After discovering everything he was taught about chess to be wrong, Brendan goes on a quest to learn the game properly, in this special feature on the ancient pastime.
Brendan: Amar moves his knight to c6 and I feel my lungs seize up. It is my first game of chess against another human being in over 10 years and remembering to breathe has become a problem.
When I first arrived at the chess club, hidden away on the shadowy second floor of an old school hall, like some secret society, Amar greeted me with a kind smile and a friendly handshake. He had a soft voice and an Einstein moustache. Now he is moving his knight to c6. Sometimes Amar makes his moves slowly, thoughtfully. Other times, he takes seconds, as if the order of play was pre-ordained and he was just there in some formal capacity as piecemover. What else can I say about Amar? Oh yes. He is destroying me.
Halfway through the game and his knight is running all over the place. There is intense pressure on the kingside, where I have nestled my king into a foxhole made of pawns. Both Amar’s bishops and the queen are focusing in on my turtled monarch like a triple barrelled laser. Meanwhile, that knight galivants about the board, picking up a pawn there, a rook here. Finally, I manage to shut it down, launching my second rook at it like a breezeblock. But the damage is done. Amar is methodically cutting off every possible avenue of attack or escape. Both his rooks come out, like a pair of crooked cops in a buddy cop movie. Piece by piece I shrink like a fading empire. The rooks slowly and efficiently dismantle the hutch I have created for my king and trap him in a corner. The cops always get their man.
Wait. How did this happen? How did I even get here?
When I was ten years old (eleven? twelve?) my dad procured a chess board from wherever it is parents procure things and brought it out to teach my brother and I the old and noble game. I don’t remember exactly the day but I remember we were in County Donegal, staying in a grey holiday house that was so doused by Irish drizzle that it seemed to suffer from something I had learned in my geography class to be called ‘erosion’. My dad opened a wooden box and taught us where the pieces go on the board. Next, he taught us the movements. The knight was obviously the best piece because it moved, he said, in an L-shape, which probably reminded him of a sidewinder snake, or a sneaky guerilla freedom fighter. My father grew up on the streets of West Belfast and is, to this day, a fan of using guile over strength to win any encounter. You must admit, given this background, that the evasive, slippery horse of the chess board has a lot of appeal.
As the day wore on, we learned the rest of the game. The holiday continued and the chess games came and went with the rain. I do not remember being particularly blown away by the game. But at the time I was not particularly blown away by any activity that did not involve drawing velociraptors on A2 sheets of paper and hanging them from every wall in the house. Nevertheless, we played, mostly my brother and I. Arguments did little to clear up the rules we had inherited, which seemed to shift like sand dunes between each match. The King cannot attack pieces. The King can attack pieces. The Knight cannot move “through” things. The Knight can totally move through things. The Queen can move in any straight line. No, the Queen can move as if it were any other piece. Really? I don’t know, sure, why not.
We did not seek clarification from our dad, who anyway was sleeping, because like any sane adult with four children, that is what he believed holidays were for. We simply got on with it. The memories of subsequent holidays to that same weathered house in Donegal are mingled with that chess board, its archaic, improvised rules and the accompanying wooden box of pieces, minus a single black pawn, which we had lost. We replaced the missing pawn with a dull 2p coin and hoped our dad, procurer of procurers, would never notice.
Years went by. The memory of chess and its disparate rules solidified into a mental amberstone. Over time, this memory seemed to me indistinguishable from ‘knowledge’. And so for years I ambled on, believing that when the day came for me to play the King’s Game, I would be able to do so without hesitation. I knew the rules. Of course I could play. And not only that, I could play with the confidence of an observant gamer and winner of many matches of Halo: Combat Evolved, which is sort of like chess. More than a decade plodded by until I encountered the actual game again.
At 23, I started working in a newspaper office, tweaking news articles and obituaries so that they could fit on every digital device possibly conceived. The 21st century was producing these devices like it was giving birth, and it had no access to birth control nor was it provided adequate sexual education. iPads, tablets, Kindles, smartphones. They all had to be catered for. And it was my job, along with a crowd of co-workers arranged down a double-desk of Apple Macs like some long, screen-bound dog-sled, to translate tomorrow’s newspapers into today’s App. One of the articles I had to work on was the Chess Puzzle.
