A Game of Chess

I learned how to play chess when I was 10 years old from a migrant farmer. I had a bit of an attention span problem so I didn’t gain much from our lessons, other than the names of the pieces and how to move them. I was terrible at chess back then, and to tell the truth, I remain so, but despite my brutal competitiveness that rears its ugly head whenever I’m doing something that even remotely involves winning, I don’t seem to mind that this is a game I almost always lose. For whatever reason, I really like to play chess.

Earlier this week I was writing to a friend about a story I was working on and I said “My problem is actually having something happen in the story. I thought I had all my pieces lined up, but it turns out that I have no plan of attack. Perhaps this goes back to me being a horrible chess player, I don’t know.” (It all ends happily; I figured out what was supposed to happen and finished writing. I don’t like the story much, but then, I can’t have everything, I suppose.)

Anyway, I kept thinking about my lack of chess skills and the way I write. The reason I’m not so good at chess is that I don’t think ahead. When I start, I have some vague idea of how I’m going to do things, but I tend to forget these things when I’m caught up in the game, until suddenly I’m looking at the board thinking “Oh, bloody hell. Checkmate.” With writing, my method seems to be rather similar: I get an idea, I have a general idea of how things should go, I get too interested in the periphery (like whether something should be two sentences or if I should just go for the semicolon), and then suddenly I’m stuck with an irrevocable mess. The difference between writing and chess is, of course, that with writing I can always go back and fix things until they work, yet I think it’s a fair parallel.

It could be dangerous to say so, considering how bad I am at it, but I think chess is a writer’s game. (Along with poker, of course.) Strategic, deliberate, and novelistic in scope (each game is its own story), there’s something inherently writer-like about it. Many writers have used chess in their work, from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (there’s a whole section of the poem called “A Game of Chess”) to Samuel Beckett, who was a fan of the game (makes sense then that one of his plays is named Endgame). Though all writers go about their craft differently (which we covered last week), I think there’s something to be said for knowing where you want things to go and winding up in that exact spot. In the end, I guess writing is a lot like a game of chess, moving the words and ideas (and perhaps semicolons) around until you reach the end and there’s nowhere else to go.

When you write, do you control the direction of things? Or do you follow the path that seems to be laid out for you by your writing? Do you lead it or does it lead you? And, of course, do you play chess?

15 Responses

  1. love chessI’m a great chess
    love chess

    I’m a great chess player, always thought I could beat Fisher, if given the chance. Used to play with my grandfather…until he couldn’t beat me anymore. Then he died. Too bad.

    In writing, I think it’s easier if the character go where they want to and the author just follows along describing what they do. (That’s situation “A”.)

    Situation “B” is when you’re inspired and the spirits of Shakespeare, Kerouac, and Dostoyevski are within you forcing you to put words on the computer screen.

    Or…there’s situation “C” writer’s block. You can’t bring yourself to go back to that half-finished novel, those unstarted short stories, those poems you didn’t bother to submit anywhere. Which is where I am now.

  2. Da Mystery of Chessboxin'”The
    Da Mystery of Chessboxin’

    “The game of chess, is like a swordfight

    You must think first, before you move

    Toad style is immensely strong, and immune to nearly any

    When it’s properly used, it’s almost invincible”

    Do you listen to Wu-Tang Clan? You might. You probably do. They make a great case through a number of their joints that chess is just a metaphor for life.

    And writing is a metaphor for life too, right? It’s not the real thing, but rather it’s symbols that we keep handling, arranging and rearranging until we get them just right.

    It’s not the BEST book in the world, not by a longshot, but if you’ve got a few hours to kill and you’re in a bookstore, check out The RZA’s “Wu-Tang Manual.” There’s a short section on the art of chess, the actual game, and it’s importance (in art, and in life). It might do you just right.

    How I look at it when I write is like: I’m the player, the story (or poem, article, or whatever) is my opponent. We’re friends; this is a game among kin.

    And when we begin, I KNOW where I want this game to be going. Towards an ending I find satisfying (i.e. winning). That can mean a good conclusion, that can mean a paycheck. It all depends on that particular game, and who I happen to be playing with.

