The only memory I have of learning to play chess is confirming with my dad that knights move in an L-shape, and queens can go straight in any direction. I say that it’s my only memory not because I’ve forgotten the episode; I actually think I was taught to play chess before I developed long-term memory. I’m guessing I must have been three years old when I started playing chess with my dad every afternoon.
I remember I was into it sometimes, but as I approached the age of five or six, I very much hated the game. And then one day I told my dad I wouldn’t play with him anymore.
Every day I had played with my dad, and every day he beat me. I lost every time, every day for years. There was just no joy, no satisfaction in playing, and I didn’t seem to be making any progress. Often after losing I’d want to play again immediately, to make another attempt to win for once, but most often my dad would stop and lecture me about what I should have done. I never understood what he was talking about; I think I was too young, and I always just made me resentful. I know that sounds disproportionate, but even now, 35 years later, when I think about it, it makes my skin crawl just thinking about those lectures, “you should have done this, or you could have done this, or this or this.” I pretended to listen, but mostly I was enraged. On other days he talked strategy; opening gambits that had their own names, “developing” your queen, principles of controlling the center of the board and creating a strong defensive position. He gave me strategy books to read. Did I mention that I was six?
I remember playing other people at the time and winning sometimes, and losing sometimes, but most of the people I knew at the time (not a lot of people) were not very sophisticated chess players. I actually felt bad about beating them, because I knew what it felt like to lose.
I remember asking my dad why he never let me win; the question annoyed him. He said he wanted me to learn. I did learn a lot; I learned what constant humiliation felt like. I learned how to resent my father. As I type this, I’m mad at myself for not quitting earlier; I’m such a chump!
A few years later I remember going to a kid’s chess tournament. I can’t remember if I played in it or not, I just remember it turning my stomach.
Many years later, in 6th Grade, Mr. Casey had a cheap set with cheap plastic pieces. I remember Abe challenged me to a game… I think he might have called it “chest.” I didn’t really want to play, but I let Abe goad me into it. Four moves later I had him in checkmate (Qxf7#) and Abe slammed his hand into the board in frustration, and the cheap plastic pieces went flying. I remember feeling that it was a cheap win, the tired old checkmate-in-four-moves play.
Two decades later I was living with four friends in Wallingford; one of my roommates was Jamie, a cop who worked graveyard shift. One day he set up his chessboard in the living room and went to work. I saw it there–the house was empty–so I moved pawn to king four and left a note that said “your move.”
The next day I came home and saw Jamie had opened… a4 or some crap… and he left a smack-talking note.
Three days later I had him in checkmate after four moves; I came home that night and found the pieces all over the floor and a note that said “AAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!”
The circumstances kind of cracked me up, but again, I felt like the ol’ checkmate-in-four-moves was cheap and unsporting. And then I realized that was the only kind of chess I knew how to play.
I feel like the experience of losing all the time at chess has made me into the
non- post-competitive person I am today. When I find myself in competitive situation, I always end up clowning, not taking it seriously. And wanting to bug out. And when I do see people with that eye-of-the-tiger, I always pity them, and think guh, it’s just a game, get a little perspective… there are people in this world that are hungry. Playing to win smacks of… effort.
So I guess in learning to play and hate chess, I also learned to not play to win. Competition doesn’t move me. I do try to be excellent, I like to do things well, I like to be original, and I like to do things that I find entertaining myself. I like to improve, for the sake of excellence.
But winning itself makes me feel a little awkward, a little self-conscious. I question whether it was performance or luck that got me a the win. I question the authority of whoever declared me the winner. I don’t feel a sense of joy or accomplishment when I win something; if anything, I feel like it’s a joke, like some dumb luck has made everyone go temporarily insane.
I realize that this way of thinking is counter-cultural, and probably mildly treasonous. But I also think that if
non- post-competitive attitude were an Olympic sport… that I’d finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.