Why I Play Chess
by Emma Pierson
(Emma is 16 and has a 1768 USCF rating)
It is getting late. I am sitting across the table from a guy, our knees not quite touching. Around us, the room has gradually emptied and now we are alone. Our eyes meet for half a second; he looks away. I continue to study his face, searching for clues. He seems composed; my hands are shaking. I watch intently as he meets my eyes again and reaches slowly towards me.
Then he moves his rook two squares to the right and taps the clock, starting my timer counting down. I cup my chin in my hands, trying to overcome my exhaustion. We have been playing for four hours, and I have not eaten dinner; my headache has faded to a mental numbness. As my energy has ebbed, however, my antipathy has grown; at this point, my need for food is compensated for by my desire to destroy my opponent. I contemplate hideous chessboard revenges–first, I'll skewer him, then I'll fork his rooks; I'll finish him off with a vicious zugzwang. He resigns half an hour later, to my relief, and I feel my anger fading. No longer my opponent, he now seems likeable once more.
As we pick up the pieces, I remember what it's so easy to forget–it's only a game.
My grandfather taught me to play chess when I was seven. We played at a local French café; I learned the rules over baguettes and crepes with strawberries and whipped cream. We must have made a strange sight, a seven year old and a seventy year old, his expression of fierce concentration mirrored on my pudgy face. We became regulars, arriving at 9:00 each Sunday and lingering for hours; slowly, I began to grasp the tactics and gain an intuitive sense of the game, though it would be years before I could beat him. On occasion, the owner of the café would comment on our game, asking who was winning. "She's a killer," my grandfather would say proudly, shaking his head and grinning.
By the time I was nine, my interest had grown to the point that my parents were searching for other players. A man who taught at the U.S. Chess Center in D.C. destroyed me. Realizing my position was hopeless, I offered him a draw. He looked at me sternly. "That's poor sportsmanship," he said. Chagrined, I turned to go, but he stopped meat the door. "Who taught you to play?" he asked.
"My grandfather," I replied.
"Tell him that he did a good job," he said.
That summer I went to a camp at the Chess Center; in the years that followed, I have been there more times than I can count. The Chess Center was founded by David Mehler, a chess expert, polymath and Harvard dropout, in a crusade to improve children's lives through chess. His theory–substantiated by scientific evidence–is that chess improves concentration, memory, and general academic ability. Mr. Mehler is brilliant and caustic; he mocks adults and children alike. Although he can be a patient and subtle teacher, he swiftly rewards stupidity or arrogance with biting sarcasm. If I am playing when he enters the room, I will try to avoid moving until he has left, for fear of his reaction to a mistake. He does not tolerate troublemakers in his domain; pushups are doled out as punishment for mischief, and he even stuffed one miscreant into a trash can. ("Don'tdo it after lunch," he advised the boy, "It'll be full then and I'll stick you in upside-down.") His demeanor seems at odds with the philanthropy of his actions.
The Chess Center is a non-profit organization housed in a basement, apparently kept alive through donations or bankrolled by Mr. Mehler. Whatever the reason for his crusade to save the world through chess, profit was certainly not one of them. Mr. Mehler's personality epitomizes the qualities that I find so often in chess players. The layers of sarcasm and introversion, the eccentricities and prickliness, often disguise a person well worth knowing.
There is no such thing as a typical chess player; I have played reverends and accused felons, football players and math prodigies, the young and the dying and everyone in between. In spite of this diversity, there are commonalities that draw us to the game.
A chess game is, in a way, very similar to a human life. Chess games are stories: brief, reckless, and dramatic, or long, slow, and careful. A chess game passes through distinct stages, from opening to endgame. To succeed at chess, you must plan in both the short and long term. Finally, chess, like life, is a mystery: there are four hundred ways for white to play the first move and black to respond, and from there the possibilities branch out to form a tree whose scale is far beyond our comprehension–there are more ways for a chess game to go than there are atoms in the universe. A chess game is a microcosm oflife, decades of joy and tragedy condensed into a few hours.
Perhaps the attraction is that, if chess is a version of life, it is only an idealized, simplified one, where everyone starts equal, the rules are known, and you really can see things in black and white. Chess is simple enough that computers can be programmed to play itwell. This is because the decisions in chess can be made using only logic; in contrast, life decisions rely much more on emotion. While you can decide to attack on the kingside through analytical thinking, it is impossible to determine analytically whether you are in love. The second major difference is that chess, unlike life, is completely individual; players must confront their difficulties without any assistance, and the only human they interact with–their opponent–is trying to destroy them. It would be impossible to withdraw into yourself and live a happy life without speaking to another person; butin a chess game, people sit in silence for hours, struggling to overcome their problems alone.
