The Play's the Thing

by Peter Seibel

Awarded J. Edgar Meeker Memorial Prize for Nonfiction Writing, 1991 at Yale University

I cannot remember the first time I played chess. I do remember playing my dad a few times when I was very young. I was bored by how long he took to make his moves and I lost. Several years later, having forgotten the moves my dad had taught me, I decided that I wanted to know how to play. I got a big illustrated book out of the public library called Every Great Chess Player Was Once a Beginner. This book taught me the moves and some of the most basic elements of tactics and strategy using cartoon-style illustrations and simple language. It also explained why I should learn to play chess—if I was ever in the middle of nowhere and someone asked me if I played chess, I would be able to say “Yes,” instead of “No—but I play checkers.”

Several years later I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where in the center of town—Harvard Square—there is a restaurant with an outdoor cafe. Among the metal tables provided by the restaurant there is a row of five stone tables with inlaid chess boards. From early spring to late autumn there are always chess players at these tables, usually playing speed chess, a brand of chess where each player gets five minutes for all of his or her moves. Several of the regular players are professionals who play for two dollars a game, refund if you win or draw. The better of these players also give their opponents a time advantage, usually two to one.

Whenever I was in Harvard Square I would stop and watch the Chess Master—he always had the table nearest to the sidewalk and was the undisputed champ of the Harvard Square regulars. I didn’t understand the games but there was something which made it fascinating to watch. Doubtless part of it is esthetic. Good chess pieces are statues in wood, stone, or plastic and an experienced chess player handles the pieces with the same grace and surety as any artisan who makes his living with his hands. Some players gently slide the pieces from square to square; others snatch the pieces up and snap them down into the center of the square with a satisfying thunk.

But the physical esthetics of the game are only a secondary attraction: an expression of the refined, peaceful side of chess players’ nature. The central appeal of chess is much more primitive—primitive both in the sense of more natural and in the sense of less civilized. Chess is commonly used as a metaphor to suggest careful manipulation, long range planning, and often a more intellectual side to something than you might expect: (TV Sportscaster) “For the coaches on the sideline the Super Bowl is a big chess game, wouldn’t you say Bob?” But this metaphor, in emphasizing the intellectual, misses the equally important visceral side to chess. Chess is not an academic exercise. It is a fierce competition—a competition on the battlefield of reason and creativity. And as our reason and creativity are the things that set us apart from other animals, you could say that chess is a competition on the battlefield of our humanity. No big league baseball pitcher, seeing the batter send a pitch over the right-field wall in the ninth inning, ever had his stomach tighten into a more agonizingly tight knot than the one that grips a grandmaster when he suddenly sees the full implications of his opponent’s plan and realizes all is lost.

Chess is single combat in the sense used by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. Wolfe was speaking of fighter pilots in dog fights, and astronauts risking their lives riding several tons of high explosives into space, but chess is perhaps an even better example of true single combat. Unlike pilots who depend on teams of mechanics and technicians to prepare their planes, chess players, facing each other over the board, have only the knowledge in their minds. Furthermore, in chess there are no unforeseeable circumstances and thus no excuses. If your opponent comes up with an unexpected winning move, it is only because he or she was more perceptive than you.

Perhaps the ultimate single warrior was Bobby Fischer. Only a few years after the American astronauts Wolfe wrote about were done challenging the Soviet cosmonauts to single combat in the heavens above, Fischer, a chess player, became America’s hero when he earned the right to challenge the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky to single combat over the board in the 1972 World Championship. Spassky, who described chess with the simile, “Chess is like life,” lost to Fischer who opted for the stronger metaphor, “Chess is life.”

Even among lesser players such as the ones I watched in Harvard Square, there is the same sort of intensity; the feeling that chess is a true test of something—intelligence, nerve, moxie, and perhaps most important, the sheer power of one’s will to win. Like the fighter pilots in The Right Stuff, who are misunderstood by non-flyers, chess players are greatly misunderstood by the general public, who see chess players as calculating machines, churning through hideously long chains of “if I do that and he does that and then I do that…” reasoning.

