How to Play Chess or at Least Understand It

ChessWhen I was in grammar and secondary school, I found myself playing a lot of games of chess. I never won a single game. I had no idea what I was doing.

When it comes to chess, there are two kinds of people. First, there are people who know how to play. Second, there are people who know the moves. Explaining the moves is what passes for teaching the game. But this is not teaching. Imagine a similar approach to teaching tennis: one person serves, the two players hit the ball back and forth, the first one to hit the ball outside the lines loses; have fun!

I’ll admit: I’m a slow learner. But that’s really the critical element that distinguished the good grammar school players from the bad: a basic understanding of what the game was about. Someone who figured it out for themselves was necessarily a far better player, even if they weren’t a very good player in an absolute sense. And even they would be greatly helped by better chess instruction because it would result in them having better opponents.

When I was in graduate school, I decided to learn how to play chess. But I didn’t turn to any how-to books. I had seen them in the past and they made no sense to me whatsoever. Instead, I picked up a book of games by some chess grandmaster I had never heard of. And I studied those games. In particular, I went move by move and tried to figure out why the chess masters did not make the cunning moves that I had in mind.

If you’ve ever looked at these books, you will notice that there is very little annotation. What annotation there is is for moves that really good players would have questions about. The moves that I thought were correct were never what was played. And the annotations made no sense to me because they discussed issues that were far beyond me.

If you are playing chess hoping that your opponent will make a mistake, you are playing wrong. Chess, when properly played, is a game where you win or lose by inches.

But very slowly I was able to figure out why my moves sucked and why the masters moved the way that they did. And one day — quite suddenly — I understood chess as a game. That didn’t mean that I knew how to play. I still hadn’t started playing. But I got it. I could, for the first time, enjoy the game as a game. (For the record, I believe most people who watch professional sports understand those games at about the same level that I understood chess before my epiphany.)

Once I started playing the kind of people who had destroyed me when I was young, I saw the problem. They understood things like double attacks and traps. And at that point, the game was kind of funny. I would sit across from someone and they would set up a trap for me. And I could see it in their eyes: they were thinking, “Oh please! Oh please!” The truth was, they didn’t really understand the game much better than I had. If you are playing chess hoping that your opponent will make a mistake, you are playing wrong. Chess, when properly played, is a game where you win or lose by inches.

To give you an example, I happened to go to graduate school with a postdoc who was a really good chess player — a near master lever player, despite his drinking, womanizing, and research. He taught me much during the course of destroying me in game after game. But he told me a story about playing against Joshua Waitzkin (The kid in Searching for Bobby Fischer) at some point in a simultaneous exhibition. And my friend had found himself in the highly unusual position of having the advantage after about 20 moves. But my friend lost. And afterward, the kid (probably about 19 then) sat there with him and went over the whole game and each point where my friend made slightly less than the optimal move. That is the nature of chess.

But I still find it annoying that no one ever thought to teach me the game of chess. I was often forced to play in school. But it was a drag. It was like being forced to go to a museum where nothing was explained and no context was given. Chess can be an incredibly creative game. Of course, I never could have been much of a chess player. I’m just not that competitive. But being able to appreciate the game has been edifying, which is all I want from anything that I do.


Some might think of Waitzkin going over the game after my friend lost to be something of a jerk move. That was not how my friend presented the story. The kid was at once showing appreciation for a player good enough to give him a bit of trouble and also providing him with a little chess lesson.

How to Write Like a Serial Killer

WritingI love that title. It would make a good book title. But then I started thinking about what I would write, and it was mostly about what a fool the reader was for buying a book on writing. Don’t get me wrong. I love books on the finer points of writing. But I hate books about how to write in a general sense: “How to Write a Best Selling Mystery.” That stuff just disgusts me. The best writing advice is to stop reading whatever writing advice you are reading and go out and write!

Just the same, I think that the art of writing is fundamentally the art of reading. What writers most often lack is a sense of what is good and what is not. I remember many years ago, I wrote a short screenplay — for what would be maybe a 20-minute film. It was about this guy who was addicted to messing with telemarketers. I loved it. It was very funny with a great denouement. But a writing friend of mine hated it. I forget exactly what she didn’t like about it, but I am convinced that it was nonsense — something about realism, as though that matters in the least.

But as an insecure writer, I took the advice and wrote draft after draft. And with each draft, it got worse and worse. And my friend never liked it because she just didn’t like the whole idea of it. By the end, it was a mess with far too much motivation and far too little fun. But it is a good example of the life cycle of a piece of writing. There were many drafts before I showed it to my friend. And that was the point at which it was as good as it would ever be. The problem with the following rewriting was that it was at base about making the screenplay into something it wasn’t.

This bit of it really struck me, “Contrary to mythology, it is not high intelligence that makes serial killers successful. Instead, it is obsession, meticulous planning…” Ah, I think I understand that! This is what writers need!