Even then I did not immediately show any interest. I would pick up the article (a picture of a static chess board that invited the reader to discover the optimal move) and work on it like most others. But there was something about it that obviously intrigued me and, if it was available to work on, I always found myself heading straight to the chess puzzle before any other article. The text beneath the puzzle included some news on the international chess circuit that was indecipherable to me. Carlsen. Nakamura. The names may as well have been fictional, the proceedings between them some plot in a serial drama. Yet even this weekly news was not as indecipherable as the notation secreted away at the bottom of the text – the answer to this week’s puzzle. This notation was half understandable. There was a grid, that much was clear. And there were pieces, move orders. But what did the punctuation mean? Why was the text peppered with exclams and plus signs? Once or twice, I idly tried to decode the process. On these occasions, I failed.
Then one night, when UK citizens decided to stop murdering each other and planes resolved not to crash, I found myself with nothing to work on. The chess puzzle, already complete, popped into view on my screen. This puzzle, for all its quiet, weekly mildness, had been worming is way into my consciousness for years. The kind of thing that regularly nibbled at your brain until you’d finally feel the need to enlighten yourself. This was that moment. I spent that night abseiling down a cavernous wiki-hole. I learned about castling and en passant, I learned the algebraic notation of the puzzles, I learned how all the rules I had remembered from my childhood in rainy Donegal were bafflingly, laughably wrong. That night, I learned chess.
The next day I downloaded an app – a chess game – that let me play against The Computer. The game included twelve levels of opponent and I quickly learned that they were very different, almost as if they had different personalities. CPU 1 would play almost at random. He would push pawns forward endlessly without support, or leave valuable pieces in vulnerable positions without caring to retreat. CPU 2 was smarter but absolutely loved using his most powerful pieces as soon as possible. It got to the point where I could trap his queen within the first handful of moves almost every time, crippling him for the rest of the game. CPU 3, though, she was trouble. She was ruthless with her advances, and careful to always have her pawns structured neatly, like a pyramid of thorns. She made it impossible for me in the early days. On the stats screen of the app, I was winning 80% of my games against CPU 1 and CPU 2. But against CPU 3 I was winning only one in four games. She was demolishing me. She was my Deep Blue.
I sought solace, like any modern learner does, in the arms of YouTube. I watched and rewatched videos of chess openings and lessons. A series of videos called Everything You Need To Know About Chess reliably taught me everything I needed to know about chess. A video on an opening called the Ruy Lopez taught me about pins and the brutal swiftness of a good bishop, not to mention the undesirability of “doubled pawns”. The Queen’s Gambit, another opening, taught me about searching for an ideal – an unbeatable trap – but one that nobody ever falls into. I began to see patterns emerge, like in some fiercely logical kaleidoscope. Slowly, as the days of YouTube wore on, the game unfolded itself to me. Go for the centre. Develop your pieces. Connect the rooks. Beware of the back rank. Principles that every chess player follows. But I also made the mistake of watching part of a blitz match between two well-known players, which was the moment my mouth went dry and I entered a stupor of helplessness. Learning that blitz chess was a thing that even existed made me feel like Forest Gump.
All the same, the openings I was learning were largely only useful to white, who for the most part dictates the beginning of a match, since white always goes first. I gave myself this cheeky advantage over CPU 3 in future and set myself to begin as white in every game against her. At the end of the match, I would export the file to another app called Analyze This, where I could go over my moves and see what I could have – should have – done differently. All the missed potential checkmates, all the wrong moves, the now-obvious blunders. In chess, all it takes is one bad move. I was still making dozens. A week or two later, I was still only winning a third of my games against CPU 3. But I could feel myself learning, the architecture of my brain shifting, even a little.