This misconception arises because so many people did, at one point, learn how to play chess. Probably, like me in my first encounter with chess, they learned the rules, played a few games, and decided that chess is too boring. When they played, they reasoned out their moves, as do all beginners, in a sequence of if-then steps. The problem seemed to be one of keeping track of all the possibilities and not making any mistakes. Some people imagine that you can “solve” chess, that is analyze every possibility and find a sequence of moves that always wins. Fortunately for professional chess players this is impossible, even with a computer the size of the universe you couldn’t calculate every possibility as there are many more ways to get through a chess game than the estimated number of atoms in the universe. When the beginner then tries to imagine how a better player would play, he or she can only imagine doing the same thing only better, the same way the difference between a professional baseball player and a little leaguer is one of degree. The pro can throw faster, hit the ball more often, and make more spectacular catches, but there is no fundamental difference in what he is doing and what the little leaguer does. Unfortunately—both for the beginners, most of whom will never know the true beauty of chess, and for professional grandmasters, who are unappreciated by the general public (unless they live in the former Soviet Union)—as spectacular as the mental feat is that the beginner imagines, the reality is even more amazing. I am personally nowhere near the level of the top players, but since I first picked up Every Great Chess Player Was Once a Beginner my own understanding of chess has grown at least to the point where I can understand roughly what it is that grandmasters do and what makes chess beautiful, beyond its physical esthetics and competitive qualities.

Just as you can not really appreciate a musical concert by reading a review, to truly understand the deeper beauty in chess it is necessary to learn to play it oneself. But if you are willing to follow an explanation of how one learns to play decent chess, you might be able, I hope, to appreciate some of its beauty. You will probably not, however, improve your game by reading this. (If you want to become a grandmaster you shouldn’t be reading this—you should be playing chess.)

The first step beyond simply calculating strings of moves is to learn a few of the more common tactics. These have picturesque names like “the skewer,” “the pin,” and “the fork.” They are ways of reaching short-term goals, such as capturing a piece. (As in warfare, tactics are the short-term skirmishes; strategy is long-term planning.) Each tactic can be used only when there is a certain arrangement of pieces on the board. Learning to recognize these patterns is the first step away from thinking in strings of moves. Now, instead of huge if-then strings, you can look for patterns of pieces that can be exploited by a certain tactic. For example, if your opponent has an undefended knight in a line with his or her king you can try and get one of your rooks on the same line, attacking the knight. Because the knight is pinned (a piece is pinned when moving it would expose a more valuable piece to attack,) and undefended, you will win it. Of course you will not always find patterns of this sort ready-made. Perhaps the knight in this example is defended. But still you are not reduced to if-then strings. Because you see the potential pin you can set a subsidiary short-term goal: drive away the defender. In essence, this is how you get better at chess: you find more and better ways to set goals. Then instead of judging possible moves in a vacuum, you can judge them by whether they will help you realize your goals.

The next set of tools for setting goals are the principles of the opening, or the beginning of the game. These principles are: try and establish a hold on the center of the board; don’t make too many pawn moves; move out as many of your pieces as possible before you start attacking; and move out your pieces in reverse order of their value. If you learn these principles, they will automatically help you play somewhat smarter, but to really expand your goal-making capabilities you must learn the reasons behind them. You want to control the center because from there you will be able to quickly launch attacks to anywhere on the board, whereas if all your pieces are on one side of the board it will take too long to get them to the other side for defense or for offense. Too many pawn moves are bad because they break up the natural defensive wall formed by the pawns in their original position as well as wasting time better spent developing your other pieces. Finally a valuable piece brought out early in the game is susceptible to attack, forcing you to move it again instead of bringing out another piece. Soon all your opponent’s pieces will be out, ready to attack, while most of yours will be left on their original squares doing nothing.

