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April 11, 2011

>One of the four books I brought along to Walker’s chess tournament this weekend, the Ohio high school championship, was Stefan Zweig’s novella entitled, simply, Chess.  I had read about it at Farm Lane Books and probably some other blogs, too, but as usual I can’t remember which ones.  Anyway, it sounded like a good addition to my chess tournament book pile, a kind of psychological thriller that had to do with a game of chess.

I pulled it out at the end of the first evening, when I was looking for something new to distract me from the nail-biting end of a long game that eventually turned out to be a draw.  It took me twenty or thirty minutes to read the entire novella, and afterwards I had time to sit there amid the empty tables set with chessboards, still waiting for the outcome of one of the last three games in the room.

One of the things I’ve said about chess recently that earned me the stern, nodding agreement of my resident chess expert is that it’s a little bit like law, in that if you know the precedent, you can use that to win.  The resident chess expert (I’m using the term “expert” in a technical sense, as he’s now rated 2065 by the U.S. Chess Federation and therefore falls into that category; only “master” is higher) reads a lot of books about chess, so he has an advantage over other young players who may have had more experience playing games.  He can look at algebraic and other kinds of chess notations and picture a chess game, and he’s learned to see the results of many possible moves all the way to the end game.  This is fairly routine for chess players at his level.

So when I read Zweig’s story about a man who, in solitary confinement by the Gestapo, finds a chess book and teaches himself to picture the board and all the possible moves by players on each side, it did not strike me as terribly odd.  That it drives him to a state he calls “chess poisoning” did strike me as a little odd, but perhaps not under the circumstances.  The interest of the book, for me, ended up being in its historical significance, not in terms of what it had to say about chess.

There were a couple of interesting and, I thought, accurate observations for laypeople:
“I learned to understand the subtleties of the game, the tricks and ruses of attack and defence, I grasped the technique of thinking ahead, combination, counter-attack, and soon I could recognize the personal style of every grandmaster as infallibly from his own way of playing a game as you can identify a poet’s verses from only a few lines.”

This is certainly true, even at the high school level; each player knows his opponents and has studied their moves in previous games.  Sitting in a room with high school chess players yesterday, I overheard a conversation that included the information that “so-and-so usually opens with King’s Indian,” which is a series of moves that has its own name and methods of counter-attack.

The other interesting bit, for me, was one that echoed my situation as I read the passage:
“But to be perfectly honest, the gradual development of the situation was something of a disappointment to us laymen, as it is in every real tournament game. For the more the chessmen became interlocked in a strange, intricate formation, the more impenetrable did the real state of affairs seem to us. We couldn’t tell what either of the opponents intended, or which of the two really held the advantage. We just noticed individual pieces being advanced like levers to break through the enemy front, but we were unable–since with these first-class players every movement was always combined several moves in advance–to see the strategic intention in all this toing and froing.”

I was told (by other players) that the draw at the end of the day was slightly disappointing for Walker, since he had a “superior position” for most of the game and was “ahead on time.”  His opponent, however, did not make any mistakes.

The only thing I can ever tell about Walker’s game when I walk into the tournament room is that if he’s walking up and down and smiling, he has a–sometimes momentary–advantage.  If he’s sitting down holding his head in his hands and looking stern, it’s business as usual. As in poker, good players put on a “chess face.” And parents try to strike the right balance between supporting the tournament play and letting the players alone.

Walker played good chess all weekend.   He drew with the highest-rated player (a 12th-grader who speaks Russian to his chess teacher) and they were both in a 5-way tie for first, which was decided according to an arcane and precise method of “tie-breaker” points, according to which the 12th-grader came in first, and Walker came in second. His friend who went into this tournament with the exact same rating and who shares the Ohio 10th-grade championship with him, came in third. Walker has an embarrassingly big trophy and is happy because he played well, winning four games and drawing two.  

After the awarding of the trophy, we went out to dinner with the family of Walker’s chess student, Joe, and Walker replayed one of his games at the restaurant table to show Joe what happened and why.  Then we drove home, and Eleanor played a song from the musical “Chess” in Walker’s honor so we could all sing along: “one town’s very like another when your head’s down over your pieces, brother.”

