Chess, And Learning What Works

Easy to play for 5 minutes, close the lid, and pick up game later.

In college, my friend Adam wanted to play chess. We began what would become years of casual games. He almost always won. Sometimes, when he was especially proud of his about-to-be winning combination, he would hum the Jaws theme “bohm-bohm, bohm-bohm…”

In the beginning, I took out chess books from the college library. I studied the games of Capablanca, Lasker, and Fisher, all to no avail. At some point I had collected around 50 chess books. Adam owned none. My guess is that by the time we graduated college it was Adam 1,000 games to Max’s 2.

After college, a friend gave me a small portable chess computer he never used. I played it on the subway or whenever I had some time. Unlike Adam, it didn’t hum Jaws, but it did allow me to restart games whenever I wanted, even after two moves.

I lost every game. It was one thing to lose to Adam, another to keep losing to a pair of double-A batteries at Chess Level 1. Or to paraphrase Dave Barry, “to lose to a brain the size of a chicklet”

Almost every chess book I read, directed the reader to “control the center.” Naturally, if you’ve picked up anything about me, I had other ideas. Grandmasters be-danged. I wanted a book to help me strengthen my plan. And my plan was to attack up the side where my opponent least expected it. Further, my opponents, being less creative than me, would follow those books and wouldn’t know what to do outside their comfort zone.

Unfortunately, I ran out of opening ideas for my side attack strategy. Maybe the chess books were right, and the knight on the rim is very dim.

Okay, I’ll try to control the center. Just to understand the enemy, you understand. Then one day I beat the computer. Then again. And again.

I began to accept conventional wisdom. From my experience playing the chess computer I learned that chess is a game of gaining small advantages. One way to think about those advantages/disadvantages, is to class them into five. 1: time, or how quickly you can move a piece into a good position; 2: strength, is your rook more powerful than their knight; 3: space, like “control the center”; 4: organization, (efficiency) are pieces doing double- or triple-duty in protecting each other; and 5 position, (subtle advantages in where and how you control the board).

Slowly, by re-starting games on the chess computer, giving myself time to think about what was going on, I learned how to give some balance to these strengths and weaknesses — because each move will involve trade-offs.

The deeper the game gets, the more complicated it becomes. It was then, I noticed, that the computer (like me playing Adam) would make a weak move, which even I would notice and exploit.

It dawned on me that a chess game ends quickly once one side no longer knows what to do.

I could never follow the chess-notation of classic chess games and understand them as “real” chess players do. However, I could play according to the general philosophies expressed by those who play well.

The chess book that had the most powerful effect on me was Eugene A. Znosko-Borovsky’s How Not to Lose at Chess. His main point is that one should formulate a plan in the beginning of the game and never change it. His Sticking to your plan no matter what is a rule-of-thumb, based on his experience. It would be even harder to prove than the control the center rule. Anyway, once again, I decided to put it to the test, this time, against Adam.

Adam and I playing chess on ferry to Martha’s Vineyard around 1989

I decided on a simple game of trying to clear a path so I could Queen a pawn. It would require many moves. It would take time. No matter how well one may fight with their major pieces, a pawn can only move so fast.

Once I had my plan, I would have to focus on those five attributes of each move. What did each move mean in terms of time, strength, space, organization and position? I would play to Queen a pawn and then just analyze each move so that it didn’t have a serious defect in those five attributes.

My final touch was to follow the chess maxim, the threat is mightier than the sword. Yes, I became the chess equivalent of a tennis-backboard who just waited for my opponent to over-play a shot.

After a few months of losing from fear, I began to win games. Adam was still the stronger player, but he couldn’t play the game unless he was attacking. I’d see him contemplate an attack and I’d say, don’t do it, your position isn’t strong enough yet. He’d say, ‘I have to. It’s no fun if I don’t.’

Many moves later it would be my turn to hum the Jaws theme.

There are approaches in life that work, even though we can never prove them logically. Although many have made arguments about why the strategy of trying to control the center is theoretically more powerful than attacking up the side, it has not, to my knowledge, been elevated to a theoretical proof.

The chess computer and Znosko-Borovsky taught me to take a pragmatic approach to chess.

Curious to test my hypothesis, that simple chess ideas can make anyone a stronger player if they see them, I played games against people I knew were considerably weaker than me. First, I would play them silently and beat them in 10 minutes or so. That would be my control variable.

For the next game, before I made each move, I explained to my opponent why I was making the move, in the common language of the above five principles. I would also analyze the dangers they faced and communicate them.

Did it make a difference? And how! I found it very difficult to beat a weak player when I explained the game while playing. Indeed, if you’re good at chess and question the power of even-a-little-knowledge replicate that experiment.

Years later I found the chess computer in a box and played it for old-times sake. How I could have lost one game to it is beyond my comprehension! How ironic that a logic-only chess computer taught me the value of experience, or accepted wisdom.