Sunday, June 17, 2007


My Dad taught me to play chess. He had joined a local chess group and brought the hobby home. I was enticed—such an interesting and complex game far outshone any of the Parker Brothers game boxes on the top shelf of the closet (even Monopoly, Clue, and—my favorite, Risk). He taught me fun tricks like Fool’s Mate (winning in just four moves), but also more important concepts, like playing for position, controlling the center of the board, not trapping my own pieces, and so forth.

I lost all the games, but I loved chess, and pestered Dad to play as often as possible. I started reading about chess—various opening strategies, gambits, defenses and such. I played the game with friends. I joined the school chess club (not a strong organization, unfortunately). Dad drifted away from his chess group. I started winning games. We didn’t play as often—then hardly ever.

My many bike rides around our neighborhood streets introduced me to a lot of regular porch sitters, including one man, late twenties or early thirties I’d guess (although I’m relying on childhood memory and perspective here), an avid chess player. I don’t know why he was at leisure to sit at home daily (I was too young to think to wonder or ask), but our conversations led to him inviting me in for a game.

He had a small, special enclosed back porch set up especially for chess, including a small table in the center of the room, two chairs, a few plants—and a chess clock. I had never seen one, the concept of timing moves new to me. Still, I was enticed, and I visited quite frequently, looking for a game. He always won, of course, but he was also an excellent teacher. I was most stunned and impressed by a practice begun at the end of our first game—he reset the pieces and reviewed the game from memory, move by move, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of my approaches. Aside from my amazement what I saw as an almost magical talent, I started to see chess as strategy, not an ongoing battle of moves, and games as thought patterns, not mere diversions.

I played chess with a few college friends here and there, but I found that not a lot of people play this game, so I didn’t get to play often. I run across people who respond to my interest in silly ways: "Oh, teach me--I bet I could beat you," for example, usually out of pure ego. I smile and look for ways to change the subject.

Twenty years ago, when I moved to my current home in the country, I met a bass player at a symphony gig who lived just a few miles from me—John Teeple (featured in the award winning documentary “Brothers Keeper,” a film I got to watch as it was made). John was much older than I, but we became close friends with many shared interests, from trees to gardens to home building to music to writing (he was working on a comprehensive time line of global history)--including regular chess games. I was the stronger player, but the time spent was well worth the while—not to mention the free ranging conversation.

These days my infrequent chess-playing is relegated to taking on my computer. In the early days of chess programs, I could sometimes beat the computer—although it would never admit it, opting to crash instead—but now playing is just an exercise in flagging mistakes. This is worthwhile for development, of course, but it’s just not the same as facing a person, analyzing the opposing tactics, choosing a strategy—and connecting in a meaningful, thoughtful way with a real, caring person.


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