It’s Your Move

By Peter L DeHaan

A few days ago, I casually entered the conversation with some friends; they were talking about chess. One gave me a sideways glance, “You play?”  It was stated as a question, but an underlying astonishment was imbedded. I nodded affirmatively. “Any good?” came the follow-up query.

Good is a relative term. Competition good, I am not; not even close. Casual-player good, I am. When I do play I am pleased with the results, still I chose to not respond directly.  “I haven’t played for a while,” I evaded.  That seemed to satisfy his curiosity.

My cousins had taught me how to play when I was in third grade. My parents were a bit dubious that I could grasp the complexities and nuances of the game. Seeking to protect me from possible frustration or disappointment, they urged caution and tried to lower my expectations. Bravely, I forged ahead. The older of the cousins patiently taught me the names of the pieces and how they moved. He would gently quiz me from time to time in order to gauge my understanding and assess my retention of his tutelage. Soon we were playing a real game. Despite my novice errors, momentary memory lapses, and quirky moves, it was grand fun. We played until he grew weary and I moved on to his siblings. They had less tolerance for my sloppy play and geeky exuberance; by mid afternoon the board was put away and we were on to other things.

The next morning, however, was a new day. I challenged my instructor-cousin, who agreed. Before the day was done, I had won my first game. He rallied, winning the next two, but I sensed I was beginning to challenge him. Seeking to avoid another disconcerting loss, he feigned boredom with my incessant pleas to play one more game and retreated to a safer activity. I then plied his younger brother. Discerning that I had now advanced enough for it to not be too demeaning, he condescended to pick up where his brother left off. By the time their visit concluded, I was hooked.

Practice Makes Perfect: Although my desire to play chess was strong, the opportunities to do so were limited. I attempted to enlist family members, but each had a reason not to learn this game that I pursued. My neighbor wasn’t much help either, as he proved to have only a passing interest. Not to be deterred, I would play against myself. Sometimes I would play the white pieces (which moves first and takes the offensive); other times I would take the black side (which responds and defends). Sometimes, I would switch sides midway through the game, giving up an advantage of superior position to assume a lesser one. There were even times when I would switch perspectives after each move. That may seem a bit schizophrenic, so let’s keep it to ourselves.

These mental diversions were to occupy way too much free time and may not have been the optimum methodology to improve my game, but improve it, they did. When it came time for a real game, I was ready; that time spent practicing paid huge dividends.

Read All About It: Although enjoyable, playing against myself begin to have a diminishing return in terms of ongoing improvement. So I turned to books. First, I learned some esoteric rules, like “en passant,” which I have yet to use in a real game. Then I studied opening moves. These actually have names and are categorized, with variations on how they unfold and recommended defenses. In a serious game, I open with my King’s pawn; conversely, I have trouble defending a Queen’s pawn open. I also learned techniques, like the pin, the knight fork (a personal favorite), discovered check (a great way to confound your opponent), and gambits, as well as end game tactics.

Having consumed several tomes on strategy and techniques, I zeroed in on one entitled, “How to Beat Bobby Fischer.”  The premise of the book was that in tournament play it was statistically more probable to beat him than to force a draw – of course, he was nine times more likely to win than to lose. I actually read, studied, and reenacted many of the 61 games he lost. I reasoned that to improve, I needed to be studying the master.

Don’t Give Up: The unspoken credo among my chess-playing buddies was that you never conceded a game. No matter how dire the situation, we would never quit, but play to the bitter end. Resigning a chess game was for those of lesser character and not worthy of this noble pursuit to which we aspired. Having this perspective taught me two things.

First, it taught me how to be a good winner, to be kind and gracious to the other player as a person, all the while dismantling his army and backing his king into the corner for an acrimonious checkmate. I wanted to win and do so decisively, but desired to not belittle the ability of my opponent or assault his self-esteem in the process – after all, I may want to play him again sometime!

Playing to the end also taught me how to be valiant; to remain strong and dignified in defeat. That is much harder – especially when the vanquishing conqueror is relishing his impending victory a bit too much. Yet, these are the moments when character is truly strengthened and perfected.

Play it Again: Losing is never fun, especially when you deem yourself to be the superior player, but it will happen, even to the best. I learned to accept these disappointments as an inevitable part of the game and to grow through them. Yes, I wanted to learn how to play better, but more significantly, I wanted to grow to be a better person in the process. It is a truism that one can learn more and grow more in defeat than in victory.

It is also important to not wallow in self-pity and incriminations when these set-backs occur, but to shake off the disappointment and forge into the future. So, regardless of how close I came to winning or how big the loss, my first response was invariably, “Wanna play again?”

Change the Rules if You Have to: In high school, I sometimes played during study hall. It was there that I garnered an after-school detention for being too animated in explaining the correct way to do a Queen’s side castle. Regardless of who was in study hall, I could count on a worthy opponent being present. Once we set up an impromptu chess competition, complete with round-robin play and capped off by a single-elimination tournament.

My track bubby, Spenser, was in study hall, too, but he didn’t play chess. Still he was attracted to it like a magnet. The variations of pieces and different moves endlessly intrigued him. I tried in vain to teach him, but his attention span was too short. Tired of being left out of the action, he one day blurted out, “Let’s play checkers – all-kings-jump-your-own-man.”  I’m not sure if he made that up or not, but I was willing to try. Lacking checkers, we used my chess set, arranging the chessmen like checkers. Since every piece was automatically a king, they could move both forward and backwards. Also, you could jump your own piece (though you left it on the board) to catapult yourself into enemy territory to jump your opponent’s pieces. It was a wild game and Spence played it with great abandon and immense joy.

Playing all-kings-jump-your-own-man checkers with a chess set would elicit all manner of snide and demeaning comments from the uninitiated and casual observers, but we didn’t care. Spence had changed the rules to make a game we could enjoy together and I was happy to oblige.

Make it Fun: Sometimes, we would play “rapid chess.”  It was like regular chess, but you had to move within five seconds. We had no timer, so it was self-policing. It made you think astutely and react quickly. I had a knack for it, able to hurriedly assess a situation and make a snap decision that was founded on a hastened logic, but often couched with intuition or consisting of pure reaction. Games lasted about five minutes and were so intense that it only took a couple to induce a headache.

I sometimes employed a “rapid chess” mindset in a regular game. Although my hurried moves were not always ideal, the unending swiftness of my responses would unnerve my opponent, causing him to get flustered and make blunders. From his perspective, it was always his turn and he was always intently concentrating. I, on the other hand, was able to relax and have fun. I realized that it is often better to make a quick decision, based on initial reactions and facts, than to make the ideal determination that might not seize the moment.

To imply that life is like a game of chess is a shallow metaphor. However, just as a good game of chess requires an articulate strategy and reasoned approach, so does running a successful business or living a good life. It’s your move; what’s it going to be?

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