    BUT, but… I am NOT my opponent. My opponent, my writing, may have a “mind” of it’s own. And it’s bound to take me in directions I may not have seen, force me to think on my toes, reach and make moves that take me time to puzzle out. Things that make me streeeeetch… to figure what out what it’s all about.

    So, yes. I love chess, learned it from my father. And I love words, learned how to put them in proper order from many, many other wonderful people. Are they the same? Writing’s life, and life’s a game.

    So play more! Get off your computer and go play more! Unless you play chess on your computer (I often do). In that case, just stay where you are.

    This was a good question, Jamelah. But I think the case you make could apply to ANY game, any discipline or study. Isn’t there a Zen saying, something like “From one thing, we know 10,000 things?” Chess can be like editing (eliminating excess “moves,” streamlining the “board” until only victors remain).

    Chess can be like gardening (isn’t a garden just another game board?).

    Chess can be like sex (where you put your pieces… when you make your moves).

    You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? 🙂 When you feel limited in your craft as a writer, or when you feel limited by your skills (or lack of) as a chessplayer, figure out what you RULE at, and see if that discipline when lend you some insight into your current dilemas.

    Or, whatver. I got the soundtrack to the new cartoon “Afro Samurai” (done by the RZA!) today. So I’m going to go check that out.

    Thanks for listening :).

  3. RIVERNo one will believe

    No one will believe this. No one. So I suppose I have nothing to lose by writing it.

    No one got this when I wrote it but there was a current behind the creation of the title of my book: THE BLOOD RUNS LIKE A RIVER THROUGH MY DREAMS.

    I believe deeply in rivers. They do not take to being pushed too well. They have currents of their own.

    I do not remember writing anything.


    Not one word of it.

    Any of it. I will not remember writing this. I am always shocked at what people claim is work written by me. I simply don’t remember writing a single word.

    That there is some (subversive) “plan” amuses me something considerable.

    I don’t plan. Plan what.

    I suppose I write things because both sane and insane people tell me I do.

    But it’s all a river and I’m just in it.

    Often, that river is thick with blood.

    The river is not paradise.

    It doesn’t stop for much. If anything.

    I guess some writers plot war plans. I just shrug.

    I wish that there was an alternative. I wish I would shut the fuck up. I wish I had never written a single word.

    Writing is the demon. I believe that. It is evil and I hate it but there it is.

    I despise writing and I despise books. I told you, you would not believe it.

    The current just moves you downstream. You can fight it if you want. It would not matter what you fight or surrender to.

    My responsibility as a writer is to at least try to survive.

    The river.

    Sometimes I can. Mainly I cannot.

    I give up and then the river really has me.

    There is no game plan. There is no war plan. There is no plan.

    There is only the river and it runs black with blood just outside the bedroom window where the oak tree scratches up against the glass.

    We will never be friends, the river and I. We might have been lovers once. If so, there was some turbulence.

    The truth is that I do not care to know what I have written even if critics are hellbent on informing me.

    I would deny ever writing a single word, but why bother.

    The critics, the audience, and the teachers have never been either relevant or germane to anything I have supposedly put to print. I don’t listen to them because I do not know how and even if I did know how to listen politely, I would not do it.

    No critics. No audience. No teachers. No culture. None of it. There is only the river and it will take you where it wants. You survive it or you don’t.

    I am always treading water and remain incredulous that Other Writer Types can’t see it. The treading water in this whirlpool.

    You won’t believe it. But the blood runs like a river through my dreams.

  4. I Play Chess & My GameI
    I Play Chess & My Game

    I play strangers every Tuesday at a coffeehouse off South Congress in Austin. Sometimes members of my informal chess league show up.
    I’m doing research for a writing project right now. As for the current, I try to develop characters, I try to do everything! But most of all, I try to get a short piece done every week.
    If someone can suggest a good chess book for me to improve my game, please do.

