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? Continue reading →
I own two chess sets. Well, technically, I’ve owned dozens of sets, mostly cheap garbage. Most of my relatives knew I liked chess as a kid, and so they’d get me a chess set for my birthday. While the thought is certainly nice, wouldn’t someone who likes chess already have a chess board? And why would you buy the cheapest, most plastic board possible?
The spirit was nice, but this was probably the least useful birthday present ever. Worse than socks.
To be fair, to non-chess players a board is a board. What does it matter if it’s high quality or not, it’s just a board game, right? Also, it’s useful to have a smaller set for travelling purposes. My big chess set is certainly beautiful, but it’s not the most portable. Having a magnetic board for car rides or bus trips definitely helps.
Still, I don’t count these as my chess sets. They could vanish without a trace tomorrow and I wouldn’t bat an eye, or likely even notice. No, I have two chess sets, one brand new and beautifully carved out from a European artist … and the other carved during World War II. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
I’ll be honest, I never liked Remembrance Day as a kid. I didn’t understand it. We would have a solemn school assembly where we just had to sit silently. Someone would read a sad poem and then play the bugle, another sad tune. Then we had a moment of silence, a moment that seemed an eternity to six-year-old me. I didn’t understand it. No one really explained it to me. It seemed November 11th was the one day we all had to remember to be sad. I didn’t like it.
Of course, I knew the rough meaning. There have been wars in the past, and lots of people had died. We need to remember that sacrifice, how people gave their lives so we could be free. People told me this, and I could repeat these words, but that did not mean I understood them. How can a young boy understand war and death and sacrifice if he has never seen them firsthand?
Visiting a place like this changes you in a hurry.
I did learn, eventually, thanks to my grandparents. Both had lived in Europe during World War II, and it change them forever. Continue reading →
After my grandfather died, my chess life essentially died. I guess, to be more accurate, it happened before. When my grandfather had his first stroke, he slowed down so much. He didn’t want to, but he didn’t have a choice. He increasingly became frustrated with himself: it took minutes to tie up his shoes, and it took twice as long to read his favourite books and articles. Something was a little off in his brain, the nerve signals weren’t completely normal, and it negatively affected everything he did. We still played chess, as he refused to give up his old habits, but it became pathetic in the truest sense of the word. He sometimes couldn’t distinguish the colours of the pieces. Physically moving the pieces became a chore, something I had to start doing for him. He might stare at the board for five minutes, deep in concentration, never realizing his Queen was en pris. I felt so much pity for him, and my heart broke every time we played. Still, I wasn’t going to refuse a game, wasn’t going to refuse his wish. Continue reading →
My grandfather was an amazing man. Born in 1921 in the Volga Republic, he faced many challenges. He lived through and fought in WWII. It was then, as a prisoner of war, he carved a chess set from an old broom, a chess set I have kept close by wherever I have went. He fled Europe after seeing the horror of Hitler and Stalin. He arrived in Canada, penniless, and built a new life. Continue reading →
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t my first victory. I had played schoolmates and won, but that didn’t count. Those were exhibition matches, Little League, forgotten before the last move touches down. From very early on I had one goal, one overriding mission: defeat my grandfather.
My grandfather was the Chuck Norris of chess.
Some chess teachers let their students win every once in awhile. Not my grandfather. When he first taught me how to play he went easier on me, but by about our third game it was 100% every move, every game. I swear he once stared at a mate in four for several minutes trying to turn it into a mate in three. There’s a rite of passage for most boys, when they start beating their fathers at sports. I would have gladly accepted losing every sport forever if it meant just one win against my grandfather.
I apologize if this comes across as a jumble of unrelated ideas. My mind is all over the place right now, but I need to write these thoughts down. I found out this morning that my grandmother passed away last night. Continue reading →
I still remember the day vividly. I was at my grandparents, a common occurrence despite living over an hour away, and I stared entranced at a set of hand-carved figurines. My grandfather, a Russian who had long since emigrated to Canada, said with pride he made them nearly 50 years ago. He didn’t tell me it was during his stint as a prisoner of war in WWII. I would learn that later. First, I would get my first chess lesson.
You can easily see how a child could be entranced by such figures.
Russians take chess seriously. He never called it a game. “I will teach you chess,” he said. Where others would say “Let’s play a game of chess,” he simply said, “Let’s chess,” or, “I think it’s time to chess.” Yes, chess was a verb. His intense ardour and passion shone through his heavy accent; I knew to take this seriously. I credit my quick chess advancement entirely to his gravitas.