Losing at what, exactly?
Posted on October 13th, 2012
I hate losing at chess. There, I said it.
I don’t know what it is that bothers me the most, although I do have a few theories about why it bothers me so. I’m no chess genius, mind, but I do like to think that I have some knowledge, skill or capability at the game. There’s something so simple, so constrained and minimal about the game and yet the limited palette offers up so much complexity and intricacy it’s often very easy to mistake the game for something much, much larger.
Since chess happens to be such an intricate game, with wonderfully complex interaction and outcomes, it is tempting to think a game won could be indicative of a brilliantly clever mind. One capable of sewing a web so deftly that entanglement is a foregone conclusion. Likewise it is also tempting to think that a game lost could be equally damning, a mind stumbling around blindly and meeting a swift or painful end. Yet what does a game of chess really have to say about us, our mental faculties, our ability to process information and predict complex outcomes?
To find the answer to this, I think it’s useful to look not to the board itself, but to the players on either side. I think that chess is not unlike other objects in our world which reveal much about us without our knowledge. A rorschach board, if you will. Take me, for example. I’m a youngish guy, with some travel experience, a background in design and a penchant for thinking (perhaps too) highly of himself. When it comes to chess, it can appear to be a game that is mine to lose. The winning outcome is not simply a shared but opposing goal, no it is rather an expected outcome for one, featuring some rather satisfying and challenging barriers. Getting to the king is not done in jest, but an eagerly anticipated goal. For others, I can imagine it might be different. A fair contest, perhaps. Or a difficult game requiring some concentration. Remembering exchanges could be overreach for someone who barely remembers the name and behaviour of each of the pieces. Or perhaps another player may know the taste of victory whilst also knowing the amount of patience required to achieve it. For me, playing chess is a joy, a challenge, an exchange to puzzle out – but a puzzle which I intend on completing.
I don’t think it’s wise, or even useful, to dissect a lost game in retrospect. Should I have made that move, midway through the game? Was it my opening move that lead to the end? I should have seen that rook, hiding in the wings. It is tempting though, but for me it only further highlights the failure, extended at length. Even worse, it is often hard to recall with clarity the precise series of events which lead to my demise. Each of the moves (and the subsequent response moves) stack up in my mind, drowning out my inner cries to simply accept and move on. Let’s see.. If queen takes pawn. If bishop moves to attack queen. If the queen backtracks. If then the other pawn moves to attack the queen. Then the queen skips to other side of board. If the knight then moves into position…
Why am I still thinking about the what-ifs?
Losing at chess bothers me so, because some part of me does think that the game represents a partial truth of life, a hint at something much larger. It points to a failing of mine to think through the longer term consequences, to empathise and guess at my opponents’ tactics, to plan and amend those plans when needed. In chess, the failure doesn’t lay flat on those 64 black and white checkered squares. Rather, the failure sits squarely within me. And that’s the reason why I don’t like losing at chess. It digs deeper every time, even more so if there are successive losses. It gets deeper under my skin, taking my thoughts to other uncomfortable places, other ‘losses’, if you will. You don’t have very much money. You don’t even manage to handle your money very well, do you? You don’t speak to your parents very often, why haven’t you called your sister? Maybe you’re not half as smart as you think you are. Could be that you’ve seen all the success you’re likely to see.
You see, it’s not so difficult for a superficially simple board game to conjure up some very serious inner demons – weak as they are to scrutiny or cross-examination. At the same time, I’m also aware that these thoughts tend to pass as swiftly as they approach, especially so if I set myself to doing something completely different. Brooding on these moments can be a spiral of emotion, but only if you let it.
The game of chess. I hate losing it, I hate the way it makes me delve into negativity and I hate the way it forces me to question my assumptions about life and my stake in it. But I don’t hate it enough to stop playing – and more than anything else I enjoy the feeling of a snared opponent, a swift or long fought win. It makes the whole thing worth the effort.
Until next time.