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.

8 thoughts on “How to Play Chess or at Least Understand It

  1. That was very kind of Mr. Waitzkin to do that for him though-so often we have something like a loss like that dealt to us without anyone taking the time to walk us through where we made mistakes so we can be better.

    • I think Waitzkin was also just thrilled with the game. I’ve heard similar stories about Fischer. These are people who really love the game in a way that other people love literature or sculpture. So talking about the game was also a way of extending the game. It’s like after you read a really great book, going back and re-reading parts you really liked. He doesn’t seem to be a decent person, which is fairly rare in the chess world.

  2. Who isn’t decent? Fischer? I have read about what a smeghead he was including a claim that America wasn’t thought of as an intellectual powerhouse until he came along. -.-

    But I can see how someone who loves something so much will relish any chance to keep babbling on about it and do something kind at the same time.

    • Fischer wasn’t so much horrible as insane. Literally. So it’s hard to see his odd beliefs and total racism and so on as anything but a function of that.

        • Well, the vile parts came out of his association with a cultish Christian group.

          It’s sad that for a man who really only loved chess, he stopped playing. I really think that if he had continued to play, Karpov probably never would have been world champion and it would have taken Kasparov — over a decade later — to defeat him.

  3. I lost interest in chess when I had to start using clocks. Clocks took all the fun out of extending the game. (Often, we’d have to stop a game for our next class and take it up again after school.) But I’m not a competitive person and I don’t enjoy stress.

    I once met a former teenage chess whiz (nationally ranked) who literally jumped out of the academic fast track and started running with the “bad kids” because he hated the pressure. I’ve met former music prodigies who were the same.

    I think you’re right that most chess amateurs “get” the game the same way most TV viewers “get” sports. It’s too bad I gave it up at 14, or I might enjoy it much more today. I don’t unlearn the things I learned to love about literature, music, drama, even sport, if now I take a few years away and come back to it later. But I can’t come anywhere near chess without hating it. Too many skeletons . . .

    • In a sense, I hate chess. I’m the only player I’ve ever known who has had players take moves back when they blundered. (I’ve done that a lot.) This is because I too am not competitive. I want to have a good game. Winning doesn’t mean anything to me. For one thing, I can always find players who are worse than I am. But I’ve had players who I allowed to fix multiple blunders feel very proud of themselves when they finally beat me. I don’t care, but it’s bizarre. Note also: to me in all things: “winning” is not important; I’m always competing with myself to get better. That’s what I care about. A game that is over in 15 moves doesn’t teach me anything.

      Last night, I got lost going over this old master game where black got himself in a very bad position. So in order to get out of it, he sacrificed a root for a knight. At that level of play, that would normally be the end of the game. But it allowed him to totally change the position of the board and within about ten moves they agreed to draw. That’s the kind of stuff that is beautiful about the game.

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