The similarities between chess and life would attract anyone–and are what inspire people like David Mehler to teach chess in schools. But the differences make chess players rare. People who enjoy chess are generally analytical, using logic rather than emotion; they also problem solve independently.
But the game itself is not the only attraction–for chess has a social aspect as well. There's a wonderful camaraderie among chess players, which probably comes from the shared experience of spending hours hunched in contemplation of a few plastic figures. I can spend hours playing blitz with people I barely know, enjoying the banter and friendly competition as much as the game itself.
A chess game also provides an unusual way to interact with people. In no other social setting could you sit across from someone for hours without saying a word, but since silence in tournaments is mandatory, ignoring your opponent is not rude but compulsory. Chess, in theory, is devoid of human interaction, a conflict of minds where the only communication occurs through the movement of pieces–but this is not the case. There's a strange intimacy about two opponents at a chessboard; both are utterly absorbed in a world they have created together, oblivious to outsiders; for the few hours they sit across from one another, each is the most important person in the other's life.
At the same time, however, a sharp dichotomy is apparent; for white's goals are opposite black's, and the former's triumph means the latter's despair. The intimacy seems paradoxical contrasted with such opposite goals; but when I play chess, I focus as much on my opponent as on the board. For me, it is easier to interact with someone while playing chess: because of the silence imposed in tournaments, interaction feels sincere rather than compulsory. A smile, a shrug, a whispered comment–rather than social necessities, in a chess game these are genuinely friendly, because the expectations are reversed–silence, rather than conversation, is demanded. I suspect this freedom, to withdraw into one's own mind for hours at a time, without any pressure to interact with others, draws many to chess. A chess game is a risk free way to interact with someone without the potential awkwardness of conversation–which provides unusual opportunities.
I once sat down at a board, shook my opponent's hand, and moved my king's pawn forward to begin the game; in the pauses between moves, I found I was studying his face more intently than usual. By the sixth move I realized, with a combination of horror and amusement, that I had a crush on him. (A long chess game, incidentally, is ideal for developing a crush on someone; during the long pauses between moves, it's easy to stare baldly at your opponent without notice, because they are studying the board. Unfortunately, from a romantic point of view, the majority of my opponents seem to be depressingly un-crushworthy.)
Though he was lower-ranked than I was, I soon found myself losing because I was focusing more on his eyes than on the position. It was a happy, dreamy nonchalance; I was completely uncompetitive, content to lose slowly if it meant I could stare at him for another hour or two. Then, very suddenly, rationality triumphed over hormones. I realized that I didn't even know my opponent's name and would probably never see him again, but if I lost this game because of the color of his corneas (green) I would regret it for the rest of my life.
Furious at myself, I resolved to salvage the mess I had made. When I played the move that won his queen, he stared in disbelief, perhaps shocked that his idiotic opponent of an hour before had suddenly improved so dramatically. He eventually ran out of time, which was fine with me: I had both won the game and gotten to stare at him for four hours. In what other social setting could you do that?
The attraction to chess, then, has two main parts: the game itself and the social setting. But what explains why so few play chess? While the attractions of the game are unusual, there is a third factor which makes chess players so rare: the social stigma.
I'm not going to explore the reasons behind the stigma that surrounds chess, because it would be like trying to justify any baseless prejudice. A more interesting question is why people continue to play in spite of it. There were two reasons I didn't stop playing chess in spite of the stigma: at first I didn't realize it existed; and by the time I did, I didn't care.
I'm not sure when I realized chess wasn't a normal activity for a kid; I had always seen it as something like basketball. When I was in fifth grade, I endured the mockery of my classmates for months for stubbornly insisting that chess was a sport. In seventh grade, I would spend my break playing speed chess with a friend while a popular boy tried to break our clock by stepping on it.
I was always oblivious of social trends, partly because of my parents' insistence on not having a TV, partly because of my personality. Even when I was, however, I struggled not to conform. I refused to go shopping, although part of me wanted to have pretty clothes; I refused to wear jeans, although I liked their color and texture. I was fiercely contemptuous of the popular kids in my grade–I felt superior to them because I refused to follow their trends, even though part of me desperately wanted to fit in. When I watched One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest at the end of middle school, I wept for half an hour, empathizing with McMurphy's struggle not to conform, to resist the Combine. I viewed myself as a hero, quixotically fighting not to fit in; my classmates probably viewed me as a dork.