  5. the poker mind and the chess
    the poker mind and the chess mind

    Jamelah, I think you’re on to something here. And, since LitKicks has now run articles comparing writing to chess and to poker, I have to paste in a quote from Edgar Allen Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, where he discusses the mentality of the chess player as opposed to the card player. A chess player calculates, says Poe, but a card player analyzes:

    “The faculty of re-solution is possibly much invigorated by mathematical study, and especially by that highest branch of it which, unjustly, and merely on account of its retrograde operations, has been called, as if par excellence, analysis. Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyse. A chess-player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random; I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by a the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play. If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed resulting in injury or defeat. The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers. In draughts, on the contrary, where the moves are unique and have but little variation, the probabilities of inadvertence are diminished, and the mere attention being left comparatively unemployed, what advantages are obtained by either party are obtained by superior acumen. To be less abstract–Let us suppose a game of draughts where the pieces are reduced to four kings, and where, of course, no oversight is to be expected. It is obvious that here the victory can be decided (the players being at all equal) only by some recherche movement, the result of some strong exertion of the intellect. Deprived of ordinary resources, the analyst throws himself into the spirit of his opponent, identifies himself therewith, and not unfrequently sees thus, at a glance, the sole methods (sometime indeed absurdly simple ones) by which he may seduce into error or hurry into miscalculation.

    Whist has long been noted for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it, while eschewing chess as frivolous. Beyond doubt there is nothing of a similar nature so greatly tasking the faculty of analysis. The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies capacity for success in all those more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind. When I say proficiency, I mean that perfection in the game which includes a comprehension of all the sources whence legitimate advantage may be derived. These are not only manifold but multiform, and lie frequently among recesses of thought altogether inaccessible to the ordinary understanding. To observe attentively is to remember distinctly; and, so far, the concentrative chess-player will do very well at whist; while the rules of Hoyle (themselves based upon the mere mechanism of the game) are sufficiently and generally comprehensible. Thus to have a retentive memory, and to proceed by “the book,” are points commonly regarded as the sum total of good playing. But it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced. He makes, in silence, a host of observations and inferences. So, perhaps, do his companions; and the difference in the extent of the information obtained, lies not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation. The necessary knowledge is that of what to observe. Our player confines himself not at all; nor, because the game is the object, does he reject deductions from things external to the game. He examines the countenance of his partner, comparing it carefully with that of each of his opponents. He considers the mode of assorting the cards in each hand; often counting trump by trump, and honor by honor, through the glances bestowed by their holders upon each. He notes every variation of face as the play progresses, gathering a fund of thought from the differences in the expression of certainty, of surprise, of triumph, or of chagrin. From the manner of gathering up a trick he judges whether the person taking it can make another in the suit. He recognises what is played through feint, by the air with which it is thrown upon the table. A casual or inadvertent word; the accidental dropping or turning of a card, with the accompanying anxiety or carelessness in regard to its concealment; the counting of the tricks, with the order of their arrangement; embarrassment, hesitation, eagerness or trepidation–all afford, to his apparently intuitive perception, indications of the true state of affairs. The first two or three rounds having been played, he is in full possession of the contents of each hand, and thenceforward puts down his cards with as absolute a precision of purpose as if the rest of the party had turned outward the faces of their own.”

  6. well now I’m depressedI’m
    well now I’m depressed

    I’m also a wretched chess player.

    I remember learning the game at age eight, taught by a friend whose parents mandated that he play at least two games a day, likely because they had read in some magazine that little boys who play chess are more likely to become doctors and marry nice Jewish girls when they grow up.

    After losing fairly consistently to my friend for a few months, I felt I’d developed the skills necessary to teach my little brother the rules, and then proceed to checkmate the living shit out of him. So I taught him (being my younger brother, he’d go along with me for just about anything, no matter how boring he found it), and the first few games were massacres. But then, out of nowhere, he started beating me. Again and again. And to make it more infuriating, he would occasionally get confused and ask, very sweetly and innocently, “wait, how does the knight move?” Then he’d take me out four moves later.

    What bothered me the most about this was that I didn’t feel my brother appreciated the reasons why he kept winning. He just did it, and usually in messy, improvised ways. Sometimes I would get upset, and explain to him at length how brilliant my strategy for that game had been, how clever, how intricate, going back over the game move by move in order to demonstrate that, while he had won easily, my game had been so much more stylish and cerebral. But still he won, almost every time.

