This blog is about my affair with the game of chess – a game for Kings, holy fools and cheats with engines.
I’ve been playing chess pretty solidly for 18 months; at least an hour a day and sometimes a lot more. It’s been a serious commitment of time and effort, which is why it feels apt to write down a realisation that’s dawned; that my chess quest may well be over.
Why now? Well, I’m someone who writes to discover what he thinks; writing is not for me the final stage in a process, like inscribing a name upon a trophy for a winner. Here at the start, it’s hard to say precisely why my chess quest may be over. There are some factors which I can identify and there’s probably others which are invisible, which this keyboard I’m typing on may cause to reveal themselves.
One factor is this video I came across last week, on YouTube. This guy who’s moaning to the camera is the owner of one of the top chess brains in the UK – yet he doesn’t have two pennies to rub together. He’s the sort of guy about whom fellow players on chess servers (I use chess.com, username: Angkar) talk in awed tones of an ability which appears quasi-mystical to us patzers toiling away in the 1200-1500 range (or lower). Yet this incredible ability doesn’t add up to a row of beans for him. And this is bad news for a certain popular argument regularly made in the game’s favour – one which irritates me; that chess is good for life, that you learn helpful skills from chess, that playing chess is a kind of high culture which enriches the player. Personally, I’m not convinced at all. Playing chess hasn’t made me more brainy or effective – the reality is mostly the total opposite.
It is true that chess holds prestige in popular culture – despite being largely ignored by the mainstream media. (Yes, serious players do whinge about the diminished status of chess today, compared to how it was back in the USSR). But just look at the absurdly high price for chess lessons, which are often more expensive than learning to drive or learning an instrument. High prices usually denote a exclusive cache of some sort. People generally do respect the feat of playing chess well (well, I do), but I reckon a lot of this is essentially sentimental and rooted in a lot of cultural baggage. I’m not convinced its charms translate into real life. Someone said in Stephen Moss’s excellent book, ‘The Rookie’: ‘Chess is only like itself.’ Life is not like chess – although there’s enough similes, metaphors and aphorisms in popular use all over the place to dispute this!
I swallowed an image of chess as a sort of classy mental Olympics – at which drinking and smoking are allowed. But this is a mirage: in reality, chess isn’t a night at the opera, it’s an endless slog up a mountain which is totally shrouded by mist, so that you can’t see the summit. You scramble ahead a few steps and then trip over some obstacle you never even saw, going tumbling down, arse over tit. Becoming a good chess player is a real accomplishment – I can say this because I’ve tried for 18 months. Maybe this is why there’s so much complaint about cheating on the big chess servers (at least on chess.com), at present. My favourite chess YouTuber, Grandmaster Simon Williams, has lost to lower rated cheaters so often recently, that he now has a cheat alarm which blares loudly when some moves are played that seem suspiciously out of character by an opponent. Do cheaters desperately want a taste of the prestige which comes from winning at chess – this odd prestige which the game is laden with? I’d say they definitely do. I have same appetite – though I’ve not stooped to the truly tragic act of running an engine to swindle a win. I’m entirely self-taught and no doubt a few hours of lessons would do wonders for my rating. The risk that I’m losing to players using engines (even at my level) is enough to sour my enjoyment.
Another factor (and a very significant one) is form: at time of writing I am struggling to beat a boiled cabbage at chess. The issue is that my vision is poor. I’d really make a poor visionary in Biblical times; my visions would be full of disaster and calamity. My chess vision is a barren wasteland, with a solitary bin burning in the distance and a dog eating its own vomit close by. My queen’s been killed too many times by my own hand and I’ve missed simple tricks that led to me being triple forked and so on and on. It’s just dis-spiriting.
More seriously and related to this is that chess has revealed something in me which has lain dormant for a while; my competitive urge. I revealed it by accident in the paragraph above, when I mentioned ‘my rating‘ – not ‘my knowledge’ or ‘my skill’. What I want most of all in chess to get my rating up as fast as possible (so it looks like my rating line graph has an erection – all stonkingly rampant and vertiginous. Achieving this means taking points off other players by beating them – the more crushingly the better. This is the urge to dominate and destroy and it’s ugly. When I talk about improving at chess, what I really mean is getting my rating a few points higher. Understanding concepts of positions, space and time? Nah. I hate losing a game so much that retaining my composure is a painful physical effort. Put me in front of a screen with a live game and there I’ll be at the end of it; knuckles white from gripping so tightly, mouth contorted with gnashers on display, face reddening, my brain overheating, dreams of destroying worlds screwing my head, ready to vent spleen at my nearest and dearest. Being this angry, you become a parody of yourself. When I win, I’m ludicrously elated – like a small giddy child on his birthday. It’s absurd; heightened emotions like this, about something which is essentially totally pointless and unimportant as a chess game.
Another reason for feeling my chess quest could be over is pretty obvious: I suck at chess! A 1200 or so rating on chess.com (my highest ever is just below 1300) ain’t nothing to write home about. Yet it’s all I have to show for 18 months of time and effort. According to Grandmaster Gergory Serper, a 1200 rating means you can win a game against someone who doesn’t play chess. That’s it. Wow. I can honestly say I know next to nothing about chess and this is after 18 months of playing more than a thousand games, watching hours and hours of videos, doing thousands of puzzles and spending money on chess books. Maybe I’m just not cut out for the game. Chess certainly is very tough and the scale of the challenge has led me to the big question: why? For what reason am I expending time and effort on chess? Why bother learning the principles of development in the opening, only for your opponent to bring out the queen on move 2 and then cause havoc on your king-side, gobbling up your pieces so that it’s time to resign around move 10? This is just too aggravating. Becoming objectively good at chess requires a monk-like dedication to the cause and objectively that’s not going to happen at my stage of life, when I don’t have oodles of free time on my hands to dedicate to the task.
Chess is a deep game and a deeply silly game. (Just look at Bobby Fischer, the King of Chess, whose lasting legacy for me is that he proved it is possible be a genius and an idiot at the same time). Up to now, I’ve played chess because I love it. But I’m falling out of love; it looks like chess and me has been an enjoyable if tortuous affair, but not a champion love. This isn’t a cause of regret.