Friday, January 30, 2015


Since right around my 40th birthday, I've unexpectedly found myself immersed in a new craze: chess.
I've played chess my whole life, always enjoyed it. But until now, I had never put much thought into how to play, never studied tactics or strategy, never studied grandmaster games or analyzed my own strengths and weaknesses as a player. I played wild, intuitive, Captain Kirk-style chess. Always attacking, occasionally pulling a brilliant checkmate out of thin air. But the simple truth was that I wasn't very good, and I didn't even know it. Better opponents had their way with me, much to my bewilderment. They seemed to have method to their games, whereas I had none.

I'm still not very good, but I'm twice the player I used to be. (What's 2 x 0?) But there is the semblance of method to my madness now, and I owe this to two people: my son Grant, and his chess coach, Ann. 

If Chess-Craziness were a disease, then Grant and I caught it from Ann, whose genuine enthusiasm for chess is both boundless and contagious. Seriously. This woman eats, sleeps, breathes chess. When she teaches chess, an irrepressible joy radiates into her speech and body language. Ann was a grade school teacher and the chess club supervisor at Grant's school until she retired last year. But she saw great promise in my mathematical, competitive son's chess-playing. And she's harbored a lifelong dream of starting a chess school.

So Ann reached out over the summer and offered to be Grant's chess coach. Once a week for the last five months, we've met for a couple of hours at a local Barnes & Noble to learn the finer points of the game. I started out as a parent chauffeur, but soon became totally transfixed by the lessons myself. How can one become transfixed by watching someone else explain and demonstrate chess moves? Well, if you're asking that question, you've obviously never been afflicted with Chess-Craziness, nor had Ann as your teacher.

Ann has taught tactics to which my mind was previously blind: openings, exchanges, skewers, forks, and end game calculations. What a difference it makes to have a game plan other than "I'm gonna catch my opponent by surprise!" Ann calls this Hope Chess. I was the Hope Chess Master.

Now the chess virus has spread to my other son, Justin, and even to Elizabeth and Joy. The most frequent activity at our house? Chess games and puzzles. (Chess puzzles are little worksheets or apps asking you to guess the best move.) All of this chess immersion has culminated in a couple of small tournament championships and trophies for our boys, both Grant and Justin. But the biggie is the state-wide scholastic tournament in two weeks. Ann thinks Grant has a chance. He has a naturally aggressive style, probably picked up from playing his wildly attacking daddy so often. But he sees several moves ahead, engineering complex multi-piece attacks, setting and springing traps, taking the initiative and never letting go. Grant and I have been keeping track of our games since Christmas. Through seventy-five games, we're neck and neck, me clinging right now to a one game lead. He and I typically engage in throwing haymakers from the back ranks. They're slugfests. They tend to be fun and pretty quick games. Perhaps you'd like to come and watch us play sometime? Maybe if your paint has already dried?

They say that there are 10123 potential variations of a chess game. This is called the Shannon number. That is a number way way bigger than the number of atoms in the entire universe. Think of all of the grains of sand on every beach and desert in the world. There are something like 10 quintillion atoms in every grain of sand.  Now think of all of the grains of sand on every planet and rock in the entire universe. And of course you haven't even made the smallest scratch in the surface of all of the atoms in every galaxy, nebula, star, planet, moon, ocean, organism, bacteria, etc. We're talking incomprehensibly big numbers. But think of it. If you wanted to count every possible chess game variation, and you wanted to assign one atom in the universe to stand for each possibility--you simply couldn't it do it. You'd run out of atoms before you ran out of chess variations. Dude. All this possibility emerging from an 8 x8 chess board with 32 pieces.

And this is why I think chess has really grabbed me, and why I'm bothering to write about it in my post-Mormon spiritual quest blog. It is order from chaos. For something so infinitely complex, it is also a competition with set goals, boundaries and rules. There are a bazillion bazillion variations, but only hundreds of possible moves from each position. Of those, only a dozen or so are decent moves, and only one or two are best moves. Computers making millions of calculations a second still take a few seconds to sort these moves out. But the human mind surveys, calculates, extrapolates, devises. And then, if it's my mind, it throws the queen deep into enemy territory only to have it captured by the knight it was somehow oblivious to.

But the point is that it is a system of order and strategy. Very little is left to random chance. A superior player, such as Ann, will lead you along inexorably towards a checkmate. She sets the tempo, grabs the initiative, gets inside your head, and then springs the trap. Yet even she considers herself a middling player, of course comparing herself to chess masters.

In a year in which I'm trying to discern--or create, or imagine--order emerging out of spiritual chaos, chess has exerted a powerful hold over my mind. I like to play it. I like to think about it. Heck, I even like to watch other people play.

I have a dream of sitting on a beach somewhere when I'm eighty, with nothing to do other than play game after game with my children and grandchildren. I'll have honed my skills to a razor's edge by then--or at least learned enough gimmicks to give that impression. I'll lure the little grandchildren in, set the trap, and then beat them with a brilliant queen move from the back ranks. "Checkmate," I'll announce. Playfully absorbing their awe, intending to assuage their pain, I'll reach my hand out in victory . . . only to watch them reach for their knight instead. Bye bye, queenie.

This game, with its simple structure and infinite permutations, promises to fascinate, torment, and humble me forever. Or at least another forty to fifty years. Sounds like a fun way to pass the time.

Ann whooping all of the Foster boys simultaneously, called a "simul."

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