When 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.
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.