Why Do I Care About This Board So Much?

I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent on chess over the years. I would play marathon sessions with my grandfather, sometimes lasting three or four hours, going well past my bedtime. When I discovered Internet chess and blitz, I would stay up past midnight trading moves, even with school the next day. Heck, I even kept a chess board in my bathroom, so I’d have something to do when on the toilet.

I never modelled my house after a chess set, though, so I’m better than this picture.

I’m not alone in this. Well, maybe the bathroom part. That might have been obsessive, but that’s exactly the point. Chess inspires obsession. Many people, young and old, master and patzer, have become ensnared within these 64 squares. Something draws us in and refuses to let go. The progression from game to hobby to obsession is so gradual you don’t even notice, but it’s there, working it’s magic on everyone.

And sometimes, in a moment of clarity, I take a step back and ask the natural question, “Why do I care about this game so much?” What is it that has inspired thousands of hours of play and study?

There are many reasons, ranging from incredibly obvious to extremely subtle, so subtle I may not even fully understand it. Really, can you understand an obsession? Isn’t it by definition irrational? Anyway, I can at least describe my evolution from non-chess player to super-enthusiast.

Part of it started before I even played my first game. I saw my grandfather’s chess set, and something about them fascinated me. Here they were, 32 figures, each shaped slightly differently yet also the same, arranged neatly in a symmetrical fashion. Even that starting position has something magic about it, something that speaks to the inner recesses of the mind. I recognized something deep here, it seems, and whenever I visited my grandparents I always found my way, sooner or later, to that chess set.

I’ve spent a significant chunk of my life staring at these pieces.

Eventually my grandfather taught me how to play, and this did two important things. First, it taught me the moves, obviously, but that’s almost of secondary importance. Far better, far more relevant, was how he talked about it, how he explained it, how he caressed each piece, how he treated this as the most important thing in the world at that particular movement. This had a powerful effect. I learned then, both consciously and subconsciously, that this was something supremely valuable.

My grandfather was not alone in this. All of society treats chess with some esteem. Playing chess well is a sign of intelligence, creativity, mental development and even superiority. It’s common television shorthand to make a character seem smart by playing good chess. Chess metaphors have also woven their way into the language: whether it’s being but a lowly pawn or stating that the Queen has all the power. Often in movies, a particularly scheming villain will be called a chessmaster, as he’s seemingly always one move ahead of the protagonists.

There are thus subtle signs all around: chess is important and worth taking seriously. This I did. I took my lessons seriously, and soon I was competent. I wouldn’t say good, as that’s far from the case, but compared to the average seven-year-old, I could hold my own, and really, that’s perhaps what cemented my chess passion.

I wasn’t very good at a lot of things. I was smart but never the smartest kid in class; I was tall but never the tallest. I wasn’t super-athletic. In most things I was average, and I developed an inferiority complex, to the point I stopped talking and answering questions at school. You know, better to be kept silent and thought a fool than to open my mouth and remove all doubt. Chess, though, was different. I was clearly 100% the best among all my friends.

By the time I was 10, I was the best player in my school. This sounds impressive, but I had no competition. I lived in a rural area. Most people didn’t even play chess, and I had spent more time playing in an average month that most others did in their whole life. Really, I was nothing special, but it didn’t matter: I was the best, and no one could take that way.

When you find something you’re good at, you tend to do it more. This then gets you better, and so you put more in it, and soon a feedback loop is born, pushing you farther and farther ahead. This happened with me, where I played and studied more than anyone else and reaped all the benefits. I may not be the smartest or the fastest or the most attractive, but I was the best chess player, and no one could take that away…

… until I started playing online and discovered there was a whole world of chess I didn’t even know existed. In my school, I was the big fish in a little pond, but on the Internet I was no one.

My metaphorical fishbowl would be even smaller than this.

Here I began studying in earnest, actually finding chess books and the sorts, and along the way I found the games of Paul Morphy. I saw one game and it changed me forever. You know the one. The famous Opera house game, where Morphy sacrificed a piece, then a Rook, then his Queen … and then he won! Unbelievable. I played through that game over and over again, seeing the incredible magic unfolding before me.

I learned right then that chess could be beautiful. Before, it was just a game, a competition against another person. It was a struggle, and one person came out on top. Morphy showed me that chess could be so much more, not just a game but art, real art, as beautiful as any portrait. If I liked chess before, this was the moment I fell in love.

I spent the next few months trying to emulate Morphy’s style, sacrificing whenever I had a chance to, and I was terrible. It never worked … but then it did for the first time, and the rush that I felt then was beyond words. I had successfully won via sacrifice! I had created art!

I studied more and more, learning, always learning, and I began to understand chess for the first time. Chess has certain rules to it. I don’t just mean how the pieces move or how to play. Rather, chess has an internal structural, a set of basic principles. For instance, a business has certain legal and professional rules it must follow, but just following them doesn’t guarantee you success. You need to follow good business practices. The same is true with chess: knowing the rules is one thing, but knowing the logic and strategy of chess is another thing completely.

Most of the time, chess players think about individual moves, trying to find the best in a given position. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes, though, instead of finding the best move, you find the best idea. You suddenly realize that, say, the Black Bishop is key to this position, so trading it off gives White an irresistible advantage. Rather than just thinking about the superficial, the current board position, you’ve looked deeper and found something more profound, about the entire and future positions.

And sometimes this goes one step further and you learn something about chess. You suddenly grasp the essence of chess, or at least a part of it. You’ve learned something deep and fundamental, something that will help you with all future chess positions. You have found one piece of the great chess puzzle, and, intellectually, nothing feels better than solving a difficult puzzle. And there’s no puzzle as difficult as chess.

Mankind has always wanted to better understand everything, from the leaves on the tree to the stars in the sky. Understanding gives wisdom, gives knowledge, gives power. Chess is as very much a mystery as those stars, and finding out something, even a little bit, behind that mystery fills me with delight. Once I tasted it the first time, I couldn’t stop. I needed more. I needed to learn everything.

This is like chess, in that both are beautiful and both seem beyond our comprehension.

In the end, that is my obsession. It’s a puzzle, a puzzle I’m continuously trying to understand. Unlike other puzzles, though, chess can be both logical and beautiful and a struggle and a competition and a show of superiority. It is so much, and each compounds on the other, making it even better. For all these reasons, maybe even some more, I can’t look away. I can’t get away. The chess board has consumed me, and though it’s painful at times, it’s also a pure delight.

That’s why I’m obsessed and I stayed obsessed.

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