    Academic writing has always been second-nature to me (unfortunately). As a journalist, I always have to watch myself when quoting other people, as I have a tendency to add, subtract, and substitute words to make the quote sound better (I realized I had a serious problem with this when I found myself “tweaking” a passage from Henry James). Yet fiction has always been extremely difficult. When I begin a story, the first things I think of are the major motifs, the metaphors, the ways in which this story will cleverly skew the symbolic order of some other story. While writing I spend a lot of time on individual sentences, endlessly reworking them until they sound absolutely perfect. Only after I’m done do I realize that the story makes no sense. Or that it has no plot. Or – most common of all – that the story just stops without really ending; that I didn’t quite finish the job.

    I’d honestly never thought about this before, but my problems with chess are exactly the same as my problems with fiction writing. Bummer, man.

    (By the way, I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Vladimir Nabokov. His first published works were chess columns written for a Berlin newspaper; his third novel – which, in Russian, translates to “The Luzhin Defense” – was about a chess player; and when once asked why he was writer, he replied, with typical smarmy understatement: “I just like composing problems with elegant solutions.”)

  7. I empathize. If we really
    I empathize. If we really want to be depressed and stay depressed, go back to Brooklyn, and apply any (pick one) convoluted theory to REWRITING. Oh, my god. I unequivocally reject the very sick and twisted notion of REWRITING. Just put a lampshade on my head, make me balance naked on a chair to barking dogs, and plug me in. How can I possibly rewrite something I have no recollection of writing in the first place. Rewriting. I hope there’s no theory behind it. Just bite me.

  8. 1,2-1 or 1-1,2That’s how the
    1,2-1 or 1-1,2

    That’s how the horse moves.

    I used to play chess with my father and it was fun, but now, I can’t concentrate on it because all I can think about in my spare time are these stories I’m writing.

  9. And just like little brother,
    And just like little brother, you’ve written an interesting story without really trying.

  10. Hi Will — Gotta love any
    Hi Will — Gotta love any reply that involves Wu-Tang.

    Anything can be compared to anything else, that’s true. I like to say that writing is like pie.

    Before I die I hope to get to a point where I don’t suck at chess, so I guess I’d better be careful not to die anytime soon.

  11. And then up in a response, I
    And then up in a response, I said that writing is like pie, which is not a game, but maybe I’ll get to that next week. Hehehahem.

    The Poe is a nice addition, thanks.

  12. Ah, there’s nothing wrong
    Ah, there’s nothing wrong with academic writing, except when it’s unreadable and full of jargon, which happens more often than not, but occasionally it’s really good. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I know I have to reconcile myself with the fact that I’m going to have to break down and go to grad school, though I haven’t quite gotten there yet.

    For the most miserable eight months of my life I was a reporter, which is neither here nor there, but it was always entertaining when people would babble nonsense for 10 minutes and then say “Make me sound good.”

    After reading your response, I became further convinced that chess and writing go together like The Captain and Tenille. My all-time favorite rejection letter said “This sounds good, but we typically publish more traditional pieces that contain things like character development and plot.” Who knew such things were important when there were such gorgeous sentences to be written?

  13. Watch a movie called Shatranj
    Watch a movie called Shatranj Ke Khiladi (it means the chess players), it might not improve your chess game , but it’s really interesting. It’s about these two guys who play chess all day and night.

  14. I get the “make me sound
    I get the “make me sound good” request approximately 15 times a week. Actually, in what has thus far been the high point of my professional life, two months ago I got to go to Gore Vidal’s house and sit with him in his living room for a 45 minute interview. (I know that it was 45 minutes because he stopped, mid-sentence, right when the first side of my 90 minute tape clicked off, and said “well, that’s enough of that, don’t you think?”)

    Anyway, Vidal is one of the greatest talkers of the last half-century; perhaps the only person I’ve ever met who somehow uses semicolons while speaking. And yet, as I was leaving, he called after me: “I trust you’ll make me sound reasonably coherent in this…THING you’re writing about me, won’t you?”

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