Saturday, June 22, 43 A.B.

If Chess Was A Fish, Would You Have It In YOUR Aquarium?

I've been playing a bit of chess lately.

Quite a bit, actually.

Which is odd, now that I think about it, because I really don't like chess.  It's just that every once in a while I get the overwhelming desire to watch the pretty colors of a computer game dance across my screen and Chessmaster 3000 is about the only game my antiquated system will run anymore.

It's a sign of how desperate I get sometimes that I settle for the bland, barely dancing two colors of a chess game.

And they're not even the right two colors.  I mean, the game keeps asking me if I want to be white or black, and it keeps telling me what the white and black pieces are doing, but the pieces it shows are actually white and red.  It's as if the game program was written by some white racist who divided the world into white and everything else which gets the designation "black."  Except I've noticed this same thing in other chess sets, too.  White is always white, but black can be red or gray or green.  And "black" always has to move second - no alternating back and forth in chess, nosirree.

It's enough to put me in a pissy mood even before anyone has made the first move.

And it doesn't help my male ego any if I happen to be in an analytical mood and I stop to consider how the queen is the most powerful piece on the board while the king is the weakest.  Pawns of course are generally considered the weakest, but even they can do things no king can, like move two squares at once, and sometimes capture pieces that merely pass by them.  Heck, they can even become queens in the right circumstances, and then go flying all around the board just like a natural queen.  The king's job, in contrast, is to flee from danger - one slow square at a time.  If chess ever becomes a movie, any big star who ends up getting cast as the king is sure to fire his agent the next day.
Chessmaster 3000 isn't a very good program, even disregarding all the above flaws.  I know this because they've since come out with Chessmaster 5000 and Chessmaster 10,000 and they wouldn't have had to do this if they'd gotten it right the first few times.  No matter - Chessmaster 3000 is still good enough to whip my ass.

Well, if I let it, anyway.  By that I mean that it offers me a choice of about 10 opponents with names ranging from Novice to Chessmaster.  Most can whip my ass but I can still beat Novice pretty handily.  And that's really good to know, too, since I've been playing chess for about 30 years now.  But I don't need to know it every time I play.  Alas, the main alternative seems to be getting my ass whipped - which just happens to be something I need to experience even less often.

It's funny....  I don't feel bad because my screwdriver is harder than I am, nor do I ever feel bad because my hammer can pound in a nail much better than my fist, and yet I tend to feel bad when a computer - a machine - beats me at chess.  Why?  Does my computer feel bad because I'm far superior at licking an envelope?  Of course not.  So why should I feel bad when it beats me at chess?  The fact that I feel bad over something so inconsequential worries me more than my actually losing does....

Maybe I've been playing computer chess recently for the same reason I sometimes tongue a sore tooth even though doing so only makes it ache more?  Maybe there's a part of me that suspects that if I make things ache enough, some wisdom will seep into my mind along with the pain?

*Cogitating... Please wait... Please wait... Please wait....*

I don't think it matters much that it's a machine that's whipping my ass.  Having been on a high school chess team once upon a time, I can honestly say that having my ass whipped by another human feels even worse.  Why?  It's not as if there's any money at stake, or the hand of a princess, or the fate of the Free World.  Why should I care if someone else is more skilled at moving pieces around a board than I am?  Is that ability of theirs really something to be proud of?

My culture tells me that smart people play chess, and really smart people win when they play.  But is that true?  If these people are really so smart, what are they doing wasting their time playing a game instead of working on a cure for cancer?

I read an interview with Peter Falk once in which the interviewer said to Falk something like, "I hear you're quite a good pool player."  And Falk said something like, "Yeah, I used to be.  But then one day it occurred to me that I might end up having spent half my life knocking balls around a table - and what's the point of that?"

So much of chess is a matter of remembering various opening moves and how to respond appropriately.  Is that really the best use we can be putting our neurons to?  Of all the information we can encode in our heads for instant retrieval, does the proper response to "P-QB4" really rank in importance among the first million?

Or am I merely making excuses for being a lousy chess player?  Rationalizing away my lack of skill and seriousness?  Unknowingly re-enacting that Aesop fable in which the fox declares the grapes he can't have to be sour?

Well, let's put all that aside - the poor colors of the pieces, the emasculating symbolism of the queen, my insecurity in the face of machines, my perhaps self-serving doubts about those people my culture generally respects as admirable and smart.  What does that leave?

Only my antipathy towards the game itself.

Like so many of our games, sports, and other leisure activities, chess seems to pander to certain psychological needs, impulses, and ways of thinking which I would prefer to forget.  It's war in miniature - raw competition undiluted by diplomacy and divorced from the highly problematic results such competition leads to in real life and prompt us to look for alternative approaches.  It is an unfortunate stoking of predator-and-prey instincts in a predominantly agricultural/urban  world which has long since outgrown them.  And every time I win a game and the message "Your opponent has been mated!" pops up, I feel like a rapist.  When I survey the board in search of some compensatory reward which might make me forget that nasty rapist feeling, I find nothing... nothing but a few surviving pieces on a sterile landscape....

The simple fact is that as bad as losing feels, winning feels no better.

Some might say I need to change my odd point of view, lighten up, get with the program, and learn to enjoy things as they are just like millions of others do.  I prefer to wonder how chess might be changed to better fit my needs and sensibilities.

One possibility:  Pacifist Chess.  It would go something like this:

1.  P-K4, Resign.

It's quick.  It's easy.  And it frees up all sorts of memory space for other things.  Plus no game ever ends in an unsatisfying draw.  AND the player playing black is left free to argue that he or she actually wins because he or she doesn't have to burn calories by actually moving a piece.  IMHO, Pacifist Chess has a lot going for it....

Disarmament Chess might be good, too, though.  You start by removing one of your own pieces from the board, then watch as the other player removes one of his or her own.  This continues until just the kings are left.  At that point, the two kings can slowly boogie to the center of the board and share a cookie.  When they're done they can then sell off vacant squares to people who want to build houses and hotels in a place that gets a lot less traffic than the Monopoly board.

Of course not everyone is ready for Disarmament Chess - I realize that.  No Moves Chess might be an acceptable alternative for them.  No Moves Chess allows people to keep all their precious pieces while at the same time it forbids them to bother others by moving ‘em around.  Players just sit and closely monitor the board to make sure no one is moving pieces on the sly.  Well, that's what they do until a couple dozen U.N. checker pieces take up positions on the center rows, anyway.  Then the players are free to go do the dishes or any other chore which suddenly seems like the height of fun in comparison.

Can't afford to foot the bill for those checker pieces?  Legos Chess might be for you.  Players take turns building a wall in the center of the board, one brick at a time.  A variation kept the peace in Berlin for almost 30 years; it certainly ought to be able to keep the peace on a tabletop until both players realize there are much better ways of spending their time.

Finally, there's my personal favorite: Cooperation Chess.  Instead of competing with another person for control of a small, 64-square board that's of little use to anyone, players work together to create new squares out of cardboard or plywood and attach them to all four sides.  These squares can be any aesthetically-pleasing color.  And instead of populating them with silly things like bishops and rooks, players are free to stock them full of useful things, like saltshakers, M&Ms, stamps, and kitty treats.  More ambitious players can even add squares with storm cellars for the safety of gummi bears and high-rise cages for pet crickets.  The only limits are those imposed by the human imagination and good taste - not some rule book written by who knows who, who knows when.

I feel better just thinking about these alternatives!

Now if I can only get someone to play poker with me using my patented Transparent Playing Cards, my day will be complete.

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(©Now by DJ Birtcher even though all the experts
advise castling in this situation instead)