I learned to play Chess sometime before I started school, and throughout school I remember going to the chess club to play other students. Despite a heap of practice I was never one of the strongest players around, and I think that’s because I was never that disciplined. I didn’t memorise openings, and I didn’t always necessarily play what I knew was the best move, I often enjoyed taking a slightly off-beat approach to the game. That’s probably the story of my entire life on all fronts. Where you need rock-solid detail work, I’m not your man; but when you need that off-beat solution, I tend to do better. It’s why I did better at the scholarship exams for Classics where the emphasis was interpretation than I did on the bursary exams with their emphasis on fact recollection. It’s deeply ironic to me that my coping mechanism for this natural shortcoming has me professionally pegged as a pedant, master of the tedious.
I became fascinated as much by the aesthetics and history of the game as by the game itself. There was a time in my early teens when I could have told you the names and playing histories of all the World Champions and the major also-rans that never quite made it to the pinnacle. Above all others, I was fascinated by Paul Morphy and Jose Capablanca. Paul Morphy was, of course, never really a World Champion, but he was the last player of his dominance to never have the chance to be one and Capablanca was one of the very first Grand Masters. In particular I was caught up in the romanticism of the unstudied champion, and always resented that Alekhine had defeated him through hard work rather than native brilliance. In my youthful mind it was a tragedy that neither were given latter-day chances to defeat their great nemeses, Morphy against Staunton and Capablanca against Alekhine. Precisely what other chess enthusiasts loved about Alekhine was precisely what I didn’t. When I started earning money I started to collect chess sets; perhaps my love of Paul Morphy has always left me with a slight distaste for the classic chess-piece design, by Howard Staunton.
My paternal Grandfather died when I was around 15, but I hadn’t seen him since I was 9 or so. I never really knew him that well because my paternal grandparents lived on the other side of the country. What I do remember is almost at the point of myth, memories of remembering things, but in that context, my main memory of him was playing chess against him, something that may have happened only once or twice for all I know. When he died his Chess paraphernalia came to me, and the most precious part of that was his records of games he’d played on the boat going to fight in North Africa in WWII. Whether he was just naturally better than his available foes or was a little selective, all the games I have are his victories. I played through all of the games trying, as Emanuel Lasker had taught, to discern the personality of a young man through the lens of his chess. Was he playful, as I perceived myself? A grinder? A deep thinker? My chess knowledge was never deep enough, and my discipline never good enough, to understand. I feel to this day that I have been left a crucial insight into a man I wished I’d known, but lack the Rosetta Stone to unlock the meaning of the moves.
It was a bit easier to interpret his small library of chess books, in particular one well-worn tome named My One Contribution to Chess. It’s a book that purports to be about changing the rules of the game to encourage variety, to break the deadlock that rote learning has on the game. In reality, it’s an awesome philosophical work that uses Chess the way a painter uses a canvas. To me, the book represented a more interesting and important tool than simply another book of detailed analytics that I would never be able to memorise. Morley outlines in a simple and clear way deep ideas, such as the need to perpetually investigate the connections between apparently unrelated aspects of life, in this case using Chess to understand his father. He also outlined a simple principle which explains in one sentence all the greatest competitive experiences I’ve had, and which I later saw as a fundamental characteristic of almost all genre storytelling – that the best matches are always between people of equal skill. I get no satisfaction in destroying minor talents at Table Tennis. I get more satisfaction from being schooled by a real Squash player, but most of that is me engaging the optimism that I will eventually get good enough to win.
The second greatest Chess rival in my career was the boyfriend of one of my flatmates at University. We mostly played Warhammer 40K, but occasionally we play chess. We’d play 5-minute speed chess on my clock. At that pace, chess devolves down to pure instinct and I almost always won, conversely to my typical loss when we played without a clock. These events quickly became spectator sports, as my flat was attached to a hall of residence. I hope there was tight betting going on in the crowd, but at 5-minutes for a game you don’t even have time to properly place the pieces on the board. The games created a sense of safe drama that our lives needed.
The greatest Chess rival in my career was my friend Sam. Over a period of 18 months from early 1996 to the end of 1997 we played an average of 3 games a day. Sam’s style, if either of us could be said to have one, was unconventional. He loved strange openings; in fact he beat the school #1 in their tournament match by simply baffling the guy with something that wasn’t in any of his carefully-studied tomes. Chess became the growth medium for our friendship our early-morning matches were one of the happiest recurring events in my life. I couldn’t tell you now who won more games, which at that volume of play is probably a statistical curve in any case, but I finished 3rd in our final school rankings, a few places ahead.
I stopped playing almost entirely after 2002 when I lost what I’d thought had been a well-fought battle extending right to the bitter end of a knight v. pawn end-game only to learn that the game had literally been memorised in advance by my opponent from a book of famous games. Faced with that level of commitment, I decided I’d stick to Table Tennis for my competitive needs, where my natural talents were greater and my track record almost infinitely better. Chess drifted out of my life almost entirely. Instead I played Warhammer 40K, the original Game of Thrones boardgame, and then a couple of years later I tripped into the rabbit hole of Ultimate Frisbee. My chess knowledge atrophied and my collection of sets stopped growing. What Chess was to me, with this subsequent 15-year break for hindsight, was always a way of connecting with other people rather than something I loved for itself. Isn’t that the most important thing? And ultimately, that’s what My One Contribution to Chess taught me, a lesson applicable to anything. The people who I’ve managed to keep close to are people with whom I share something to do, something that has become more than a thing to do for itself.
Morley, F. V. My One Contribution to Chess. New York: G.W. Stewart, Inc., 1946.