Recently I watched Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. The limited series is based on the novel of the same name by the late Walter Tevis. It’s an excellent read and a fantastic streaming series, and it inspired me to pick up my fickled and hopeless interest in chess.
This isn’t the first time I watched a chess film and became interested or re-energized about the game—it’s happened multiple times. I first time I became interested in chess was in the early 1990s after seeing the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. I couldn’t be happy with merely playing friendly games with friends and family. Nope, I had to buy high-quality chess set with a large vinyl rollup board and join the U.S. Chess Federation that gave me a provisional rating. I then begin signing up for and playing in correspondence chess tournaments. I could have played over the board (or OTB) games at the Sacramento Chess Club, but I was too intimidated by the players. As a result, I only visited these gatherings a few times.
And books, I bought plenty of books on chess, many of them I barely cracked. I liked books on strategy, but I seemed to think the act of buying the books would magically transfer the authors’ knowledge into my brain. The irony is I never was good at the game, but that didn’t stop me from playing and losing, and buying more chess shit and losing even more games, and buying more chess shit until I finally got tired of losing and quit so I could spend my money on some other flash-in-the-pan fancy.
Time went on, and I forgot about chess I was once so excited over. The books on the game became an embarrassment to view whenever I was looking for another book. In 1996/97, Grandmaster Gary Kasparov had two sets of matches with IBM’s chess computer Deep Blue, but I think I only watched a few minutes of one of the games. A few years later, though, I saw Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, the film based on those matches, and I became interested in chess again. At the time, my friend Mathieu from work told me his friend, Angus, liked playing correspondence chess via email. I knew Angus when he briefly worked with Mathieu and me in the past. We enjoyed playing chess via email, chatting while we posted our moves. We found out we had things in common besides a friend and an interest in chess: we were both Christians. If not genuinely close friends, we became more intimate friends talking about our faith while playing. Our games usually ended in my resigning being down material, or we would draw. There were very few games where I won. It was frustrating that I lost so often, but I liked playing and chatting with Angus.
Chess as a losing game started to get old–both my correspondence games with the U.S. Chess Federation tournaments and my friendlies with Angus. I still wanted to play chess, but I wanted to play better to make the games more exciting so, I decided to get a coach. I logged onto the Sacramento Chess Club website and checked out the best players. I can’t remember why I settled on James MacFarland, but my best guess is because he was the only top player who was a civil servant like myself, and so his email address was in a directory to which I had access. He must have been apprehensive receiving a cold call via email from a stranger about chess because he told me he would have to think about my offer. Ultimately, he emailed me back, and we set up a schedule. He would coach me for a certain amount of cash for one hour of coaching each weekend.
We ended up meeting at a coffee house in midtown, going over my correspondence games. We would play a few moves then he would ask me why I made a specific move. It frustrated him that I could never give him an intelligent answer. I would often have comments next to my chess notations like “I’m boxed in” or “congested” or some other adjective, and he would show me ways to open up the board. Other times he would look at a particular move, asked me why I moved my piece there and when I would shrug my shoulders or say, “I couldn’t think of any other move to make,” he would sigh, “Look, if you are not going to put thought into each move you make maybe you should take up checkers.”
Usually, a comment like that would have made me tell him to eat shit and break off the arrangement, but I knew he was right. I should have thought through the moves, but I also felt outgunned by most of my opponents. James would often tell me how much time he puts into studying games so he wouldn’t lose his edge. He once told me when he split his free time between studying chess and studying Go (the ancient Chinese abstract strategy board game). James wasn’t respecting either game by splitting his time between the two and ultimately dropped Go. I could see why he was disgusted with my chess moves and my crappy excuses for making them, even though he accepted my money: he loved the game and thought I was disrespectful toward it.
During the few months James and I replayed my failing games, he felt I needed to learn and memorize three Opening Games: one when I play white and two when I play black. (Two openings for black because black reacts to white’s first move: one when white opens with the King’s Pawn (e4) and one when white opens with the Queen’s Pawn (d4) or any other first move except e4.) He gave me three books–one for each opening he wanted me to study and consign to memory. I remembered most of the first five or so moves of each of the openings, but the books, though thin, were a bit much for me to remember. James also gave me some other books on strategy. Some were books he found on sale, and one or two were books from his collection that he was happy to provide me with.
Of all the books I have on chess, the best one I ever had was Irving Chernev’s Logical Chess Move by Move: Every Move Explained. I bought this one on a hunch, and it paid off. It requires the reader to keep a chessboard out and go through the exercises. For a while, it improved my chess. I was still playing with my friend Angus when I was going through the book, and about halfway through it, I beat Angus three games in a row. It rattled my even-tempered Christian chess buddy because he told me he didn’t want to play anymore unless we played OTB. I never asked him if he thought I cheated. It didn’t affect our friendship. He’s such a nice person that I doubt he thought I was cheating but insisting that we play OTB could be construed that if I was going to beat him a fourth time, he wanted to make sure I did it without the assistance of a computer or a book to get suggested moves. After Angus and I stopped playing, I lost interest in chess and, in fact, donated most of my books on chess when my wife and I spent a weekend thinning out our bookshelves.
When Pawn Sacrifice came out, I got kind of excited about chess again. Also, Angus invited me to play him on our iPhones with the app Chess with Friends. Because it was so easy to play, we probably logged in more games than ever, but I didn’t get all crazy about chess that time around, and at some point, Angus called it quits. (This time, it wasn’t because I was winning; whatever skills I gained from the Chernev book were lost.) I was happy playing until one of us died, logging moves at our leisure seemingly forever, but he didn’t want to play that way, and when he stopped playing, I stopped, too.
Now that I’ve seen The Queen’s Gambit, I am, once again, interested in the Game of Kings. I started playing on the mobile app Chess with Friends again. I also downloaded other chess apps like Shredder Chess and Dr. Wolf. I decided to read David Shenk’s book on the history of chess, The Immortal Game, which was one of the few chess books that survived a general book purge my wife and I performed years ago to make space for newer titles, and have re-ordered the excellent Logical Chess. (Unfortunately, that title didn’t survive the purge.)
I don’t know how long chess will hold my interest this time around. Right now, I am just taking it slow and playing strangers on Chess with Friends. One of the frustrating things about limiting my chess games to this app is that singles are now using the app’s chat feature to meet prospective dates. The singles usually play horrible chess or never make the first move (a-hem). I am seriously considering signing up again with the USCF and playing in correspondence chess tournaments as I did back in the 1990s. Did I say I was “taking it slow”?