October 14, 2019

I learned to play chess 77 years ago.Yes, sir.

By John Guy LaPlante

+Sorry, that’s not true. I began playing 77 years ago. I’m still learning.

Here I am, struggling to figure a winning move. Is this really fun?

Way back then I learned a painful feature about the game.

Most board games played by two people involve luck.   Sometimes it’s good luck. Sometimes bad luck.

When you lose, you have a nice excuse. You can say, “Dammit! I had bad luck today.”

Not so in chess. There ain’t any luck. You beat your opponent because you played smarter. You lost because he or she played smarter. That’s the brutal reality. That’s assuming you are evenly matched.

Oh, some say there can be two teeny weeny bits of good luck.The first? If you lock minds with a weaker player. But that’s true in any kind game, isn’t it?

The second? Well, at the start of the game, if you get to make the first move. But that really doesn’t amount to much of an advantage.

Maybe you are not familiar with chess. If not, I’ll explain the game a bit.

Chess involves two warring “armies.” Each with 16 troops, so to speak, including officers and soldiers.

In chess they’re all called “pieces.” One army has white pieces. The other black pieces. Not racially. No, no. Just to tell them apart.

At the start of the game, on one side of the cheeseboard all the pieces are white and on the other side they’re all black.

As you’d expect, the most important piece is the king. You win the game by “getting” your opponent’s king. He wins by getting yours. It’s called “checking” the king, and you do that until he has no way of escaping. That’s called “checkmating” the king.

You start the first game with a ritual. It could be by you, or your opponent. Doesn’t matter. Let’s say it’s by your opponent.

He or she will hold a white piece in one clasped hand and a black piece in the other. They’re clasped so you won’t see which hand has the black and which has the white.

You must tap one. If you tap and get white, that means you will make the first move. If you tap and get black, your opponent will start the game

Let’s say you got the white. So you make the first move and he makes the next one. That goes on until one of you checkmates the other’s king. Game over.

Anyway, I’ve played the game off and on since I was a teenager. “Off” at times for many, many months for one reason or another.

How good am I? I’m sorry you asked. It’s embarrassing. I have been a mediocre player.

I wish I could say a prayer to strengthen my game, or take a pill, or smoke something, but none of that would work.

That doesn’t mean that playing hasn’t been worthwhile, or that I haven’t enjoyed it. Just the contrary.

I play chess these days in a different set-up. I don’t play against another person. I play against players long dead. Sounds crazy, I know. Stick with me. I’ll explain in due time.

And I must tell you that works out nicely. It could work out for you also even if you’re a raw beginner. Sound good?

So in my games now, there’s zero possibility of an opponent rubbing in my defeat or humbling me.  I love that.

Win or lose, I reap a fine double pay-off. I enjoy it. And I’m exercising my brain.The same would be true for you.

But first, let me tell you about my experiences playing over the years.

Way back in prep school, my classmate Roland Blais taught me the game. We were freshmen. He had a chess set. We played now and then right until we graduated.

In the beginning he beat me all the time of course. I got better and better. But at the end, overall he had the edge.

As I look back on the long years since then, I believe I lost more games than I won. Losing hurts even when you’re  playing for fun.

By the way, in those four years Roland and I were pals. I might never have taken up the game if he had not offered to teach me.

Oh, later I found out that he did not come back to start college because his mom didn’t have the money. That was a black day for me.

All that was back in Worcester, Massachusetts. But home for me was Pawtucket, Rhode Island. That was some 40 miles away.

My uncle Emile, my mom’s brother, lived a mile from us.  He was an immigrant from Quebec also.  He was a short-order cook in a diner. A big man and big-hearted too. He smiled a lot but didn’t say much. Easy-going. I liked him a lot.

One day at the beginning of my summer vacation, he brought up the subject of chess. He told me he hosted a chess club at his house every Thursday evening. That was news to me.

He lived a few blocks away in a nice, neat little white cottage with his wife Yvonne.

“Come play with us, Jean-Guy,” he told me. Just the way Roland had invited me. He brought it up more than once.

But I didn’t want to. I’d be way out of my league. But he was my uncle. No way could I say no. So  I showed up one Thursday evening. I was the first to get there. He took me upstairs. Up there was one big empty room.

He had a lot of folding card tables set up, each with two chairs.

His friends began to arrive. French fellows like us, but also Irish and Polish and Italian and whatever. A plumber and an accountant and a salesman and so on. What brought them together was they loved to play chess.

I found out that on those evenings Aunt Yvonne would go visit one of her friends.

Uncle Emile introduced me around. I was the only kid.  I just sat by this table and that table and watched games going on. I enjoyed watching.

They were all good players. Later I began playing a bit.  I was out of my league but that was okay.

