<< Click here for Part 1
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 of life, decades of joy and tragedy condensed into a few hours.
...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.
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 it well. 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; but in 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.
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.
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, incidently, 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 viewed myself as a hero, quixotically fighting not to fit in; my classmates probably viewed me as a dork.
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. >>
Look out for part 3 tomorrow on Chess Tales.