This is a simplified explanation of opening principles, but if you learn them, they will give you goals in the beginning of the game, and will leave you with better possibilities for attack later. After the basic opening principles, most players learn at least one or two of the famous openings. These are combinations of opening moves which usually proceed along standard paths for about twenty to thirty moves before the players are on their own. A grandmaster will have memorized several openings in detail, knowing virtually all the possible complications and pitfalls, both for himself and for his opponent. He will also be familiar with the themes of all the other major openings. Opening theory is the biggest area of study for chess players, including grandmasters, who are always searching for new openings and novelties, moves that haven’t been used before in a certain opening. And there is a lot of material to study—the aptly titled Encyclopedia of Chess Openings is five volumes of tight print and is supplemented with a monthly magazine that has the move lists of all the major tournament and match games played in international competition. Of course neither player is obligated to follow any opening so most of the standard lines give both players fairly even chances. It is only when your opponent doesn’t really know an opening or when you can come up with a novelty that a large advantage can be gained in the opening. Normally, you can’t win the game in the opening, but you can certainly lose it. Also, being able to classify games by their opening helps players to keep track of different games in their minds. For example, Bobby Fischer, talking to a friend after a twenty-game speed chess tournament, was able to recite every game he had just played.

The final type of goals that you need to be aware of are strategic. These goals, such as having one of your pieces in enemy territory on a square where you can easily protect it, will improve your long-term chances. Other examples of strategic goals are having a good placement of your pawns and controlling open (free of pawns) columns with your rooks and queen, which allows you to quickly launch an attack into your opponent’s territory. Usually achieving these goals is the most important and the hardest part of any game. Grandmasters use opening theory and tactics usually not as ends in themselves but as means of achieving strategic goals.

These strategic goals lead us to the last major way of thinking. The same way the beginner needs to learn to switch his or her attention from strings of moves to patterns of pieces, the intermediate player needs to switch from looking at patterns on parts of the board to looking at the whole board as one big pattern. In chess, the word “position” refers to arrangement of all the pieces on the board, and the highest form of chess thinking is called thinking positionally, though at high levels it is less thinking than a highly developed intuition. Grandmasters have an intuitive sense of chess positions. They can look at a position, meaning an arrangement of pieces on the whole board, and instantaneously assess which player has better chances to win as well as seeing one or two potential best moves. In most cases this initial assessment will be correct. This is what enables grandmasters to play huge simultaneous exhibitions—an event where a grandmaster plays against more than one opponent at the same time—such as the world record setting 1941 performance by the Swedish Grandmaster Gideon Stahsberg who played four hundred opponents, winning three hundred sixty-four games, drawing fourteen, and losing only twenty-two. This effort took thirty-six hours, which means Stahsberg had an average of five to ten seconds per move.

Serious games are played at a slower pace because the initial assessment is sometimes wrong. Especially when a novelty is introduced, the players again have to calculate strings of moves. It is not uncommon for a player to think more than an hour on an extremely important move, cycling through hundreds of possible lines. But there is an important difference between this sort of calculating and the if-then strings of the beginner. A grandmaster calculates by making a move in his mind, visualizing the whole board, and using his intuition to evaluate the position. From the hundreds of positions he evaluates, he picks the one that gives him the best chances and then makes the move that starts down the line to that position.

Where a beginner looks at a position and sees only chaos and impenetrably complex strings of moves, a grandmaster looks and immediately sees which moves will realize tactical goals, which ones will continue the theme of the opening, and which ones will achieve strategic goals. What strategic goals he chooses to pursue make up his overall plan. Once a grandmaster adopts a basic plan, he rarely changes it. He can see the idea of his opponent’s plan as his opponent can see the idea of his. But neither player can see all the way to the end of both plans to know which will ultimately be stronger. When top players play, the game is like a fugue with its interacting lines combining in interesting ways. The old saw, “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game,” could have been invented by a chess player. This is the true esthetic of chess. A game is made beautiful by the interaction between the two plans; the mazes of tactical complications; the unforeseen consequences of a truly brilliant move; and finally the realization of the stronger, more elegantly conceived plan. The winner is an artist—and grandmasters do consider themselves artists—not because he wins but because he wins with beauty.