Postscript: The cultural politics of chess

Chess has an unfortunate social stigma that follows it around like a bad smell, under which we acolytes suffer. Oh, how we suffer! One of my friends leads a furtive double life, telling no-one of his secret chess activities. Another declares his chess proudly to anyone who will listen, daring them to object.

Defending chess as a hobby can be awkward. Claiming that we are just ordinary people, not sad single Woody-Allen lookalikes, has a desperately defensive air about it (" No, wait, I like football and girls too! "). And the actual game is nothing short of intellectual masturbation. As far as I am concerned anyone buying a book on opening theory should have it given to them in a brown paper bag, no two ways about it.

Chess is undoubtedly groovy, proof being that Casanova was a player , and he wouldn't have been half as successful with women if he hadn't learned the importance of getting your pieces out early. If you don't happen to think chess is groovy (and many may not), I'm no chess Imperialist — your Poland is under no threat from my Bishop.

The mistake is to assume that chess is a game played with 32 pieces and a board. If only it were that simple. There is your opponent, a complex person in his or her own right, members of other clubs, who are even more complex, and matches and tournaments and congresses and books and rivalries and comradeships and a great big et cetera . It's a huge interesting cultural world, is chess, the natural history of which would give David Attenborough enough material for a whole new series. For instance:

Retaining Perspective

It can hurt to lose a game. As you sit there, your opponent slowly crushing you despite your every effort, disappointment can turn to despair, to dislike, to hatred, to psychosis. You can be annihilated, mind, body and soul. All that you are, your self-esteem, your moral code, your intellect and finally your will to live can crumble beneath the assault. Or you can shrug, shake hands, say "well played" and get on with your life. Up to you.

The Post Mortem:

Many players specialise in this. Many's the time I've swaggered into the congress room set aside for this sort of thing with a defeated opponent (obviously, I win constantly), only for said opponent to demonstrate conclusively how unbelievably jammy I was. How they missed fourteen wins in the first six moves alone, and how I managed to make a decent move on occasion only through a combination of blind luck and Faustian chicanery.

The Over-The-Shoulder Comment

You know who you are. These people pass by your Post Mortem, glance fleetingly at the board, and then say something like "Why didn't you do this? That wins the Queen", or "Oh, you missed a mate in five there". Aargh! Even if these suggestions are right, you are implying that in the past few seconds you have seen more deeply into the game that I have, despite sweating over it for four rotten hours, and unless your name begins with K and ends in V that is not the case! Now sod off before I brain you with your own shoes!

I have been known to overreact on these occasions.

New Laddism in Chess

Chess, which began in the drawing rooms of polite society, is now practised by all sorts, and while it is common for congresses to be non-smoking, the non-drinking chess congress is unheard-of. The drunken game of chess has a long, upstanding barely-standing history, as anyone who has seen Michael Adams prepare for a game knows. However, the demon drink has been responsible for some lesser performances. The Grandmaster, who noisily demanded late entry to a local congress on Friday night, only to lose the next morning round after some serious drinking and then withdraw, shall remain a nameless Bastard. Sadly this ungentlemanly conduct is not uncommon.

I know of one otherwise blameless member of the chess community who, having warmed up in the bar, staggered into the third round, wrote on his scoresheet "Me versus some prat", and then kept a record in the margin of how many beers he had downed. He lost at move thirty-eight, or pint seven. Shame on him. But at least it could be said that he Retained Perspective.

Mark Blackmore

Legacy nid: