Language of chess

Chess is for smart people.

I would probably have to agree with that. It's why chess is merely a hobby for me and not a moneymaker.

To the uninitiated I can talk a pretty good game. I can wow the neophyte kibitzers with terms like Prophylaxis, En Passante, Fianchetto, and Mocha Macchiato. My sons always ask me if they have to learn french to play chess well.

But ask me in what variations of the Sicilian the King's bishop should be fianchettod, and I might as well be a bowl of oatmeal. All of a sudden I sound like a tantrumming teenager talking back to his parents, "I'll fianchetto when I feel like fianchettoing!"

Chess has grown its own language. Like pretty much any other addictive genre in life, its ambassadors have attached ideas to words (in some cases words that are completely unique to chess) that have become ingrained in chess culture, and are now an important tool to conveying those ideas to those learning the game. (see this :

This phenomenon is of course not unique to chess. I watch the show Law and Order a lot, and so I have learned a lot of Law speak. Just enough to embarrass myself when actually talking to lawyers. I can't help throwing out terms like Debenture, and double jeopardy. Then again, I like to say J'adoube at all the wrong moments in a game of chess.. it really throws off my opponents.

I once claimed J'adoube at the blackjack table in Wendover and almost got myself thrown out of the casino.

So we learn the terminology in hopes of furthering our chess understanding. But language is a funny thing. Words can spark different ideas in different people's heads.

I was at a convenience store the other night with my son. I had told him we could stop and get a drink. I told him to look around and just grab two of whatever he wanted. As I waited by the register, my son calls to me from across the store "Hey Dad, can we get naked?"

I quickly traversed the floor with Deion Sanders-like closing speed. But as I approached my son, I saw in his hand a bottled drink called "Naked". I took the bottle from him, quickly read the label, and thought it actually sounded pretty good. Without thinking.. i replied "Sure son, lets get naked."

You should have seen the eyes of everyone in the store. Obviously we had ourselves a contextual disconnect.

This same son always gets in trouble in his openings, and then complains that he was just following some principle that I had taught him and it turned out to be wrong. The other day he hung a knight in the first 5 or 6 moves, and when I took it he yelled at me "You told me Knights before Bishops"!

The application of chess principles is certainly the tricky part to learning the language of chess. Chess is not so much a game of contridictions as it is a study in prioritizing principles. There is almost always a chess principle that applies to a given situation. But as positions get more complex, you have to prioritize your principles. Certain considerations simply take precedent over popularized chess mantras.

Take the following game between Korchnoi and Seirawan. Already Seirawan has achieved a promising position with the black pieces. Seirawan has just taken white's bishop on d5 giving Korchnoi a choice between cxd5 and exd5. What chess principle would you apply?


  • 8 years ago


    "...Obviously we had ourselves a contextual disconnect. ..."

    Hahaha :) great stuff!!

  • 8 years ago


    "...Prophylaxis, En Passante, Fianchetto, and Mocha Macchiato."

    Bahahahaha. *snort*

    Someone has to give you props for that joke.

    /actually laughing
    //I bet you second guessed yourself and were like, maybe that's cheesy, but then you were like, naaaaw it's awesome. Yes, it's awesome.

  • 8 years ago


    wow you just made me feel really stuoid,.lol i guess it is a smart person's game,.D%#@!!!

  • 8 years ago


    Nice posting man, as ever Batgirl hits the nail on the head in her comments, so nothing for me to add.

  • 8 years ago


    is it it's? Or... it is its because it's is it is isn't it?

  • 8 years ago


    Thank you Batgirl and Dozy.

    Batgirl: right you are, from top to bottom. To be honest... I  am not personally sure exd5 is any better either. Seirawan seemed to think so, he gave some analysis in a book I have, and if I wasn't in my comfy computer chair with my feet up on sipping my Madagascar, I would probably go refresh my memory with exactly what he said. Personally, cxd5 doesn't "feel" any worse than exd5. But that is probably my problem with chess... i go too much by feel and too little by concrete analysis.

    And my typos bother me more than they should... but your comment about time and creative effort are excellent points.

    Dozy: your comment reminds me of my call-center days trying to get through college. I worked technical support for a virus protection company. One of our jobs was to walk customers through virus removal. This was obviously a task which required a great deal of patience with those who don't speak "tech speak". I remember a co-worker who would often complain about talking to a doctor or a lawyer, or one time a CEO of his own company... and saying how stupid they were, and couldn't tell a CPU from a hard drive...etc.

    Heaven forbid we ever alienate the "ignorant" who can't intuitively pick up on the meaning of "castling long or short".

  • 8 years ago


    Very entertaining, Jay.  Loved it. 

    Your "I once claimed J'adoube at the blackjack table" takes me back to a card game I once played where my partner said, "You're a chess player, I'm a chess player ... why are we losing?"  The obvious answer was, "We're not playing chess."  He was under the illusion that because we played chess we should have won at cards because we were intelligent ... an unintentional slur on our opponents. 

    And, of course, that brings us back to batgirl's comment.

  • 8 years ago


    "Chess is for smart people."


    I think chess is perceived as being for smart people.  And that perception is partly what keeps the masses from embracing the game (and keeps chess from being the so-called money-maker).  As with any endeavor, smartness only counts as it can be applied to that endeavor.  Since chess is primarily a mental activity, mental smartness, rather than physical smartness is of course more evident, but even that mental smartness only matters in how it applies to the game. Therefore, many very intelligent people play very poor chess while some , let's say, average thinkers can play sparkling chess.

    That's a great game between Seirawan and Kortchnoi.  I'm not sure, though, whether following the principle of capturing towards the center was Korchnoi's downfall.  Would  capturing with the other pawn have made a big difference? It looks more to me that Seirawan correctly took advantage of his advantages in the position and wore down Korchnoi's inferior position.

    PS. You can explain to your son that there is a Hieracrchy of Chess Principles (HCP) in which Knights Before Bishops is superceded by Look Before You Leap.


    Thanks for the nice posting!

    Personally, while I don't mind having my own typos brought to my attention, I do find it annoying that, after having spent a certain amount of valuable time and creative effort concocting  something hopefully of interest, the only comment someone feels compelled to make is something so trivial.

  • 8 years ago


    Typo: "it's own language" --> "its own language"

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