A game that grabs your attention

July 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a week of playing chess, I’m pretty hooked. I was having drinks with a friend the other night and she asked me what it was about the game I liked.

There are two things I like about chess that I can tell will keep me playing:

1) You learn something new just about every time you play. You can spend the rest of your life playing and never fully know the game. It’s always interesting because there are so many possible iterations. Through this project, I like finding things I can continually learn from over the course of my life. Roasting coffee is like that. Learning about the nuance of wine is a life-long endeavor.

2) It makes you sharper. I used to think it would be taxing mentally because it requires so much concentration but it’s actually more like meditation. When you walk into a game of chess you may be wrestling with a lot of different thoughts across different facets of your life. Chess completely blocks everything out, it focuses you on problem solving and when you’re done playing, your mind is re-calibrated to think in terms of possible solutions. Stanley Kubrick put it well: “Chess helps you develop patience and discipline in choosing between alternatives at a time when an impulsive decision seems very attractive.”

There is a quality to chess that mirrors life in so many ways. It’s not hard to see why it has had such a firm grip on so many people. Marcel Duchamp gave up making art for a time at the height of his career to focus on playing chess. He saw chess as a true art form: “I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”

Humphrey Bogart made a living off street chess during the Depression before he became the iconic actor we know today. When interviewed later in life asking what mattered most to him, he replied that chess was one of the most important things to him.

Chess may have lost a bit of its luster in popular culture with the onslaught of video games, apps and other distractions, but it is still alive and well.  I imagine it will continue to thrive long after Angry Birds has come and gone. If anything apps and online gaming allow more people to get into the game and find people to play with.

I just need to taper back my playing a bit or I’ll be heading into Duchamp territory. I still have more weeks to do.

Neighborhood gathering

July 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

If you happen to live in NYC, finding a good game of chess is almost as easy as finding a Starbucks. The chess mecca is not only home to great street chess but also to institutions like the Marshall Club in Greenwich Village. You can play chess in the spot where Bobby Fischer won the “Game of the Century” at age 13. Other members have included Howard Stern and Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick went from chess street hustler to launching his film career through contacts he made playing chess there. He then went on to pay tribute to the game over the course of his iconic films.

If you live in Boulder, options are a bit more limited, but there are options nonetheless! This week I visited the Boulder Chess Club’s weekly play at the CU campus. The crew was more than welcoming to a newbie like me. It was a good learning experience watching the various skill levels as well as fun to listen to the dry-wit banter being tossed about almost mirroring the games themselves. Julian, an expert rated player/physics grad student, even evoked a little Jay-Z: “I got 99 problems but a bishop ain’t one.”

While I wasn’t at a point I could play a real game against someone yet, the people there were both eager to teach me and patient in answering my questions. That is one of the incredibly unique things about chess. It can bring people from all walks of life to a table to learn from each other.

Maybe we should set out some chessboards on Capitol Hill as Congress continues to flounder in reaching some sort of compromise. Who knows what might happen!


Breaking it down from the beginning

July 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

A lot of us just want to dive into things in life and believe we can hold our own by some God-given talent. When I was in college, I went skiing for the first time with some friends and they gave me a few pointers, pointed me down a blue slope (an icy, NC blue slope) and I was on my way. A very fast, scary and out-of-control way it was. The problem was that I had no familiarity with skiing, so the pointers did me no good. My friend’s boyfriend caught up and grabbed me right before I went through a fence and into a ravine. I didn’t put skis on again for a good 15 years.

Chess is not necessarily that life threatening (although there are numerous historical examples of chess games averting real-life battles) but without fully understanding what you’re getting into, you can easily find yourself completely out of control. Earlier in the year when I did Wintering Week I took a ski lesson for the first time and it was like night and day. I slowly became acclimated to what it feels like to maintain control on skis and only progressed when I was comfortable. With chess, instead of diving in with the same reckless manner as when I first tried to ski, I decided to start with a lesson and slowly, patiently break it down from the beginning.

There are quite a few resources for learning to play chess in Colorado. Yesterday I had my first lesson with Paul Szeligowski who teaches chess full time to people of all ages and skill levels. He just finished up with a Summer camp teaching K-12 and his teaching has led to numerous state champions. Now he’s stuck with me for an hour or so a week!

I really enjoyed my lesson yesterday. It helps to have someone who can start from the beginning (with the patience of a teacher) and help you progress at your speed. As any good teacher would do, I have been assigned homework! Paul talks about learning chess like learning a language. You have to learn words, construct sentences and practice speaking.

In chess “words & sentences” are tactics and to start out I am learning tactics from Back to Basics: Tactics by Dan Heisman. As defined by the book, tactics have two key definitions:

1 – “The science of piece safety”

2- “Forced maneuvers leading to the gain of material or checkmate.”

I think many people that just get in and play focus on offensive moves vs focusing equally on preventing tactics being used on them. Learning tactics can help prevent that weakness by learning to recognize when someone else is employing a tactic on you. I have a feeling it will be much like it was learning to work in a corporate work environment! You don’t just have yourself to contend with but what others do as well.

As with learning the vocabulary of a language, with chess it’s good to learn the vocabulary of the pieces in terms of how they move with the board. Paul suggests starting with the Pawn Game to understand first how pawns move on the board. The goal is to be first to reach the last rank (other side of the board). Once you are familiar with pawns you can start adding other pieces and getting a feel for how each piece moves on the board. I really like this approach because I find it hard to try to learn what each piece does all at once.

My next lesson is tomorrow, so I have some homework to get done.

Finally ready to learn

July 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

I bought this marble chess set 15 years ago when I was on a summer study program in Mexico. It was one of those spontaneous tourist purchases you find yourself lugging back and questioning afterward. I suppose I rationalized that everyone should own a chess set and I’d get around to learning one day. This set has seemed to follow me around over the years remaining un-played. I moved with it quite a few times and then conveniently left it in my old bedroom closet at my parents’ house.

A few months ago my Mom was cleaning out said closet and came upon a bunch of stuff that she thought she would return to its rightful owners. My sisters also had left wanted, yet momentarily unwanted, items stowed there. A box showed up at my door with my letter jacket from high school, the wayward chess set and a few other things I didn’t need but yet couldn’t seem to give away.

Chess has always been on a slow simmer in the back of my mind as a game I should play but I never actually wanted to start learning. I saw it as a slippery slope that would occupy a serious amount of mental energy…energy I was more interested in putting elsewhere. In many ways I felt like my job in advertising was like living chess, from the more obvious aspect of my job as a strategist to simply trying to create a sense of order from the chaotic environment that is advertising. The last thing I felt like doing with my time off was more thinking.

I think chess is a game you have to be ready to learn. Sure you can jump in and just have fun with it if you like, but if you want to play the way it is meant to be played, you need to be ready to spend time learning how to play. I think the re-emergence of my old chess set on my doorstep was another invitation and this time I’m ready to start learning.

I’ve already looked into a few resources to learn and have been reading a great book the past couple days, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Science, and the Human Brain by David Shenk. This week I not only want to learn how to play but also understand why chess has managed to have such a widespread cultural impact through the centuries. Angry Birds can only dream of having this kind of track record.

To learn how to play I contacted a local teacher who hosts chess summer camps and teaches private lessons to pick up the basics of the game. The Boulder Chess Club also gets together every Wednesday evening to play, so I’ll be visiting them to see some games in action.

If anyone has any good resources, please send them my way!

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