Knowing when to stop is critical to the writing process. You must know when something works. New writers tend to think that everything they write is golden. There is rarely any point in rewriting because they can’t tell what crap they are writing — even though they can often tell this in other people’s writing. This is what we can probably call “kiddie writing.” There’s an obvious solution to this: read a lot more great writing and write a lot more of whatever it is you are capable of.

But not knowing when to stop can also mean endless revisions — never stopping. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t tell what good writing is; it often means you can tell, but you just aren’t a good enough writer (Yet!) to accomplish the kind of work that you know is possible. This we can probably call “middling writing.” And I don’t mean to disparage it, because it is usually pretty good. It’s always important to read great writers, but clearly the issue here is to keep writing. But that means different writing projects, not beating a work to death trying to perfect it. If you find you are in your sixtieth rewrite, it is time to set it aside and try something new.

And that brings us to serial killers. I read an article the other day, 5 Myths about Serial Killers and Why They Persist. This bit of it really struck me, “Contrary to mythology, it is not high intelligence that makes serial killers successful. Instead, it is obsession, meticulous planning…” Ah, I think I understand that! This is what writers need!

In as much as I can write, it is because I have been writing like a serial killer for decades. I’m obsessed with it. I know lots of people who used to be far better writers than I was and now they have nowhere near my skill. It’s because they don’t care about writing like I do. And they are better off for it! But if you want to write, you need to write. And you need to write a lot.

In 1985, Frank Gilroy (father of Tony, Dan, and John) made a film called The Gig. It’s really good. Yet it is totally wrong about the way that expertise works. In particular, there is a trumpet player who has a nice cushy life. He’s a professional-level player, but he’s not interested in being a professional musician, because it sucks as a lifestyle. Then there is a clarinet player who practices and practices but will never play at a professional level. And there is a great line in the film, said by the one professional musician in the film to the clarinet player, “It’s not religion — devotion isn’t enough.”

This is a common idea that has been beaten to death by writers who really should know better. Now it is true that there are limits. Regardless of how hard I work, I will never be David Foster Wallace. But anyone can become a professional writer. You just have to be like a serial killer. It really has to matter to you. Being a natural doesn’t take you very far at all. But it might make you more inclined to do all the work that you need to do to become something really worthwhile.


I always feel a little weird talking about this kind of stuff on Frankly Curious because the writing here is pretty much all first draft. This is stuff that I knock off without much thought. I usually have only the vaguest of ideas about what I’m going to write before I start. And if things go sideways, I usually let them. I’m actually a much better writer than any article here would indicate. But I’m not a great writer. What I am is a garden-variety professional writer. But people have been paying me to write for almost 25 years now — back in the days when I couldn’t write nearly as well as I do now — when my final drafts were worse than my first drafts today. It doesn’t take much to be a professional writer.

Morning Music: Nick the Stripper

Prayers on FireWell, I told you we would get to Nick Cave eventually. Kind of. Today we listen to another song by The Birthday Party. But at least this one is written by Cave. This song is off their album, Prayers on Fire. And it is called “Nick the Stripper.” I can’t say that it’s an example of good songwriting. But it’s a hell of a song.

“Nick the Stripper,” I would have to say, is post-punk. It has a great bass and drum part that is reminiscent of Gang of Four. On the other hand, the guitar is all over the place — post-punk at times and sixties San Francisco rock at others. Then there’s the great horn sounds. And Nick Cave’s unique contributions to singing that are not so much music as failed attempts at throat singing.

The whole thing is hypnotic and amazing. No wonder this group wasn’t successful!

Anniversary Post: I Love Lucy Goes to the Hospital

I Love LucyOn this day in 1953, a reported 72% households with televisions tuned into watch the I Love Lucy episode, Lucy Goes to the Hospital. It was one of those real life meets art things. Kind of. Lucy had given birth by cesarean section a few hours before the show aired. The show was actually shot two months earlier. I know if it happened today, it would be criticized for it obvious cynicism.

I’m deeply divided on the whole thing. On the one hand, social cohesion is important. It is good when a culture can share something positive like a fake birth on I Love Lucy. It seems the only time we are expected to come together now is when we go to war. On the other hand, it is really great that we can all enjoy the things that speak to us personally, without it having to be diluted to be widely appealing. According to Wikipedia “scripts for the episode were reviewed by a rabbi, a minister, and a priest in order to make sure it would not be offensive.” I love that they cared enough to not want to offend, but it seems excessive.

What’s strange to me, however, is that even with an endless range of entertainment choices, people still tend to gravitate toward the most vanilla “mass appeal” spectacles like American Idol. What’s with that? Are people by and large just that boring? I fear that they are. At the same time, I don’t want our cultural bonds to be based upon popular entertainment. This is why I think public education is important.

We should be bound together by our shared history — with absolute clarity of the good and the bad so that we don’t exclude anyone — most especially African Americans and native peoples. And we should be bound together by our responsibilities as citizens. There should be some notion of what it is to be a good citizen — and a bad one. But not only do we not have that, we don’t even have I Love Lucy — which was always a fragile reed to hang onto. But it was something.