Masochism, Chess and Expertise: Part 2.0

Previously on Masochism, Chess and Expertise, Ruth denied being a masochist, and expressed feeling overwhelmed with the plethora of information available on the web about how to write/publish/blog better. She claimed chess was her cure.


I want to get Peggy Sued back to 1987 to crash a meeting of my high school’s chess club. I’d grab Jim or Mike by the shoulders and say, “Good God, man, why aren’t you shouting from the bleachers about how awesome this game is?!”

Come to think of it, I can’t tell you whether or not we even had a chess club. (Douglass mates, do you remember?) I was too busy attempting to learn pom squad choreography and lines for the school play while developing elaborate schemes to spend as many afternoons and weekends as possible with my away-at-college, hippy boyfriend. (I had the school nurse in the palm of my hand for a while there.)

Although it played no part in my teenage persona, I was no stranger to chess.  In fact, 1987 was the year I learned I was awful at it. Grandpa’s funeral weekend. My cousins, brother and I gathered around the board to fend off my grandparents’ small-town, small-talking neighbors dropping off condolence casseroles. Game after game, I lost. It made no sense to me. When Grandpa was alive, I’d wi——wait. It came as a revelation. Grandpa had been letting me win at chess my entire life.

I don’t remember learning the game. I must have been around five or six. I do remember liking it and feeling good at it. But when Grandpa died, and I learned I had absolutely no skills beyond basic movement of the pieces, I stopped playing. It didn’t occur to me to try and improve.

Still, I bought my first chess set in my twenties–plastic pieces in a flimsy cardboard box from the drug store–for the same reason I bought a bible: these were household essentials, like towels or a broom. The set came out for this boyfriend or that. Not much more than pre-foreplay, in my eyes. Mostly, it remained high on a shelf for more than a decade.


I didn’t think about chess again until last October when I met an International Master who changed my life. He’s the man I’ve been writing about here since January. I’ve tried–for hours and days and thousands of words–to compose an essay that would communicate something clear about chess in my life since I met him . . . and I’m near the point of resigning.

Some days I say, You’re a writer; this is what you do. Make something beautiful from those memories.

But my fear is objectifying him (more than I already have).  And really, it’s hard to put a novel into 600 words. That’s no excuse when I know great stories can be told in 140 characters.

He’s not material, though.

So, I will flash forward to this past June, when I felt ready to play again.

It’s so much fun. Chess is my tennis. By that I mean I’m taking it with me for the rest of my life. Years ago, I picked up crossword puzzles in an effort to gain mental exercise: four letter word for something I’ve never heard of?!  Bollocks! With chess, it’s all right there.


I played over 200 games verses the computer over the course of a few months. It gave me first hand experience in forks (UGH!) and revealed attacks (Bastard!).

Eventually, I felt ready to play against humans. I love the suspense and the surprise. It’s nearly equally as fun to accurately predict a move as it is when someone startles me with a possibility I overlooked.  (My current opponent just forked my king and queen right when I thought I was about to mate him; see below. I forgot to look at the whole board again. Wah Wuh.)

Keep Calm and Carry On


I’ve learned to beat Andy pretty regularly. In September, I beat my father once (he easily took our three other games), and just last week, I had my first victory against my brother. I’ve begun going through children’s workbooks on basic strategy (“Kill the enemy!”). Yesterday, I bought my first chess book. It’s about common mistakes. I thought that would be a good place to start.

Chess is teaching me to focus. To (relentlessly) look at the whole board. To suffer consequences. To think and rethink and rethink. To count ahead, step by step. To be a better sport. To learn from my mistakes.

I love the metaphors, long exhausted elsewhere by more eloquent writers. The way the queen seems to almost always be her own best defense. The way a persistent pawn can make it to the end and transform into a more powerful figure.

Being a novice means there are infinite ways I can grow.

Last November/December, my friend (the IM) and I always had a correspondence game going against my far away brother. His eyes lit up (oh, so often, but also) when he’d ask, “Any chess moves?” Here he was, long retired from the sport, playing verses a relative beginner, but he loved when it was our turn.

I want to go back to those days, when he was alive. I’m just a pawn, though. Forward only.


November — NaBloPoMo — Day Five

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