21 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2011 11:43 am

    >Congratulations to Walker. The combination of mathematics, visualization, strategy and psychology in chess is fascinating to me. I can never imagine myself memorizing so many patterns of moves, but I love their poetic names. AJ and I used to make up mock chess names (The Dubuque opening, The Arkansas Traveller, The King's Bunion, etc.)

  2. April 11, 2011 12:14 pm

    >Harriet, I like the names, too, enough I don't feel the need to make them up: the fried liver attack, the Frankenstein Dracula opening, Tiger's Rat, the Accelerated Dragon and Accelerated Hippo…these are all real.

  3. April 11, 2011 12:23 pm

    >Congrats to Walker!

  4. April 11, 2011 1:54 pm

    >Accelerated Hippo?!-lemming

  5. April 11, 2011 2:17 pm

    >You know I'm an online gamer and in one of the instances in the game I play, there's a chess game. Players control the pieces on one side and the AI controls the other side. Thing is, the bad guy you're trying to defeat cheats. I thought of Walker yesterday when we were farting around doing that encounter. I don't think Tiger's Rat would work there 🙂

  6. April 11, 2011 5:25 pm

    >This is fascinating. Have you ever thought about writing a novel about being a chess mom?

  7. April 11, 2011 5:57 pm

    >I know absolutely zilch about chess but congrats to Walker! That's impressive.

  8. April 11, 2011 6:13 pm

    >Congratulations Walker! I'm so pleased that you read this book at a chess tournament – I hope that you persuaded a few of the other players to give it a try 🙂 I have since heard that the technical aspects of this book are not perfect, but as I know very little about chess I didn't spot that. I wonder if Walker would?

  9. April 11, 2011 10:42 pm

    >PAJ, FreshHell, and Jackie, I will pass the congratulations on.Lemming, it's real.Elizabeth, so the AI is the bad guy? There's a recent NYT article on Magnus Carlsen that talks about computers in chess.Trapunto, no I haven't thought of that! I've read the book by Josh Waitzken's dad, though, Searching for Bobby Fischer.Jackie, I'm sure Walker would, and he's taken the book into his room, so I may hear about it soon.

  10. April 12, 2011 1:51 am

    >I'm impressed with your son. Chess is so alien and mysterious to me…like they are speaking a different language.

  11. April 12, 2011 11:31 am

    >Jenners, it does have its own vocabulary. I find the experience of being in a room with people speaking chess to be much like the experience of being in a room with people speaking math.

  12. April 12, 2011 1:54 pm

    >Jeanne, no the AI is the game itself. It runs the opposite side's pieces. I should also add in that the pieces move like normal chess pieces but they also have extra abilities to fight. So for example, you move your pawn (orc) and then you fight the piece in front of you. The bad guy is also run by the game but he's sort of officiating the game and he cheats by sending down random fire on various pieces. If you can't move the piece you are controlling because you're blocked in, that piece ends up dying.

  13. April 12, 2011 2:40 pm

    >Elizabeth, that game sounds like it would be annoying to real chess players, kind of like serious poker players who don't admit when they pull off a successful bluff.

  14. April 12, 2011 4:30 pm

    >Wow, what a chess themed weekend! Congrats to Walker!

  15. April 12, 2011 11:40 pm

    >Alyce, we often have chess themed weekends…I'll pass on your congrats.

  16. April 13, 2011 12:08 am

    >An impressive weekend for Walker! It sounds like he has great things in store for him. I had no idea the world of chess was so competitive.

  17. April 13, 2011 12:15 am

    >Kathy, it is quite competitive. But also quite small and friendly. When we were in Chicago after Christmas visiting family, we met some people we know from chess tournaments in a pizza restaurant. "Are you here for chess?" they asked, and we said no, just sightseeing!

  18. April 16, 2011 3:05 pm

    >The fried liver attack really is tough to beat. The day AJs chess coach introduced it to the class, they couldn't stop giggling.

  19. April 17, 2011 2:52 pm

    >Harriet, it was the first one Walker recited when I asked him for attacks with funny names!

  20. November 15, 2018 5:55 pm

    I like the quotes you included from Zweig’s book in your post. It is clearly a book which is about much more than simply chess, but people’s motivations and the sorrows that they have within them which may contribute to the bigger “game” of life.

    • November 15, 2018 10:04 pm

      Yes, it was something of a revelation when I realized that there are people who think of stuff like political strategy the way these guys think of chess. As Zweig describes it “every movement was always combined several moves in advance.”

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