3D and 2D, green and cream, black and white, red and black, wood and plastic, marble and steel, Renaissance and Staunton, The Simpsons, Star Trek, and Star Wars. Whatever form the first chess set you ever looked upon took, I hope its magic called to you, captivated you, and drew you in like some inescapable, irresistible Siren’s song.
I could easily write an entire book on my love of chess, the people I’ve met—my fellow captives, and the game’s compelling history. Maybe, hopefully I think—I’ll blog more about chess. Maybe this is a one-off post? But, I hope not.
I first became aware of the game on a visit to my cousins’ place in Brandon, Manitoba in the 1960s. It would have been around 1968 and I’d have been about 10 years-old. They owned the first chess set I ever remember seeing, and the pieces fascinated me. I mean they truly captured my imagination. Those pieces belonged to a pretty standard plastic ersatz Staunton design that was doubtlessly spewed out on some droning assembly line. The pieces I first viewed were in a greyish cardboard container—half in half out sprawled haphazardly about my relatives’ golden carpeted living room floor. The board that accompanied the pieces was a garish yellow bordered black and red squared affair—a color combination I would frequently encounter in subsequent years. But none of that bothered me. I was fixated on the exotic shapes of the pieces; their names only hinted at by the stylized forms that spoke of castles, and horses, and religious symbols—mitres and crosses, and royal crowns.
How did they move? What was the objective?
I was curious beyond words, and felt unbelievable frustration when my older cousin told me that the game was boring, that I was too young; the game—too complicated to explain. However, I was driven by an indiscernible desire to unlock the mystery of those pieces.
Back in Winnipeg, my home town during the latter 1960s, I happened upon a neighbor who had in his possession a rather attractive over-sized plastic Staunton set of richly glazed auburn and black pieces set on a checkerboard of dark brown, and tan. His name was Greg Woodcock, and it was left to him to reveal the mysteries inherent within the idiosyncratic movements of the 32 pieces that made up a chess set—16 on one side,16 on the other.
Greg pointed out the 64 squares of alternating colors—32 dark, 32 light with one of the lighter colored squares habitually occupying the top left corner.
He explained that the horses were knights and the castles—rooks that there were bishops and pawns, queens and kings.
In hindsight, Greg was a undoubtedly a patzer, a duffer, a wood-pusher, a noob! He invariably played “White”; opening with a King or Queen’s Rook’s Pawn. P-KR4, P-QR4 or simply a4,h4 if one were to “notate” his moves. Horrible moves for an unskilled player but potentially dangerous in the hands of a master.
Nonetheless, I owe Greg an immeasurable show of gratitude. He explained the basics to me and patiently endured hours of my own repeated, pathetic efforts to best him. I never did, but fortunately, I did improve. Greg’s parents bought me a lovely wooden chess box/board with heavy plastic pieces that I owned for years.
In 1971 our family moved to Victoria, BC. One of the first things I did upon settling in at our new home was to hook up with the Victoria Chess Club. Harry Moore, Dan Scoones, Jeff Reeve, Ed Seedhouse were some of the gifted players that I met back then. All of them became fixtures in BC tournaments in the years that followed. We met at Royal Athletic Park before moving to the Victoria Public Library on Yates Street; then moving once again to the Gordon Head Recreation Centre.
1972 saw us all revel in the upcoming Fischer-Spassky match for the World Chess Championship. It was broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and I remember being fully engaged by US Grandmaster Larry Evans. But the 72 Chess Championship never lived up to the pregame hype. Unlike the 72′ Soviet/Canada Hockey series that more than delivered…Fischer’s neuroses, paranoia, and pure obstinacy fell like a wet blanket over a Western audience eagerly anticipating the “Match of the Century”. What an opportunity lost! Chess was poised to enter mainstream consciousness in unheralded fashion but it wasn’t to be. Fischer made sure of that, and in the process went from hero to anti-hero seemingly overnight. We, in the West were happy he’d won but the victory rang hollow despite some brilliant chess.
I still remember an embarrassed Larry Evans, obviously at a loss with the cameras rolling waiting and wondering like all of us whether Fischer would appear. Eventually, ABC cut away to some other event out of sheer necessity. Unfortunately, America cut away with the network and the promise of a chess revolution went unfulfilled.
Fischer faded into legend but thankfully the game lived on. Yasser Seirawan began his rise into prominence just as Fischer was fading from the spotlight. However, he lacked Fischer’s brilliance. A renewed interest in the game arose courtesy of the Azerbaijan/Soviet born Gary Kasparov. Kasparov’s bold play and brazen resistance to Soviet bureaucracy garnered him a legion of fans in the West. Besides, that he won…a lot! Ok, so he wasn’t American born but his charismatic extroverted and vocalized passion injected fresh life into the general population’s appreciation of chess. Obviously, not on the level that Fischer had been able to do but arguably more than any other figure in the history of American chess.
I liked Kasparov but in the years immediately following the “Match of the Century” my love of chess generally manifested in the purchase of countless books; notably, the chess books published by the Dover company. Frank J. Marshall’s Best Games of Chess being a particular favorite.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lynn Stringer whose tireless efforts organizing chess tournaments in Victoria were and remain greatly appreciated. She was a fixture on the competitive side of the Victoria chess scene for many years.
Nowadays, my interest takes the form of reading about women in chess. No doubt my own male-to-female journey plays a role in that development. Jen Shahade’s “Chess Bitch” is essential reading despite the many typographical errors it contains. Natalia Pogonina, Alexandra Kosteniuk, and Shahade are all active on Twitter and I recommend anyone interested in chess to “follow” them.
It’s funny but I only reluctantly play online or against real-life opponents. Somehow, I developed a phobia about losing somewhere along the way. It’s irrational I know but it’s a very real fear. I’m much more content to play against the artificial intelligence of various commercially available chess programs. Nonetheless, I highly recommend chess.com both for its AI opponent and a world of potential human players ranging from novice to master.
Despite the ebb and flow of my involvement with chess, the game remains a lifelong passion. I still happily lap up any newsworthy items regarding the game that I happen to stumble upon.
Simply put— I Heart Chess! 🙂