Reality Checkmate

Posted on December 14, 2011

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I recently learned that there are people who have made a career out of playing video games. They earn money at this, and compete in front of large crowds. This was shocking to me at first, because shooting at imaginary characters while sneaking around and climbing through rubble doesn’t seem like a marketable skill. But some of my own early plans almost took me in a similar direction. Of course, video games didn’t yet exist; in fact, in those days electricity was still widely considered to be the work of the devil.

My goal was to become a grandmaster of chess. I’ve never told anyone this before, except my cat, and she knew how to keep her mouth shut. But I’m telling you because I trust you, and I know that if you’re going to laugh at me you’ll do it behind my back, like a real friend.

Grandmaster. It’s a glorious word. It sounds like grandmother, with the added privilege of being obnoxious and self-centered. I had assumed there was just a handful of such players in the world, but there are actually about thirteen hundred of them, which is quite a lot, if you think about it. By comparison, there are only fifty governors in the United States, and many of them seem to end up in prison, or pretending to be journalists.

Here’s a really elite group: the Blackjack Hall of Fame. It has just seventeen members! Blackjack, as you probably know, is a card game requiring players to be able to add and subtract numbers that total twenty-one. It’s much less complicated than chess, and there was a brief time when I thought about becoming a professional blackjack player. Then I found out that blackjack players were also professional gamblers, a career that requires a lot of money, and I didn’t have any. Plus, there had to be a catch, because the game seemed too simple, and how would I ever discover the secret? I was pretty sure that people who made their living in casinos weren’t going to spill the beans to some amateur looking to horn in on their action.

I could have entered Scrabble tournaments, I suppose, but you had to know a lot of weird words, such as GID, which is a disease common among sheep, and ZOEA, the larval stage of crustaceans. It occurred to me that I could practically memorize the dictionary and still lose in the semi-finals to some Biology major on a lucky streak. And I wanted nothing to do with Bingo, Uno, Yahtzee, or any of those others that required you to yell out the name of the game in order to win. That seemed like artificial excitement to me. The Super Bowl champions don’t jump up and down and scream “Football!” after scoring the winning touchdown.

So I turned to chess. It was quieter, and there was less chance of embarrassment, or ending up face-down in an alley with broken kneecaps.

Around the same time, personal computers were becoming popular, and some even came with software installed on them. One of my first computers had a game called Chessmaster. This, I was sure, was some kind of sign. I began playing several times a day. One of the nice features of Chessmaster was that you could select your opponent’s skill level. There were ten levels back then, with Newcomer being the easiest to defeat. Newcomer wasn’t just inexperienced at chess; he seemed to be unconscious. Just above that was Novice, which I believe was really Newcomer with a slightly better vocabulary. Then there was a player who seemed to be constantly distracted by something — maybe a chipmunk walking past the window — because he’d just make random moves that were so bad, even I could tell. I beat all three of these lowest-level opponents with great consistency, and eventually worked my way up to challenging the Chessmaster. At that level, I would spend fifteen minutes pondering every possible move, and then my opponent would take his turn so fast that I couldn’t even tell which piece had been played. It always gave me the feeling that he’d known what I was going to do, even before I did. This was intimidating. Also, the Chessmaster had an irritating habit of laughing out loud when he won, which was every game we played.

There are specific opening moves in chess, with names like the Queen’s Gambit and the Latvian Gambit. This word, gambit, sounds like something cute a baby clown would do, if there were baby clowns. But in truth, gambits are designed to humiliate you, right out of the box. I was already familiar with humiliation. A friend and I used to play chess a lot in high school, during lunch or study periods. He once beat me in three moves. To be really good at chess, I concluded, you have to be Russian or have a mustache or be out of your mind. I did grow a mustache in senior year, but it didn’t seem to help.The thing about chess is that you need to pay attention. My mind tends to wander, and inevitably my opponent’s bishop will sail across the board from another solar system and take my queen. When that happens, I always say the same, revealing thing: “Wow. I didn’t see that coming.” At this point, I can almost feel the other player relaxing. But the computer introduced a totally new element: You can undo your last move. This is what’s been missing in chess for centuries. The Do-Over. When I was a young stickball player, we could call a Do-Over for any number of reasons: the sun was in our eyes, the ball hit a pebble, we weren’t ready, there was a car coming, we thought someone yelled for time-out, third base was on fire, or we just wanted to talk about last night’s episode of My Favorite Martian. But chess had this ridiculous rule that once you moved a piece and took your hand away and got up to make yourself a sandwich and ate it and drank a big glass of ginger ale and went to the bathroom and came back and saw the insane way you’d left your king exposed, that it was too late and you were stuck with the move.

Here’s the weird thing. When I decided to become a grandmaster, I went out and bought a bunch of books. These were written by chess experts, and all claimed they could help me improve my performance. I studied diagrams, tried to solve chess puzzles, and examined theories in order to get a feel for tactics, strategies, and the art of the game. I rented videos of classic matches, hoping that I could learn to think like a master by watching them in action. (This proved to be another source of frustration, because chess players frequently resign rather than face checkmate. Almost always, they would do this while I was still trying to figure out who was winning.) And the more I read, the worse I got. I must have been thinking too hard, or not hard enough, or I was spending too much time wondering why the knights looked so much like horses. My skills, paltry to begin with, leaked out of me and evaporated into the air. I knew my dream was doomed when I found myself losing to Newcomer on a regular basis.

I don’t go near the chess board much anymore. In fact, I’ll only play against the cat. She’s pretty good, but her mind wanders even more than mine. When she gets up to make herself a sandwich, I steal her rook and hide it under the couch, and she never seems to notice. I call it the Meow Gambit.

Once in a while I consider pursuing some other career, but what? I don’t like climbing through rubble, I refuse to yell Yahtzee, and I’m far too feeble-minded to succeed at blackjack. Maybe I’ll run for governor.

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Posted in: In Over My Head