses and little men were not allowed to charge boisterously at each other; dramatic arguments over who was the stronger or the rightful owner of a square never arose. No, these were wars of long silences punctuated by the sudden sound of two pieces of wood clicking together or the slide of felt across varnish and a warning not to take one’s hand away “unless you’re sure.” Equally odd was the near certainty of there being more warriors milling about on the sidelines than in the fight as it progressed. I came to have a special affinity with these unfortunate spectators, mute and unable to intervene, waiting and waiting. I knew how they felt, except that bedtime never came for them before the all-important question of who won had been answered.
Such are the shadows then: a lingering scent of gravy, powdered cocoa with delightful huge marshmallows, the tones and rhythms of Miles Davis and a Bird named Parker, the hum and banter of people enjoying company. And Dad was there, resting folded arms on the table and holding his head slightly to the side as he stared into abysmal depths across from whomever dared join him. As much as I loved my relatives, I could only sit and sip and fidget until he nodded, looked up, and smiled. “Gotcha,” he would announce before turning to me with a wink. And for one more day all would be right with the world.
1 b4!? e5
I have the Black pieces. My opponent is the Chess Titans program which came with the accessories package on this laptop along with Minesweeper and Spider Solitaire. I have it set on Level 5 or 6—high enough at the moment for my delusions of grandeur. The “Titan” routinely hands me my butt when I refuse to heed the little voice in my head that sounds like Dad, the one telling me to think and not to merely react. Reacting is all one does when foolishly trying to match the speed of a computer; racing a cheetah makes as much sense.
I cannot assume the Titan is just throwing out novice mistakes. Sure enough, this crazy sequence has a name: the Sokolsky Opening. Yes, I had to look that up.
2 Bb2 f6
I’m not familiar with this opening, so I take the orthodox route of shoring up the defenses in the center. But 2 …Bxb4, 3 Bxe5 Nf6 was also possible, and would have been more suited to my preferred style, which is the security of briefs over the open-ended chaos of boxers. I always feel better after building a proper castle for the king.
3b5b6 4e3Bb7 5d4e4(?)
Likely too early for a counter-attack, but committing to the defense of the e5 square now with 5 …d6 may lead to 6 dxe5, with 6 …fxe5 and an exposed king-side or 6 …dxe5, 7 Qxd8+ Kxd8 and a permanently exposed king. Plus, early queen trades bother me.
6 Qh5+ g6 7 Qh3 d5 8 c4 Ne7 9 cxd5 Bxd5 10 Nc3 Bb7
So much for orthodoxy.
“Chess,” so runs the famous proverb (which has questionable evidence of existence prior to the 20th century), “is like a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe.” It is for this reason the most interesting games will always be between more or less evenly matched opponents. Of course, one seeking to improve his or her play accepts the challenge of tougher resistance, but at the point where one player is so clearly the superior the interaction is more properly called a lesson than a game. As an exercise of skill between equals, chess can be a vital and emotional contest, and one in which the agony of a defeat cannot be cushioned with invective hurled at luck as when cards or dice are involved. One wins because one overcomes the will of the other, and this often requires immersion in total effort, a “point-like unity” of problem and solver.1EPO, p. 48 A scene from the 1993 film, Searching for Bobby Fischer, with Ben Kingsley and Max Pomeranc putting in touching respective performances as teacher Bruce Pandolfini and prodigy Josh Waitzkin, shows the idea with brilliant concision. Bruce bids Josh remember to annihilate distance: “This is you!” he states firmly, emphatically slamming the White king down on the board in front of his student for whom chessmen will soon cease to be “just pieces” and chess “just a game.”
I caught on to the strange rules of the adults soon enough. In the last great age, it seems, before the personal computer and cable television there were many games: Monopoly and Scrabble, Stratego and Parcheesi (for us suburban butchers of Hindi), and the entertaining light-and-sound show of Electronic Battleship. But chess ruined me. Nothing grabbed my imagination like doubled lines of tense, battle- hardened figurines eager to radiate energy in straight and diagonal lines—or that weird L jump of the horse which I practiced on the kitchen tiles over and over, trying to cross the room only in steps of ‘two- up, one-over.’ Chess was the great puzzle that, unlike my snap-together cardboard geography lessons or Lego models, never had the same solution twice. Its possibilities and combinations were an endless source of fascination and frustration alike. The fascination came from just how much there was to consider even in supposedly simple positions as I pored over the creations of the masters, pretending to understand half of them. The frustration was because no matter how hard I tried I could not beat my father.
I played too fast; I played too slowly with too much second-guessing; I was hyper-aggressive and careless; I was defensive and over-cautious—nothing worked. First, my ponderous fortresses would crumble, leaving my king prey to all the converging fire of the enemy. Then, I would engineer a breakthrough but, astonished at my own success, stumble over some distraction and see my attack fall apart. Most often, I just did not see it coming. I do not remember—and certainly would have enshrined the time and date on a homemade plaque if otherwise—winning one game with the old man. But my little brother, from time to time, did. It was indeed galling to watch his face light up and his voice assume the mock solemnity of his best Spock impression. (“Wise,” he once announced as he snatched Dad’s queen, “but not wise enough.”) It wasn’t fair. The beauty of Anderssen’s Immortal Game was lost on him. In fact, if he ever learned that the Sicilian Defense had nothing to do with thick-crust pizza, or even knew Capablanca from Mr. Clean I could not tell. Yet here he was, occasionally springing some trap or just finding a way to do what study and dedication obviously could not.
