Chess is getting a bit of a resurgence right now thanks to the miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, and the original novel by Walter Tevis which had been out of print is also getting a bit of a resurgence, not to mention new editions. As a billiards fan I know that Tevis is also author of The Hustler and I wonder if there’s a chance for a comeback for eight-ball, although that could lead to trouble in River City, but that’s another story.
I tried chess but I don’t think I ever had the right mind for it. For a while we had a chess program on our home computer, and I quickly learned that playing chess against a computer was an exercise in futility. The game was advanced enough that it had levels of difficulty and the first level, the only one I could ever win, had a very simple strategy: bloodbath. The computer and I took turns taking out each other’s pieces until finally whichever one had the most left would pin the opposing king into a corner. It didn’t require thinking beyond more than a move or two ahead. Level 2 was real chess, serious chess and it was frustrating but also kind of fascinating to watch the computer develop a strategy and advance it relentlessly no matter what I did, and in the opening moves it would flash names on the screen like Alekhine’s Defense, The Venice Attack, The Corbomite Maneuver, The Hofstadter Insufficiency, or The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.
Before that, when I was a kid, I also played chess, mostly because we had chess and checkers sets in our classrooms at school, and while I sucked at checkers the intricacies of chess somehow gave me enough of an advantage that I could beat most of my friends in a game of bloodbath–I got my kicks by going for a vein, Charlemagne. While it was a babysitter who taught me the basics of chess a lot of those games with my friends were prompted a book about chess that came into the school library when I was in fifth grade. It was a fun introduction to the rules and rhythms of the game but it was the illustrations that really got me. The pieces were drawn as individual people in elaborate faux-medieval costumes and weapons. The pawns were brawny guys with heavy clubs, the bishops wielded morning stars, which seemed out of character for priests but, hey, this was warfare. The rooks stood on top of wheeled towers, the queens looked haughty, and the kinds were, well, kind of dopey and scared.
The pictures inspired me to start writing a play about chess. And I’d just like to point out that this was years before Murray Head teamed up with ABBA, although my version wasn’t a musical. It didn’t have much of a plot either: it was just two aggressive kingdoms, Black and White, facing off against each other and making threats before the bloodbath finale that left all the players dead. I didn’t have an ending planned when I started and I realized as it went on I’d written myself into a corner; all I could come up with was an unstageable final scene of the players dumped into a box and the board folded up which, admittedly, ain’t a bad allegory for the Cold War.
For some reason that year I wrote a lot of plays in fifth grade. In addition to the chess play I wrote an adaptation of Alice In Wonderland and a weird one about a haunted pancake restaurant and an even weirder one about a warlock and his minions. None of them ever got performed, although I do wonder if my life would have taken a different direction if I’d ever gone to a school with anything resembling a theater department. Most of them were really too elaborate to be produced. The chess play’s ending was just part of the problem. It would have also required sixteen performers and in a class of twenty kids that wouldn’t leave much of an audience.
What I realized, too, was that what interested me about chess was never the game itself but the players. For all that it’s considered a game of cool logic and intellect chess players are serious, passionate. The fictional games in The Queen’s Gambit are a mere backdrop to the story of a young woman coming of age, and real games like Bobby Fischer versus Boris Spassky in 1972 played out a miniature version of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union while a very real bloodbath raged in Vietnam. The only difference is the real game never ends.