My Obsession With Chess

In everyday life, we use the word ‘obsession’ rather loosely. When we say someone is obsessed with something, we generally mean they have a very high interest in something and spend much of their free time on it. We generally do not mean that they are under mental compulsion and are unable to do anything else.

When it comes to chess, at times I was very close to this actual definition of obsession.

I consider this image really clever.

It didn’t happen right away. Though I learned chess at the age of six, I didn’t get fully into it until the age of 10 or so. I was getting pretty good, considering I only played once a month or so, but I couldn’t beat my grandfather. I got close a few times, but more likely I was simply losing slower. I was putting up resistance, not fighting back. I wanted to change that.

Sometime around here I began playing chess games against myself. Yes, I know that sounds strange, but what else could I do? I met my grandfather maybe once a month for a game, and no one else I knew was at my level. Chess in Canada, especially rural Canada, is not a big thing. Kids at school barely played, and I couldn’t even find adults. If not me, then whom?

“What about chess computers?” Good idea, but chess engines were not ubiquitous at the time. In fact, we didn’t even have a computer, let alone a chess engine. Believe me, if young me had access to a chess engine, I would have used it everyday. I wanted to play chess so badly. Well, honestly, it wasn’t so much playing as it was winning. I wanted to win so badly.

Whether it was from my grandfather’s teaching ability or my own natural talent, I was pretty good at chess. I picked it up quickly, and I could beat virtually everyone my age without much effort. My grandfather, though, I couldn’t beat him. He was like the final boss in a videogame. If I kept trying and trying, one day I would win and that’s that. Chess would be over. That’s literally how I felt. If I can beat one more person, I have beat chess.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking this. Everyone I knew, absolutely everyone, considered my grandfather amazing at chess. It was his game. I thus naturally assumed he must be the best in the world. If this were true, beating him would literally mean I had conquered chess. When I finally beat my grandfather, around age 12 or so, I felt a surge of happiness I have never felt before. It was the purest, most intense emotion I have ever experienced, a lifetime in the making.

Magnus Carlsen? Who’s that?

I didn’t abandon chess, though. No, I found that I was only beginning. I discovered chess literature at this time, and a whole new world opened to me. My grandfather was a strong player, but he was what we call a chess romantic, someone with a very simple and even barbaric approach to the game. Attack the King at every turn. That’s it. While attack is an important concept, there is so much more.

I discovered Siegbert Tarrasch’s book The Game of Chess, which completely turned my view of chess upside down. He showed me ideas I had never thought of, that I would never even conceive. He demonstrated logical principles and a systematic approach to the game. It wasn’t just group your pieces up and look for a lucky shot. No, there was order within the chaos.

Maybe the above doesn’t mean anything to you, but to me, it was everything. I am a very logical, systematic person. I have my master’s degree in philosophy, and even as a kid adults noted my reasoning abilities. I really appreciate logical systems. They speak to me, draw me in. When I discovered the logic behind chess, I fell further in love. I had to know more. I had to know just how far this logic went.

I throw myself into chess study. I checked out every book at the library … all two of them. I taught myself chess notation, both the archaic descriptive notation as well as modern algebraic. I learned openings and plans and tactics and strategy and who knows what else. I wanted it all … except for the endgame. The endgame was boring and I didn’t worry about that. Everything else, though, I soaked up.

Around this time I finally got a computer and discovered the joys of Internet chess. I could play with anyone in the world. This being rural Canada, my Internet connection was spotty at best, so I could only play correspondence chess, sending out moves each day. I became a little addicted to this, as I had over 100 games going at the same time.

My first computer chess program was Battle Chess, known for its animations more than its playing strength.

In a way this was good, because at any given time I had a chess game to play. This also gave me a lot of experience in a hurry. I learned, for instance, that I still had a lot more to learn, and I lost most of my games. It didn’t help that I only spent a few moments, sometimes just seconds, on each move. I looked at the position and basically played the first move I thought of.

Playing so many games, though, was impossible. I spent so much time playing, making my moves, that I had no time to study. I thus reigned myself in, reducing my game load from 100 to about 30, and my online rating soared because of it. Within two years of first reading Tarrasch, I rose from 1400 to 1800 rating. That 1400 might be a little low compared to my actual strength at the time, but I definitely didn’t start at 1800.

Things were going great. I was winning more than losing, and the good times never ended … until they did. I couldn’t get above 1800 rating. I played less games, but nope. I played more games, nope. I bought more books, specially ordered from the bookstore. Nope. I learned new opening lines. Nope. I bit the bullet and finally studied endgame positions. Nope. None of this worked, which caused me to work even harder.

I played chess for hours at a time, usually at the expense of my homework. Pfft, schoolwork. How will that help me? I had a chess board at my side virtually every spare minute. I played dozens of games against myself. I got the latest version of ChessMaster and had it fired up constantly. I even thought about chess as I fell asleep most nights.

I never actually dreamed about chess, but that’s not for a lack of trying.

For whatever reason, I couldn’t break that 1800-rating barrier, and this infuriated me. I saw it as a challenge, similar to beating my grandfather, but this began to seem insurmountable. Perhaps I couldn’t do it? Perhaps 1800 was the best I could manage? Once those thoughts started creeping it, it was over. It was the beginning of the end.

At the start of Grade 12, I would sometimes write out chess moves instead of notes at school. Since I needed good marks to get to university, this didn’t seem wise. Also around this time, my grandfather suffered his third stroke and passed away. These factors threw a wrench into my chess plans. I still loved chess, still wanted to win badly, but I couldn’t justify doing it instead of school. Worse, I began to see my grandfather on the board, and that made my heart ache.

And so I gave up. I made a conscious decision to abandon chess. Just like that, obsession over. My many books and boards became dust collectors. I played sporadically after that, maybe a few games every six months or so, but the magic was gone, the fire put out. I felt defeated. Chess no longer gave me joy.

In truth, chess had stopped giving me joy for some time. I couldn’t get better, and with my grandfather’s continually worsening health I had other things to worry about. I kept playing mostly out of habit, and when I finally pulled the plug, it was no hardship.

Of course, I came back to chess in a rather big way. I found GM Smirnov’s courses, which finally pushed me over that 1800 barrier. I can’t tell you what that means. Seriously, I spent most of my teenage years banging my head against the wall, and then three months of studying one course pushed me passed it and then some. I’m over 2000 now, and still gaining. I’m beyond thankful and excited, and I love playing chess again.

At the same time, my interest is much more contained. Chess does not dominate my thoughts. I no longer have delusions of being world champion, or even Canadian champion. I just want to be the best player I can be. I play a few games, I spend my 30min or so a day studying, and that’s it. It’s more healthy, I think, at least for an amateur player.

Still, my bookshelf still has piles of books, and my attic has many boards. I can’t get rid of them, no. I’m not obsessed, but I’m not quite free of chess, either. I think I like it this way, though … or until my next plateau.

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