Stereotypes are alluring because they let us be lazy–you don't need to bother to understand someone, with all their complexities and nuances, but can rely on a preconception. It didn't matter that I played piano and basketball, that I wrote essays to understand the world and dreamed of being a writer, that I empathized so deeply with people I couldn't even watch scary movies–all the quirks that make me who I amwere ignored. Instead, I was a chess geek, as boring and black and white as the game that was my supposed obsession. Stereotyping someone is like reading a summary of a poem–you're missing the point, for while you may understand it well enough to pretend you've actually read it, you won't get the beauty, the uniqueness, that makes it worth reading it the first place.
The social stigma surrounding chess hits women particularly hard. Only four percent of chess players are female; when I asked girls who still play chess the reason for this lack of participation, all of the cited the social stigma surrounding chess. Girls are more confined by stereotypes than boys, something I still struggle with. After vowingfierce opposition to all social trends in junior high, I moved to a new high school and slowly reconciled my chess playing with my social life. I realized that, as foolish as social trends may be, it is necessary to conform somewhat to fulfill people's expectations–it may be too hot to wear clothes in the summer, but we still don't go naked.
Thus, I compromise–I go to dances, I gossip about boys, but I also fly across the country to play in national tournaments–and my friends accept me for who I am–a girl with an eccentric habit but to whom they can still relate. The stigma around chess still bothers me, although I laugh about it when questioned. I was walking alongside a highway withsome friends when one commented, "That car just honked at you."
"No one would honk at me," I said cynically, "I play chess." The words were bitter, but my tone was not. While I have no illusions about chess's sex appeal, I have gradually realized that people worth knowing will accept that I'm a chess player–I went out with a boy who was willing to play chess with me at three in the morning.
Still, I live in two worlds–one where I can discuss the intricacies of the Danish Gambit and the second where I can discuss the intricacies of dating–but the worlds do not intersect. And while I feel at home in both, they sometimes come into conflict. I once skipped a team tournament to attend a friend's sweet sixteen. When I finally arrived at the tournament, still wearing the dress from the party, I endured the ridicule (some joking, some serious) of everyone from the parents of my teammates to the employees at the tournament. "You skipped a chess tournament," they would say incredulously, "for a birthday party?" As incredible as it seemed to them, I'm sure my other friends would have been equally shocked had I skipped the birthday party instead. What's a girl to do?
And the stereotypes come not only from outside the chess world but from inside it as well–many boys find it hard to believe that a girl is as good as they are. I actually enjoy lower expectations; my reaction to the "glass ceiling" has always been to crash through it.There are few things more beautiful than the expression of an overconfident teenage boy–after I beat him. Once I win their respect, however, most boys I play are friendly and–at least over a chess board–outgoing. Most of the time I almost forget the gender distinction exists; for me, it is easier to be accepted inside the chess world than outside it.
It is ironic that chess, the game rejected by social boundaries, is the game that overcomes them. But it is also fitting: for chess players, who must be brave or oblivious enough not to care about social boundaries, create an environment where they dissolve. The nature of the game itself–the equality at the beginning of the game and the fact that the same rules apply to everyone–also overcomes differences.
I once played a game against an old Norwegian man with a reputation as a formidable chess player. He was a longtime friend of my grandparents; I was around ten at the time and had the sense I was upholding our family honor. I defended my position carefully andmanaged to force a draw; afterwards, as we analyzed the game together, he explained the nuances of the position to me in fluent, accented English. We played again the following day; overconfident from my previous success, I attacked recklessly. He defended patiently, then exploited the weaknesses I had created; soon, I was forced to resign.Again we analyzed the game; as we shared our thoughts of the past few hours, we began to see beneath the silent facade that social boundaries build. Though we were from different lands and generations, we found a link in chess.
I never saw him again. A week later, I asked my mother why he had come to visit.
"He came to say goodbye, honey," she told me softly. "He's got terminal cancer."
I turned away, standing quite still as it sunk in. Then I fled up the stairs, barely able to see through my tears. I did not understand how I had grown to care about this man so deeply over the course of two chess games. Only later would I see how chess had forged a bondbetween us: through cooperating to understand its infinite possibilities, we had grown to understand each other.