Chess With Dad

I don’t remember how old I was–maybe 11 or 12, but one day my dad decided that I needed to learn how to play chess. It’s hard to believe with my life now surrounded by board games that at some point I didn’t know how to play chess. It’s such a cultural mainstay that when I was trying to figure out a logo for this website my thoughts immediately went to chess, not because I particularly enjoy it (it’s fine) or play a lot (I don’t), but because it’s one of the most universal symbols not only for board games, but for strategic thought. As my dad explained what each of the pieces could do I remember immediately gravitating towards the knight, if only because it had the most unique skill set. Just last week, after following a random string of youtube videos, the origin of which I don’t remember, I found myself watching this video about knights. They’re still the best.

My dad explained that we would be taking our time with this particular game. That we needed to think multiple moves ahead and that I should really try to beat him. Sometimes, he explained, chess players will use clocks to force themselves to move more quickly. But we were going to take as long as necessary. So we began with our first tentative pawn moves. I think I pulled the knight into the fray on turn 2 because I didn’t see the point of pawns and it was the only piece cool enough to be able to jump over the others. After an early capture of one of my pieces I realized I did need to think through these moves intensely. Soon I was taking 5, 10, 15 minutes to think through all of the consequences before making any move, and so was my dad. We’d resume the game after dinner each night. I think it lasted about a week and a half.

Chess always feels like a game that needs to be respected, which is odd if you think about it. Sports have traditions and histories and loyalties. Gambling games are full of myth and superstition. But neither have the wise solemnity of chess. Some of that has to do with the iconography, I’m sure, and the knowledge that it’s a game much older than ourselves. But I think at the core it’s because when you sit down to play a game of chess, you’re not only playing against the person sitting opposite of you, but you’re playing against the game itself. It feels like it contains mysteries that neither player understands. While each progressive board state is the result of individual player decisions, at some point the total sum of those decisions seems to reach a state of independence. I suspect anyone sufficiently skilled at the game gets this feeling. I remember it from that game with my dad.

I don’t know why I listened to Maurice Ashley chess lectures on youtube for hours last week. I don’t really remember any of the knowledge he imparted about the game, and most of the time I had a difficult time keeping up with how quickly he and the audience were able to recognize certain facts about the board state. He’s a fantastic lecturer, for sure, and if there was some kind of official chess ambassador title he’d be a worthy candidate, but I don’t play chess. If I remember correctly the last actual game of chess I played was a couple of years ago against Orion, who beat me very quickly. Before that it was probably in high school. I remember once while at a hotel for a debate tournament I challenged this girl I was crushing on to a game of chess on a very large chessboard/table in the lobby. She beat me very quickly. It couldn’t have been more than 10 or 15 moves. While my pride was wounded a bit, I couldn’t help but find her skill very attractive. Right now we’re celebrating our 4th wedding anniversary. I’m not sure if we’ve played a game of chess since then. I wouldn’t mind losing again.

Why do certain memories stay in our mind so firmly? I have a horrible memory, generally. I hardly remember anything from before my teenage years. But this game of chess has remained with me. Maybe that’s because it’s so unique–I’m not sure if my dad and I ever played chess ever again. Maybe it’s because, in a weird narrative way, it touches on many of the themes of my life since then; thoughtful, deliberate action followed by unforeseen defeat. I’d be surprised if the brain works that way, but I do know our minds like to create narratives and stories out of even the most tenuous causal links. As much as I try to recognize the cognitive biases in my mind that fog accurate thought, I think I’ll indulge this time.

I don’t have any children yet, but someday I will, and I hope they enjoy playing board games with me. There are more difficult hobbies to try to involve children with, I suppose. I wonder if they’ll look back years later and remember any of the games we’ve played together. If my theory about memories sticking because of their uniqueness is true, maybe not (I plan to play a lot of games with them). I think my strategy will be to overcome this with relentless enthusiasm. If you talk to any of the students I’ve coached in debate they’ll tell you this is, in fact, my only teaching strategy. If all else fails, I think I’ll just assign games to them for school. We can learn all about the Cold War with Twilight Struggle, or the battles of WWII with Memoir ’44. I’ll teach them about marginal utility and economic principles of scarcity while watching them starve their families in Agricola. It’ll be a great time.

Last week I found out that my dad died. In recent years our relationship had shifted from hostility to some level of acceptance. We spoke a few times and caught up on life after years of silence. I don’t think he quite understood this board game thing I was doing. I doubt he’d played any of the games I have of my shelves. I’m not sure how much he would have liked them. His mind, like mine, was restless. While I find mental peace in the rules and strategies of games, I think he might have found them overwhelming. I’d understand, though. Our minds have always been similar.

I don’t know if my dad ever played chess after that game with me. I don’t think we ever played again. I don’t think he played in any other context. He played hearts every day at lunch with some work friends. I suspect it’s because of him that hearts is still my preferred trick-taking game.

At one point during our game I told him how frustrating it was that my own pawns always seemed to be in the way of what I wanted to do. How was I supposed to use my good pieces if everything was blocked by these useless pawns? Later, after he had checkmated me with two pawns, a bishop, and a knight, my dad chuckled and told me that I shouldn’t have underestimated them. They may seem insignificant at first, but they end up becoming more important than you had realized.


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2 thoughts on “Chess With Dad”

  1. Got to this article from your recent one about board game journalism. It’s a great piece! And yes, when I learned chess as an elementary schooler, the knights were definitely the coolest piece for me as well.

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