Everybody was nice. They all knew how come I was there.

After a month or so, one Thursday I got to see something brand new. A chess master showed up to play all of us. Yes, all of us. Even me. Simultaneously.

Each of us set up a chessboard, but with no player opposite us. All of us would play white against him.  We’d make the first move, starting with whatever piece we deemed best.

Mr. Chess Master would take a few steps to one of us players. Let’s say it happened to be me. He’d look at my move, then make his move.

Then he’d go to the next player and do the same thing.  He’d keep going around and around. Eventually he’d beat one player. Then another. By the end of the evening he’d have beaten all of us except maybe one. If so, we’d all clap nice and loud for our successful colleague.

Then, following my uncle’s lead, we’d all applaud the chess master.   He deserved that. He’d smile and say, “My pleasure!” or something nice like that.

Oh, at the start everybody had dropped money into a cigar box. Whatever we felt like. My uncle gave it all to the chess master.

No way could he make a living at this. He just happened to be a player who had become extraordinarily good, doing this mostly for the pleasure and challenge of it. I never found out what he did for a living.

My uncle Emile dreamed of becoming a chess master, I think. He was a strong player. I had heard he had beaten the chess master once or twice. I was proud of him. But he never made it to master.

I wish he had. That would have given me big bragging rights.

One day he amazed me by saying he played correspondence chess. I didn’t know what that was. When I found out, wow!

A number of men all over the country played correspondence chess. It was called that because they played by mail.

At that time he played with three men in different locations far away. I never found out how he got the meet them.

He would start a game with each one. He’d make the first move, jot it down on a penny postcard along with a few friendly words, and mail it off. And keep a record of that.

In time he would get a postcard back with his friend’s move. And note that down. Then send off another penny postcard. He said it could take forever to complete a game.

How astonished he’d be to see how people nowadays play correspondence chess by computer now.

They may be hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, but they can complete a game as quickly as if they were sitting facing one another.

They can also play against the computer, choosing an easy, moderate, or hard game.

Well, speaking of myself, as the years went by and as I lived here or there, I’d play now and then as occasions came up. Sometimes I’d win. Sometimes I’d  lose. It was just a very nice game.

When I married and our three kids came along. I taught them the game. Just as I taught all three how to type, how to sail a small boat, how to drive, how to do this and that.

I mentioned that to my daughter Monique as I was writing  this. And she corrected me. She said no, no. She had learned the game, yes, but not from me. Well, things must have been very busy or something.

In my years of wide traveling, in the United States and in many other countries, I would play now and then.

I would often stay at hostels. Hostels are wonderful. A hostel is a natural place to meet other travelers. Often from other parts of the world. Lots of hostels have a chess set as standard equipment.

I’d invite somebody to play. Or one would invite me. Some hostelers would have limited English.  No matter. Not a word of English was needed. People all over the world know the game.

Win or lose, by the end of the game I often felt I had made a new friend.

Well, in my years living in Deep River, Connecticut, there was a senior center nearby and it had a chess club. Again, all men, all red-hot enthusiasts.

A man named Roger told me about it. Invited me. He’d play five days a week.I would go one day a week and would play a game or two with him. And would most often lose.  We became good friends.

One day I said to him, “Not today, Roger, I just don’t feel up to it.”

“Okay. But you’re getting better, pal. Come back tomorra and we’ll have a helluva good time.”

Know what? Roger had never even graduated from high school. He couldn’t even spell tomorrow.

It just showed that schoolbook learning had nothing to do with it. It was all about having a certain type of IQ.

For me chess really became regular week in and week out fun when I met milady Annabelle.

She would live with me for six months in Deep River, Connecticut and then I would live with her in Newport Beach, California for six months.

The senior center there also had a chess club. Again all red-hot enthusiasts. As in Connecticut, I would win a few, but lose most. Not much fun.

Well, it turned out Annabelle loved the game. Played well. And we were quite evenly matched. Very nice.

Oh, she also played Scrabble. Was good at it. Taught me the game. Scrabble is a great game. Often we’d play chess one evening and Scrabble the next.

That became part of our way of life. We also played a lot of ping pong. I loved to ride a bike. She did, too.

By the way, chess seems largely a men’s game. Why is that?! It shouldn’t be. Would one or two of you women out there please explain that to me.

Milady Annabelle and I were together for some 25 years. Yes, that’s what I always called her, Milady Annabelle. As some of you know, she died earlier this year

Now in my very old age I play a game now and then.  But as I told you I no longer play against a live opponent. I play with men long dead. That’s because now I do chess puzzles.

What the heck is that? Well, a chess puzzle consists of the last, or the two last, or the three last moves made in some famous game,  perhaps played 50 or 100 years or even 150 years ago.