Before Christmas descended on the world with all its bad music and consumer pomp, I ordered a chess set online with the excuse of teaching my girlfriend how to play. It arrived and I smiled at her in anticipation. To play against an actual human was all I really wanted. It took her two games of Hive to be able to soundly trounce me. It would not take long to teach chess. I opened the set and looked at the pieces. They had delivered me a set with four white rooks and zero white knights. And while this made the white side somewhat more powerful – according to the numerical value that all true players can hold in their heads when considering what to exchange, what to gamble, what to sacrifice – it also kind of breaks the game.
“We could substitute something else for the missing pieces,” I said.
For a moment the image of a 2p coin flickered in my mind. No. I closed the box and quietly stewed with disappointment. Maybe if it had only been pawns that were missing. But not this. It would not have felt right without those horses. Those little guerilla warriors.
Yes, I had learned about the relative value of pieces. But being inadequate at mental arithmetic, I still preferred to use an image-based system to recall the worth of different minor pieces. Comparing knights to a teleporting ninja, or bishops to throwing knives – this made more sense to my storybook brain. Picturing rooks as a giant invisible laser that cut across the board, queens as monstrous superheroes and the king as a sumo wrestler at the peak of his career – slow, plodding, yet still powerful – all helped me to visualise the value and customs of the different roles. The pawns were the things that troubled me. They are, unexpectedly, the most tricksy of all the pieces and still the ones I have the most trouble organising. Knowing when to push your pawns and how to arrange them into structures, each protecting the last, like a phalanx of greek warriors, can be the key to victory. But this art is hard to master and especially hard to plot in the opening, when one disruptive and aggressive move by your enemy can bring your pyramids crashing down.
When Christmas finally did arrive I went to my family home, where a new coffee machine reigned over the household like a noisy dictator, dispensing orders to all who approached. Fill me with beans, it growled. Have another espresso or be destroyed. To this day, every time I phone home I can hear this machine’s ruckus. I can picture its blinking light, demanding cleaning, or more water to power its infernal motives. The coffee machine frightens me.
The house in Donegal was no longer a holiday destination but the old chess set had been smuggled out and it survived now in a back room dedicated to my dad’s alarmingly vast library of books on Irish history. I tried briefly to think of a famous Irish grandmaster while looking for the set. I don’t think we have one. Anyway, I found the board and grabbed the pieces out of the old wooden box by the fistful. The missing black pawn was still nowhere to be found. The worn two-pence piece my brother and I used as children had been noticed and substituted with a small plastic doppelganger. An anachronistic fear surged through me and I hoped we would not get in trouble.
I set the board up and began to play against myself. In truth, I just wanted another person to take an interest and subject themselves to a thrashing. CPU 3, who was losing more to me every day, was only satisfying my desire to learn – not my desire to play against a fleshy, fallible fellow-human (and win). Both my parents came and went, looking confused. Both had forgotten how to play, and though I jibed at them to have a go, neither could escape the gravity of the coffee machine long enough to learn. When my brother arrived home I was ready for the challenge. My old opponent! Returning to the battlefield! It’s just like Metal Gear Solid, but with chess. BROTHER.
He walked into the room and saw me standing over the board, pieces arranged in mid-play.
“Are you playing against yourself because it’s what geniuses do in the movies?”
“I.. what… no, I –”
“You fuckin’ are,” he said, and left.
And that was that. Betrayed by my own flesh and blood. I returned to CPU 3, who welcomed me back without judgement and did not mind when I challenged her to a game in the dark hours of the morning when I was wracked with caffeine and could not sleep. Yes, the coffee machine had turned me.
The days and nights flickered by and slowly CPU 3 gave way. Our scores began to even out and we were now resting on an even 50/50 split. In better games, I hobbled her from the very beginning and hounded her until she resigned. In sloppier matches, we would make equal mistakes and I would only just manage to scrape my way out of it. I learned the value of a passed pawn in the long matches and suffered pointless draws, much more frustrating than an outright defeat. But the progress was clear – I was getting better. I even swapped back to playing both sides, black and white, with no dent to the stats.
