The Appeal of Chess

If you are a non-chess player, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. People spend hours staring at a board, intermittently moving around small wooden pieces. There’s little talking, little movement, just a lot of staring and thinking … and smoking. For some reason, a lot of chess players smoke their brains out. My grandfather, the man who taught me chess, seemingly could not play without a cigarette between his fingers. It also made him look rather formidable, what with the constant stream of smoke blowing from his nose.

The legendary Mikhail Tal also smoked non-stop.

If you’ve never played chess, everything I’m about to say will seem strange. Nonetheless, I will try to illustrate the magic of chess, of how it ensnares an unfortunately few and refuses to let them go. Many people play chess, often just as a fun pasttime, but a select few become well and truly obsessed.

Chess is a turn-based game. Both sides start with a completely equal and symmetrical position. There are several different pieces, each with their own movements. The rules are simple: each player takes a turn, with the end goal being to capture or checkmate the enemy King. If you win the King you win the game, and if neither person can, it’s a draw. Once you know how each piece moves, which is perhaps the hardest part about learning chess, you’ve got it all.

The pieces are the most important part. They are what make chess chess, and it’s often what most draws in the beginning player. Knights, Kings and Queens riding off into battle has all the makings of a medieval fantasy story. Your Rooks and Bishops ravage enemy territory, but his Knights counters right back, threatening your monarch. Who will prevail? Every game is a complex story, with both you and your opponent serving as co-authors.

It’s much easier to tell a chess story, by the way, when you play with novelty pieces.

I still remember my first game. Well, not the individual moves, but I remember what I was thinking. I saw the geometry in my head, how the Bishops moved diagonally to close in on my Kingside. My grandfather’s forces closed in, closer and closer; it felt like barbarians sacking Rome, running wild throughout the streets, and I was helpless to stop it. When I lay checkmated, it didn’t matter that I had lost. I had experienced a magical story before my eyes.

As I get better, my ‘stories’ got better. It was no longer a single Queen running around, trying to pick off helpless pawns; no, I was now coordinating an army, a decisive attack-force aimed right at the heart of the enemy. My games had more of a logical flow to them, but even here, at this early point, I saw something interesting.

The better player always wins. It’s a perfectly equal starting position. It’s not like sports, where it’s the same number of players but one team has a bunch of all-stars versus scrubs. No, it’s completely equal, but a better player can turn the equality into something more. How does that happen? How can someone consistently make something out of nothing?

And this is it. This is exactly it. If I win, it’s because I played well. I, me. Not my teammates, not my coach, me. All my success was mine. The reverse is also true, of course. It’s not a teammate dropping a pass or a coach calling a bad play. It’s all me. Victory and defeat, both are mine alone. That means I determine whether I win or lose, no one else. Yes, my opponent has something to say, but if I always play the best moves then I cannot lose.

That’s really it, the quest to find the best move. In any given position, there’s a best move. If might be impossible for a human to find, but it’s there, and if you do it you cannot lose. Think about that, the inability to lose. Doesn’t that feel like invincible armour? Complete safety? You are totally invulnerable. Where can you feel like that anywhere else?

When you look at it this way, chess is like a logical puzzle with a rational solution. It’s perhaps the most complex puzzle ever concocted, but it’s a puzzle nonetheless. When you play against someone else, you are matching puzzle solving skills, in essence. If you do it better, you win, and if you both do it equally well, it’s a draw. That’s fine.

Ah, but there lies the rub. You start playing, and your opponent makes a mistake. You know it’s a mistake. It might be big, it might be small, but it’s a mistake. You can take advantage of it. Your heart starts beating faster. You begin to close in for the kill, but then he strikes back with an unexpected sacrifice! Things have descended into madness. Gone are any hints of rationality or logic. Annihilation beckons and chaos reigns.

Yes, I wrote that last sentence just so I could include this image.

In these moments, you feel chess for what it is, an intense conflict of wills. It’s intellectual competition in perhaps its purest form. Players trade moves back and forth, trying to navigate the quagmire on the board, only now you have to battle your own emotions as well as your opponent. If you get too high, you overlook your opponent’s threats; get too low, you miss your own chances. You have to somehow keep your head in the game even as the castle walls crumble all around you.

When you win such a game, you feel the most intense surge of endophrins ever. It is no different than winning any other sporting competition… and when you lose, it’s the same as losing the big game. You feel drained, depleted, empty … but a fire still burns deep inside, even if it’s dampened right now. For the next time you play, that fire will rekindle, and you will try your damnedest to come out on the winning side next time.

Chess, then, has this dual-nature. Sometimes it is a logical puzzle, other times an intense conflict of wills. It can shift back and forth during a single game, or perhaps never at all. Some people are attracted to one side more than the other, or perhaps exclusively one side only, such as competition. I find I alternate between the two, alternating between loving the logic and loving the competition as my mood waxes and wanes.

There is, however, one more aspect of chess, a part all chess players appreciate regardless of motivation: beauty. Chess can be incredibly beautiful. If you’ve never played you likely think I’m crazy, but even very beginner players will attest to the inherent beauty of the royal game. And really, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

Chess is mainly a game about geometry. The pieces all move in straight lines across a grid. Okay, so the Knight doesn’t move in a line, but it still moves in a predictable way, following a 2:1 ratio. Lines tend themselves towards beauty, as geometric art shows.

Why couldn’t we do geometry like this at school?

In chess, sometimes the simple placement of the pieces can lend to this type of beauty, but it’s not so much where the pieces stand but what they do. Different pieces have different values, with the Queen worth the most and the pawn the least. In chess, it’s common to sacrifice a piece for something minor, apparently losing in material value but getting back something even greater, which generally wins the game.

Logically, you would never want to trade your Queen for a pawn. It’s a huge loss for you. However, if you can look past this, you might find the hidden combination in which you sacrifice your Queen, drawing the enemy King to the centre of the board and then mating him there. This is beautiful, marvellous, unexpected, and it’s the not-so-secret ambition of every chess player to play such a game. If winning a game is good, then winning a beautiful game is even better.

I’ll admit, the logic of chess first attracted me, but it’s this beauty that kept me going. I would try to attack and sacrifice every chance I could, because if it worked, I would have achieved that elusive chess immortality, a beautiful game. It didn’t happen very often, but the mere potential of beauty kept me going.

We thus have three compelling aspects of chess. On the one hand, the cold logic of a mathematical puzzle; on the other hand, the face-to-face battle of pure competition; on a third hand, the appeal of beauty. Often, what makes chess beautiful is finding those illogical moves, the ones that you would never suspect of being good. Thus, if you are too logical, you may miss out on beauty. If you try to make beautiful moves all the time, you’ll often lose. And if you relish the competition and the battle, you miss out on the logical, systematic part, which will prevent you from winning as much as you should, or sometimes losing games you should win.

A chess player needs to balance these things to become a truly good player, I think. When you do, though, chess becomes one of the highest forms of intellectual pleasure. As the great Siegbert Tarrasch said, “chess has the power to make men happy.” For me, this is 100% true.

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