I’ve always liked the idea of chess, I just was never very good at it.
What’s not to like? You have the classic board, these lovely little pieces doing battle. You can project almost anything onto the board, be it the calculating tactician moving his pieces across the map of disputed territories or the tangled love affairs of two families at war for the same crown.
My folks had a chess set, old even when I was a kid. It’s pictured here after its resurrection from the depths of the basement. Faintly stamped on the inside of the folding chessboard is the phrase ‘Made in Poland’ and it’s honest to goodness metal used for both the hinges and the hook that holds it closed. The pieces appear to be hand carved, only in that they are irregular, with different widths and different angles of cuts that make up the faces of all of the pieces, down to their little green felt bottoms.
The book pictured with the chess set is Logical Chess, a Viable Paradise book recommendation by the esteemed Jim MacDonald. His lecture on writing was framed in metaphor, and chess was one of them — for conceptualizing your story, understanding that every move a protagonist makes results in a reaction, and vice versa. Your novel is made of these pieces, and in the vein of good chess, you only move the pieces you need to move and you always think in terms of the longer game.
And since I need very little prodding to buy books, and since I remembered loving chess (or at least the idea of chess), picking up the book was a no brainer. I’m going through each game the book describes, moving the pieces along as I read. It both relaxing and invigorating as much as it is educational.
However, another metaphor reared its head while playing, one that has amused me to no end and has made me mindful about other stuff, particularly my ego and especially about persistence.
When I was a kid, I played chess never thinking beyond the immediate move — and that usually meant I lost the game. I had this inexplicable and unfounded belief that if I played wildly, without care, that somehow this undiscovered raw talent for chess would emerge and I would start winning games. Become, suddenly and with no real effort, good. The fact that it never happened that way was only a minor deterrent at first. When it kept not happening, when my inner chess-savant simply refused to present itself, I stopped playing.
Flash forward to present day, where my hand was poised over the Queen when the little thunderbolt of awareness hit me — that was how I thought about my writing back in the day! That it would all just stream out of me, perfect, if I was meant to do it.
I chalk that up to being a bright kid. (EGO!) When I was in grade school, stuff came easily to me. I didn’t have to work for it and I got praised by parents and teachers alike. If I came up against something I wasn’t naturally good at, I would think there was no point in applying myself towards something I showed no aptitude in. As a result, I developed poor work habits. Eventually there came a time when the stuff I was good at needed more out of me then what I’d needed to provide up until then — and I checked out, even with writing. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing, I thought, since it’s not coming to me naturally.
Like it was magic or something, girl? Sheesh. Oh, the funny lies we tell ourselves.
So there I was the other day, thumbing through the chess book to learn the code to understand what the hell Qxg6+ means*, remembering how I thought as a kid that I should just have this innate talent for the game and instead I got so frustrated I stopped playing altogether — and BOOM, the object lesson clicked into place.
I had mostly learned that lesson with respect to writing about five years ago when I started taking writing seriously and realizing it would be a long apprenticeship. But the wider cause and effect didn’t occur to me until that moment. I felt a little foolish for a few minutes, then picked up the Queen and went on to the next game.
I’m still terrible at chess. A third of the way through the book that demonstrates using the greatest chess matches of the last hundred plus years and my computer will still soundly spank my ass if we play head-to-head. But I’m learning. Even when you lose, even when you don’t make the thing you set out to make, you learn.
Humble, stubborn persistence is a skill we must learn, sooner or later. Probably the most important skill.
* The Queen takes the piece currently on square G6 and puts the opposing King in a state of Check.