“Guard your Queen”
Posted by shannonclark on December 8, 2004
While watching the West Wing this evening on Bravo, President Barlett ends a scene playing chess with the line “Guard your queen”. On hearing this I recalled a lesson I learned over 25 years ago when I first learned chess.
At the same time, I have been thinking a lot of late about my career, about who I am, about my own personal mental identification as a “geek” (nerd, ‘gifted’, etc.) Another show on cable of late is “My Greatest Years” a new show on VH1 about people looking back on their high school years. A recent episode had a bunch of famous people who were self-identifying themselves as having been “geeks” in high school, and admittedly they seemed to mostly have been.
At a bit older than 4, my family had recently moved to New York, to a suburb of NYC now famous for being where the Clintons bought a home. Later that year, I think either that summer or that fall, we were at my fraternal grandparents’ home ourside of Philidelphia. There, in the living room, my grandfather taught me how to play chess.
He taught me how the pieces move, which pieces were more valuable than others, and showed me some of the basics of how to open the game and start playing. We then played a number of games, mostly with him starting without some of his pieces. But more than the technical points of how to move the pieces he taught me the mores of the game and what he taught me was subtly different from how the game is usually taught here in the US.
When you move a piece in chess to put the king in jepordy, you announce check. If your opponent has not options to move or remove the threat, then it is checkmate and you win. But my grandfather taught me to also announce check, or “guard the queen” when you place the queen in danger as well. This is not typically done, but it is how my grandfather taught me.
Years later, in my moment of high geekishness, as the captain of my high school chess team (from my sophomore year through my senior year) I had to unlearn this rule, it gave an advantage to my opponents, it was not how things were done. I played tournement chess nearly every week in high school, practiced with the team many nights after school, played chess many weekends.
Once I played two games to the full limit of the time control back-to-back. That meant that I played chess for 12 hours one day over a weekend, with more games to follow the next day. Perhaps one of the most stressful days of my life until then, and still ranks right up there.
By announcing check on the queen I was forced to be very aware of the most powerful piece on the board at all times – when I moved whether I was threatening my grandfather’s queen and when he moved whether he was threatening mine. This taught me skills that helped me improve my game years later, but it also taught me a lesson about fair play and strong competition.
The last game I played with my grandfather, I finally won, however he had started the game a piece back and I still think that he may have given me, about 6 1/2 at the time a bit of a break towards the end of the game. But I still recall bits of that game 24 years later, and even more I remember being in my grandparents home, surrounded by family in the other rooms, all watching me play and finally win. I think it may have been a Thanksgiving or perhaps Christmas, we still (I think) lived in New York.
A year or so later, we would move here to Illinois, to Oak Park. I never got to play another game with my grandfather, a real game, all the way through, without him giving me any breaks. A piece of writing I wrote years ago I noted that one of my regrets what never showing him how far I had come, and by that I was referring to how I played the game in my senior year of high school, 14 years ago.
I have gotten better, much better since then. But I still have the same regret.
A book on chess is, perhaps, the most important book of philosophy, and one of the most important books in general, I have ever read. It is “Manual of Chess” by Emanual Lasker. It teaches chess, but more it teaches the philosophy behind how to play chess well in the process teaching lessons about how to compete and how to think in life.
Chess is a game without luck, it is between two people and mistakes made by one have to be seen and exploited by the other, if you lose, you have yourself to blame, if you win, you have yourself to credit. Against an oponent of similar skill you will generally end up with even results, lots of drawn games and a fairly even split of wins and loses. After a while, players exhibit styles and tendancies, types of positions and games which they are most comfortable in.
More than anything, chess is a mental exercise. When I play it regularly, I knock the cobwebs from my brain, I feel invigorated, rested. I also learn a great deal of the mind of the people I play against. A bit unfair perhaps, but I’ve concluded that only rarely should I employ anyone who can’t at least compete strongly against me in chess (better still might be to try to mostly hire people who could even beat me, though taken to the extreme this might be problematic, as I’m close to the point where to be significently stronger than I requires someone to play chess nearly full time, to be above an Expert level).
I describe myself as a geek, and probably I am, but more than anything I was raised with an appreciation of and a celebration of learning and thinking. From time to time I neglect this, don’t challenge myself enough, don’t stretch and exercise my most important muscle, my brain.
In a week I will be traveling to India for two weeks, for a very good friend’s wedding and then for a week or so of traveling and touring with my girlfriend, Julia. Together we’ll see the Taj Mahal, explore Rajistan, do some shoping, spend a lot of time together, and I hope relax and recuperate. Besides fantasies involving Julia, which I won’t write about here, my other fantasy, that which defines my idea of a real vacation, is to read a few great books – to rest, to spend time in a very comfortable, relaxing, calm place, with a great book and no commitments or deadlines, just a great book and some good food.
Until then, I will continue to “guard the queen”, think of my next move and the next one after that – but even more, think about what I want to accomplish and work backwards from there to see how to achieve it – one of the lessons I learned from Lasker.