I have two such puzzle books. My favorite is “Chess: 5,334 Problems, Combinations, and Games.” By Laszlo Polgar. Yes, 5,334!  The book has 1,104 pages! Can you imagine that?

Enough puzzles here to keep you busy for a lifetime. Interested?

Basically all of  them are puzzles, regardless of the words Grand Master Polgar uses in its title. They consist of the windup of the game, so usually there are only a few pieces left on the board.

The puzzles start easy. The first are under the heading, “Checkmate in one move / white to start.”

Well, it sounds easy, but it isn’t. Takes concentration. The book has 306 “Checkmate in 1 move” puzzles. Then it has 3,717 “Checkmate in 2 moves.” And then 173 “Checkmate in 3 moves.”

Each of the puzzles is numbered, starting with number 1 and going up and up to number 5,334.

Let’s say I’m struggling to solve Puzzle 334. I’ve been struggling for 20 minutes and I still haven’t figured out the solution. I give up. But I want to know what the two correct moves were.

I look up Puzzle 334 at the back of the book. That game was won by E. Szentgyorgyi in 1928. The year before I was born. He won by using his knight to take the pawn on e6. There are 64 squares on the board. Each is coded. That pawn was on square e6.

But know what? His opponent is not even mentioned.  For sure he was a very strong competitor. Poor guy! That is true of every loser. That doesn’t sound right to me.

Now here is an astounding thing. If  every day you did just one of the puzzles in this book, yes, just one seven days a week, week in and week out, it would take you 14 years and 164 days to work your way through the whole book.

Maybe there’s somebody out there trying to do that.

Oh, the last big question now is, why do I do these chess puzzles? Yes, why?

The simple answer is that it’s fun. It’s challenging. It doesn’t cost a penny. And best of all, it’s a terrific brain exercise.

I believe that the brain is a muscle. And like our other muscles, it needs a regular workout. Mine definitely does.

There are other ways of doing that, of course, but chess is super.

What’s also nice is that if I fail to solve one or two or three of the puzzles, which happens at times, I’m the only one who will ever know that humbling fact. Never have to blush.

If you’ve never sat down to a chess puzzle, do give it a try. There are numerous chess apps out there. You can download one to your computer or smartphone. You won’t even have to buy a chess set. You can program it to Easy, or Moderate, or Challenging.  Work your way up.

In case you’re interested,  I do two other types of brain exercises. Variety!

The New Yorker, as we know, is acclaimed as a good and very serious magazine for its content. It’s also famous for the wacky, crazy, silly cartoons with captions that it sprinkles through every issue.

I enjoy them. Often what I like to do is look at a cartoon, ponder it, and write a new caption for it. Just for my pleasure. Sometimes I chuckle at my own caption. Now and then I’ll show a few to a friend or two. If they chuckle spontaneously, and not because they feel I’m hoping they will, that makes my day.

I have dozens of such re-captioned cartoons.

Another brain exercise I do is writing poems. Especially limericks, which by definition must be humorous. I’ve done lots of them.

As for serious poems,  I insist that they make sense. If one isn’t easy to understand, it just ain’t a true poem. My opinion. A lot of garbage out there.

I find all this very challenging. A lot of fun. And a good way to keep out of trouble.

Writing something like this is also a pretty good brain exercise. Well, I think so.

Of course, daily physical exercise is also essential.  These days old age is taking its toll on me. Normal. Expected.

Very difficult to get physical exercise. I’m hard put to walk a hundred feet. And that’s haltingly, and with a walking stick. Which I always do with a Great Call Medical Alert hanging on my chest, plus a whistle, in case I take a spill and hurt myself and can’t get up.

Thank goodness I’ve got my tricycle.  Every day I pedal it for the exercise, but also for fun and my errands. Love it. It’s a bad day when rain keeps me inside. Sometimes I won’t use my car for a week or so. Never thought that would ever happen.

I had no intention of telling you this personal stuff. But then I thought, gosh, it may help one or two of you out there. That would be nice.

Oh, an amazing PS about Laszlo Polgar!

He’s the author of my favorite chess puzzle book, as you know. What an incredible, impressive, fine man.

Not only a chess genius! A psychologist who believed that any child, yes, any child of normal intelligence, can become a genius.

And by all accounts, he and his wife did that, proved that, with their three daughters, who remained very nice gals despite their eventual great fame.

If they had had sons, he and his wife believed they could have achieved that same thing. He married her only when he was convinced she’d be the perfect teammate.

They thought of adopting a black child very young. Wanted to prove that race is not a factor. It’s all about upbringing.

Do look him and her up on Wikipedia.

Hey, they might have made me a stronger player.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To subscribe or unsubscribe Click Here