The Thing About Chess

When I was in college I’d play chess for hours with roommates during the winter break.  We’d all come back from our respective part-time jobs and rotate in to play whomever the winner was.  Chess was the only thing I had in common with a couple of those guys and we drifted apart as rowing (for me) and other distractions (for them) took over.  During a college trip to Finland and what was the Glasnost-era USSR I picked up a magnetic chess set and we played the whole flight back.  But chess drifted away when the convenience of time that college offers drifted away.

Fast forward years later and my grandfather moved up to Massachusetts from Florida when my grandmother passed away.  I’d schedule nights with him every week or two, I’d order some sandwiches and we’d play chess once or twice before calling it a night.  Chess with my grandfather was story time, and he’d tell me stories of working at Eastern Airlines in Miami where he’d play chess with some older black men who also worked there.  In the 1960’s that wasn’t the norm in Florida, but he told me he didn’t much care.  Just two guys playing chess during a work break.

I tried to steer my kids towards chess, but no luck.  Too many other activities in their lives and it was a game that required some learning.  Checkers for awhile, and then it was on to sports and video games.  So I’d hit a dead end where there wasn’t an opponent to play against, and so the game drifted away again.  Playing the game in the newspaper or on a handheld device never appealed to me.

Eventually I rediscovered chess on my Mac.  There are settings that allow you to make the virtual opponent devastatingly difficult or ridiculously easy.  Eventually I got a place where I’d win sometimes, the computer would win sometimes and the pace of play was satisfying enough to make it interesting.  Computer chess doesn’t offer the nuance of playing against a real person or the tactile experience of picking up and moving pieces, but it’s better than nothing.  Like other computer activity it becomes a time suck if you let it, so I’ve established rules for myself where I’ll only play in the evening on the home computer for a max of 3 games at a time.  None when I travel or during the work day.

While there are chess clubs everywhere, when you live in the suburbs it’s not as convenient to find an opponent.  I think if I lived in the city I’d be drawn to the places that offer chess boards for anyone to sit down and play.  Harvard Square has a spot where I could play a chess master in one game and a homeless person in the next game.  I’d surely never leave if I lived or worked in Harvard Square.  Chess welcomes all players, and offers an opportunity to deeply focus on the complexity of the game with someone you might be on the opposite end of the spectrum politically, socioeconomically, in age or in countless other ways.  The world could use more chess players.

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