Sometime in my future I will spend my days sitting in a sunny park playing long games of Chess against people a third my age. And I won’t care if I win or lose I’ll be so lost in the game and the bliss of it. But mostly I’ll kick their ass.
If you could play chess for money I’d probably never have played a hand of poker in my life. Chess is an incredible game. A game of complete information but a game with a so many combinations of moves that the possibilities for any board are almost endless. A game that you can play in a theoretical vacuum but a game that’s also a battle for the heart and soul of your opponent. It’s at once the ultimate game of skill with no random element except the most random element of all; the two fallible humans that are playing.
I just watched a documentary that’s in about 5 cinemas at the moment about Bobby Fischer; the only chess player that’s really ever mattered outside the game. It made me rush home watch another documentary online, order a chess book and play a couple of games against a computer opponent. Apart from proving that I suffer from at least a little mania it also told me once again that my love for the game will never properly go away.
For a time when I was very young Chess was my favourite thing to do in the world. I’d play anyone that wanted to play. And if no one wanted to play I’d play myself; turning round the board to play both sides. Let me tell you I out thought myself on a regular basis – I was that good. Around 7 or 8 years old I got my first Chess ‘computer’ (a small plastic game with lights that flashed for each move) and could play against an opponent who would never get bored or have to go to work; it was bliss.
Somewhere along the line, despite numerous school team appearances (cough…geek…cough) I stopped playing. It was a combination of schoolwork, girls, sport and hanging out with friends who didn’t want to play chess…but let’s blame girls because it makes me look vaguely cool. Probably it was also that the competition caught up and I stopped getting better, after all games are always more fun when you win.
But I’ve never lost my love of it, the endless fascination of it and the awe for the players that are so much better than me I can’t approach them.
Chess is a minority sport at the moment that spends a lot of time talking to itself; and in a lot of ways all the better for it. But when Bobby Fischer challenged Boris Spassky for the world title the planet stopped to watch.
It was 1972 and the USSR and America weren’t exactly enjoying quality time with each other. The Chess world title had been ‘owned’ by the USSR for years for whom it as a symbol of national pride. The Chess federation there hand picked youngsters with the right aptitude and groomed them to be superstars. As their athletes were seen as a symbol of their physical superiority, so their chess players were seen as indicative of their symbol of their intellectual superiority.
And then along came Bobby Fischer and blew it all apart.
Fischer beat Spassky just as he beat everyone else he played; often eviscerating them with chess played at previously unseen levels a lot of which still stands up to analysis today. So good was he that after one game that is Spassky, on resigning, stood at the board and joined the crowds applause – check out Fischer’s masterpiece here.
The amazing thing about Fischer is that he did it all himself. And here I’m groping for a word bigger than amazing. He figured out chess ON HIS OWN! He had no coach, no computers and no peer group – just copies of games played by others and his own one in a billion brain. It’s ridiculous. It’s like someone born in a country with no professional football league having never been signed to a team turning up at 24 and being the best player in Barcelona’s first team…but more impressive.
Sadly the Fischer story doesn’t end well. The same things that drove him deeper and deeper into chess (principally an extremely troubled isolationist childhood) drove him to extreme paranoia. He stopped playing competitive chess and went into exile before emerging in later life with some extreme and unpleasant, though also unintentionally funny views.
Chess has never been as big since, although Kasparov (the only champion who can approach Fischer for historical importance) and his man vs. machine matches made some impact. Like so many sports and games it has tried to adapt to become more relevant with first speed chess and then blitz chess making the game ever faster for an ADD infected age.
I’m as ADD as the next man (as I type this to you I’m listening to a podcast and have 4 other browser windows open) however there’s something captivating about great battles over time; which is what Chess is supposed to be. Just as cricket only really comes alive as a battle over 5 days rather than the tennis-ball-on-the-beach slugfest that is 20/20. It’s tragic that these long great battles for superiority, like a 2 month long series of matches to find the world chess champion, are being lost of devalued in a modern life where instant gratification is king.
Chess should captivate the world. It’s the perfect game in many ways and a statement of the intellectual zenith of the human brain as well as a titanic battle between two men’s characters and souls.
But there are problems. First of all it’s inaccessible. Not because it’s that hard to learn but because it’s almost impossible to beat someone significantly better than you. In fact they can simultaneously play 30 other people and still easily beat you, which is kind of discouraging. There is a luck factor in chess because no player plays perfectly or has total knowledge so luck lies in how optimally your opponent plays – i.e. does he see the weakness in your position or miss it. However the luck factor is not significant enough for poor players to regularly if ever beat good players. This all mean newer players can easily be put off from pursuing the game and it’s hard
Secondly the players that are ‘masters’ of the game (literally and figuratively) are a little ‘off’. I mean this in the nicest possible way and I like to think someone comfortable in my ‘geekdom’ but Chess players take it to another level. Whatever the brain functions that allow you to explore 3 separate 10 move variations in your head by staring at the board they don’t make you natural communicators. And this is a real tragedy because it stops Chess from ever being mainstream. If the players could communicate in layman terms with passion and drama what they’re trying to achieve in a game then it would be captivating to people.
And that’s why Poker is the perfect game. It’s balance of luck and skill is unmatched. It’s ability to look like a game of luck but to contain an unbeatable edge for the winning player. It gives encouragement to beginners because they will win enough to continue with enthusiasm. But contains within it the intellectual pursuit for perfection; for optimal play.
Not that any of this diminishes my love of Chess. Over the years it has mutated from being something I loved to do to something I love to observe. Watching great players play or analyse a game can be like walking round an art gallery. You may not toally understand what you’re looking at but you can appreciate it’s beauty and how far above you, intellectually, the author of the game is.
One day, a long time from now, I will cast poker aside and settle down with Chess properly. Poker is the hot-blooded olive skinned Latino lover of my youth; captivating, fun, unpredictable and ultimately not a great bet for the long term. But Chess will always be there ready to nourish my soul and leave my bank account untouched. And so my retirement will not be spent check raising on a semi bluff but contemplating a bold ‘e’ pawn sacrifice for a better position and a bold finishing attack. And during the pauses while I wait for my young opponent to realize how truly doomed he is I’ll look back on all the misadventures, accomplishments, failures and happiness gone by as the sun beats down on my smiling face.