When Christmas was over I searched the internet for a local chess club. I was doing well against CPU 3 (58% win rate) but something was still missing. I had a thirst to play against a human, and not across the internet but in person. A feeling like I needed to purge myself with a win, or even an overwhelming loss. I was playing the app every day, in the morning before getting out of bed, between tube stops, at night when I lay in the dark. On the toilet, in the off-licence, eating dinner. It was becoming obsessive. As a games journalist, it is saying a lot that during those months I probably played more chess than any other game, with the exception of Elite: Dangerous. And Elite being the slow-burning space sim that it is, I even played a couple of games with CPU 3 during that.
No. I needed to play with a person. Within the month I freed up a Thursday night and went in search of the chess club where Amar would welcome me warmly, smile with his friendly Einstein moustache, and proceed to annihilate me.
It is the early minutes of my game with Amar and another man has entered the room. This is the entirety of the chess club tonight. Two people. All the other members are off playing a competition against another club in London, like a squad of operatives away on a mission. The only team members left are sitting across from me, scrutinising my first real game in over a decade. The second man, Will, is more intimidating than Amar. Perhaps only because he is older and taller, his features sharper, more stern than Amar’s friendly moustachioed smile. He stands over us for a moment and “hmmm”s. He walks away and begins writing on a small sheet of paper – potential fixtures for an in-house contest. Meanwhile, the knight rampages, the bishops stab, the rooks come out with their arrest warrant. My game with Amar ends.
He smiles and offers some friendly pointers. I have lost but I cannot stop a broad grin spreading across my face. It only took my first opponent about 45 minutes to carefully take my defenses apart but it was an exciting, difficult game. It is the same feeling I get when I play Netrunner. Even a loss is exhilarating. Amar turns to Will.
“Would you like to play against Brendan?”
If Will was intimidating to me when he watched a game, he is ten times more daunting to play against. It is a completely different game from the one I have just played. He is quicker. He takes his moves seemingly without thought. Bop, bop, bop. In the opening he hems in half of my pieces with precise positioning so they just sit on their starting squares for half the game, like racehorses too afraid or too intelligent to run with the rest of the Grand National. He succeeds in coaxing my queen out early. This is a big mistake for me. Within a few turns, she is trapped and I lose her. The rest of my game is a slowly dying, defensive hunch. The match has become a bloodied, turn-based Alamo. As it goes on, Will commentates on the motions and sportingly warns me when my hand drifts to perform a disastrous move (“I wouldn’t do thaaat.” … “That’s not very wise.”… “Hmmmm, not great.”)
Finally, he blunders. He laughs out loud when he sees what he has done but it takes me another thirty seconds to even notice. His queen! He has plopped her right onto a square I control. My knight swoops in and nabs her. A strategy begins to form. I get my rooks connected (just like YouTube told me!) so that they back each other up. My own little buddy cops. After a while, one of them manages to boost up to the 7th rank, locking the black king in a lonely hole at the back. Will does not look worried. All his pieces are engaged in an all-out attack on the squares around my own monarch. Both our armies are frozen in a battle pose, threats criss-crossing each other, pawn fodder ready to lay their lives down like little martyrs. Then, the shift.
I capture a single black pawn at the centre of the board. The pile-on begins, pieces cascade, pawn takes pawn, pawn takes pawn, bishop takes pawn, knight takes bishop. Will narrates all this as he does it, I barely have to touch the board, its like he’s seen it all in some battlefield premonition. I hope to God this pays off. At Will’s side, Amar chuckles. He has been quietly observing the whole game. And he has seen what I have seen.
“But look,” hes says …
It is my turn. I pick up my rook and float him down the board, past the corpses of his enemies, his brothers, his persecutors, to the undefended back rank.
“…look where his rook can go.”
Will looks straight down, chin touching his sternum.
Will looks up and smiles. I have won through a blunder, nothing more. But it still feels good. We reset the pieces a few moves back and play through another variation. Then, when we misstep again, we reset again and play another. The game is over, really. It becomes clear we are playing on simply as a matter of discussion. A kind of co-op simulation of chess, a game in conversation.
“How about here?” I say.
“But then there.”
“But what if this?”
“No, because that.”
“Yes,” says Will. “Yes, that could work.”