As the years rolled onward, it became increasingly pointless for me to play my brother as I began to see weak spots in every one of his positions or to create them at will and mercilessly exploit them. But he could always say he’d beaten Dad a few times. For a long time, I could not understand how.
The voice of my Dad is back. I need to look at chaos as a broadening experience and not just a threatening one.
11 …Bg7 12 f3 exf3 13 Nxf3 Nd7?
But chaos does not mean the absence of careful thought! It was high time to get my king out of the center. Now I lose unless…
That is called dodging a bullet, plain and simple. The Titan also missed 14 Bc4! which would have allowed White to castle (either side in fact) while keeping me from doing the same. My next moves are quick no-brainers.
14 …O-O 15 O-O Kh8
I can breathe now. My position is suddenly a springboard from which I can try to pounce on the loosely placed opposing pieces.
16 g5 f5 17 Rfd1 Rc8 18 Ne5 Nxe5 19 dxe5 Qe8 20 Qg3 Rd8 21 Bc4 c6
Among other things, a White pawn advance to e6 would be a pain in the neck for me. But 22 bxc6 Qxc6 would be a pain in his. Both of us have to watch those long diagonals.
22 Rab1 Nd5 23 a4 f4
I can use open lines, too! His advanced pawn will be isolated and harder to defend. More importantly, I am beginning to activate my springboard.
24 exf4 Nxf4 25 Rxd8 Qxd8 26 bxc6 Bxc6 27 Nb5 Qd2
Going for broke…
The essence of strategy is the art of achieving a goal in the face of opposition to that achievement. Because of this, strategic situations represent great examples of “self-completing polarity.”2EPO, p. 210 Chess is not possible without a coming together of opposites. Before we get to the legends, the politics, and the quirky personalities of professional play—and there are many—we are confronted with a narrative of interlocking correspondence: light and dark, attack and defense, move and counter. Elemental forces collide but do not disappear in a blinding flash of matter and antimatter, rather they twirl around forever, distinct yet incomplete in themselves. Chess is two wills locked not only in combat but also in cooperation. Players must together create the conditions allowing one to emerge triumphant—or not. Is this not akin to tragedy—to King Lear or Oedipus fulfilling his sad destiny as he seeks to escape it? Yet though the king may fall, he may never be consigned to the fog of non-being outside the margins of the battlefield. This is important as a point of etiquette as well as symbol. Though games have endings, The Game does not.
I stand by my heroes, perhaps no more loyally than when they fall. Hero-worship is probably how I got through the initial shock waves of the divorce; only later did the realization come that the truly remarkable thing about my parents was how long they stayed together, not their parting. The strange rules and games of the adults having become mine at last, I found ways to pick up pieces and move on. Analysis creates pieces, smaller doses of reality that, for a little while, can be used to lessen the otherwise overwhelming impact of the whole. Putting the pieces back together is a daunting but intrinsically creative process. One is never able to reconstruct past configurations totally. This, of course, is the essence of what we humans call change.
Eras end. The space is different, the room is smaller, but familiar tones and rhythms flood its air, and the same battered but proud armies face each other again on the same weathered quadrilateral of wood and memories. We chat away like work colleagues now, Dad and I, exchanging our usual sarcasm-laced commentary on politics, the deceptive simplicity of relationships, and what passes for music these days. Played on our level, chess is certainly not about the myriad combinations or sheer history an expert brings to the board but it is still about avoiding that last mistake. At this moment, I am desperately trying to do just that, making each move with the extreme conviction that it will keep me alive for one more. The slow dance continues as Herbie Hancock uses his own white and black to throw melodies into our ears. Then, it happens. My running king reaches a safe square. I exhale slowly. Dad squints, unable to keep the admission of having missed one off his face. Now he has to exchange the last major pieces, and my pawn will reach his back rank two steps before his reaches mine. He nods, looks up, and smiles, playfully flipping me the bird. “You win,” he says. And he winks as he answers my unspoken question, confirming what I had only recently begun to suspect: “Your brother and I always had fun; you and I always played chess.”
That was the passing of the torch. Of course I remember it well and anyone who has ever looked up to another knows of the sweet bitterness lodged in such a moment. Longed for so obsessively, “the” day had finally arrived, and with it a sobering sense of loss far outweighing any thrill of victory.
Sunday, May 11, 1997: Deep Blue plays 19 c4, Kasparov resigns…
Eras end. The great battle between the human brain and artificial intelligence was fought and finally decided, it is said, in favor of the latter. Nature lost, but life continues and I really should get over it; after all, as I write these lines it has been twenty years.
Yet what is the truth behind the fact? Was this really a struggle of “man versus machine” or something obscured, as usual, by the sensationalism of media hyperbole? Deep Blue was built—and later dismantled—by humans, a tribute at least as much to our mental powers as to “its” own. Likewise the grandmasters of our time achieve their status partly through access to sophisticated electronic databases which exponentially extend the reach of their preparations. Kasparov, still my personal pick for all-time chess badass, had faced problem-solving intelligence all his life, including that simulated by powerful computers. Suddenly, the simulation could calculate whole games in microseconds, crunching out ways to sidestep deep traps and to evaluate long-term positions rather than immediate material advantages, potentially on a regular basis. So what? It could still only express that awesome power one move at a time—one legal, readable position per turn.
I remain of the opinion that my hero was not beaten except by the psychological disadvantage of having a psyche. I am not qualified to judge the merits of 37 Be4 in Game Two. I can barely follow the analysis which “proves” that game should have ended with a draw—or others which “prove” Kasparov was indeed right to resign a lost position. The real question remains unanswered—and the world will never know the answer as Kasparov was denied his very human instinct for timely revenge and no one else got the chance. Binary code has enabled our machines to out-calculate us; extending and multiplying our abilities is what we design all our tools to do. But can our machines truly out-play us—or is it necessary for us to help them do so?
28 Bc3 Qc2 29 Ra1 Bd5 30 Bf1
White needs his bishop to keep my knight from the wicked fork check on e2.
Dad is speaking again: you are never as vulnerable as when you think you are invincible. There is always a way to drop the ball! Putting the bishop here takes away the only refuge for the queen if trouble comes in the form of 31 Nd4!. I grit my teeth. Chess is about inconveniently turned tables, all right. Yes, says my internal mentor, and also about remaining calm. Now… find the escape: 31 …Nh5, 32 Qe1 (the pawn-doubling queen trade 32 Nxc2 Nxg3, 33 hxg3 Bxc2 is not best for White) Rxf1+, 33 Qxf1 (not 33 Kxf1 Qg2#) Qxc3. Not dead yet. Good boy.
Stronger computer programs—possibly even higher settings of the Titan—will no longer grab material free at first glance only. This pawn-hunt removes the knight from the defense and dramatically reduces my problems.
31 …Bd3 32 Bxd3 Qxc3 33 Rd1 Bxe5
The final blunder. White breaks one pin to set up one much more devastating. The aria begins.
34 …Bd4!, 35 Kh1 Bxe3, 36 Be4 Qb3, 37 Ra1 Bd4, 38 Rc1 Qe3
Computers do not resign, but it’s over: if 39 Re1, Qxe1#, with 39 …Qxe4# on any other rook move. Saving the bishop does not work either: 39 Bg2, Qxc1+; 40 Bf1 Qxf1#. I win.
My elder son thrives in the motion and decision of physical action; he was throwing a football in a spiral of accuracy and grace far surpassing mine in very little time. He is fully capable of processing large amounts of information, but there must be readily discernable purpose to keep his interest. He has little patience for the delicate intricacies of endless ramifications. I say this because the temptation to emotionally favor my complexity-seeking younger son is greater than I am comfortable admitting and obviously to be resisted at all costs. Siblings come from the same place but rarely the same mold; it is important that as I love one because he is me I love the other because he is not. I simply acknowledge without judgment that so far as chess is concerned the younger may be the one to carry forward and shape the emergent family tradition. And, as he too has a mind of his own, that tradition will have to wait for the attractions of Nickelodeon and War Robots to fade a bit.
The seed has been planted, though. My set, purchased in the mysterious time before I met his Mom, is generic hard plastic and not nearly the equal of the work of art which inspired me in former days. Yet it has been out often enough, pored over long enough, and explained with the unconcealed enthusiasm of one who wishes to pass a torch one day. My son cannot yet comprehend the true depth of joy compressed into my grin when he sets his miniature teams to charging boisterously at each other, nor the great waves stirring my soul when he traces lines and counts squares, holding his head slightly to one side as he considers his arrangement. “Now the king is trapped,” he says…
I can well imagine the author of The Ever-Present Origin sauntering over to some battered table outside of some Swiss café on some pleasant late summer day, smiling softly and knowingly as he finds secret moves leading to victory after long meditations. Gebser devotes exactly a fraction of a footnote to the subject of chess in Part One of his magnum opus.3EPO, p. 31 I do not know if he played. He may very well have turned to other pursuits with what leisure he had at his disposal. His name does not appear among the greater and lesser deities of the game, those tournament and match players whose decisions and painful mistakes are emblazoned for all time in the books, but that is no matter. His was another mission, to illuminate the connectedness of spirit, emotion, imagination, and analysis in how we humans operate, and to explain why we should not feel the need to ignore any approach to understanding ourselves and others. Chess is mental activity par excellence but few of its practitioners, from the greatest to profound mediocrities like me, would claim it to be exclusively so. For it is clear that a rich, multifaceted experience lies not far under the surface, reaching across generations and cultures alongside sports, music, and other arts to remind us to be fearless in our creativity, to make connections and to value them, and to always leave ourselves time and space, amidst the troubles of our planet, in which to celebrate our common humanity.