This piece is entitled “The Passion of Chess” rather than “The Passion for Chess”, the reason for which I hope will become clear as you read this. Why do we play chess? Why do we study it? Indeed, what is it about this game that devours some people whole, driving them to madness?
Thoreau wrote that he would not talk about himself so much if there were anyone else whom he knew as well, and similarly I can only answer these questions for myself. If they resonate also in you, then we are both fortunate.
Like many, I first learned the movements of the pieces early in life, but growing up in small town Iowa I had no one to play with, and the game never took root with me until four years ago. That is when I enrolled my younger daughter in a chess class and my education began. I sat in the back of the room, observing and listening, and my personal curse was catalyzed. I tend to become intensely interested in whatever I am exposed to. After inconspicuously absorbing several lessons, I began to play silently on my PDA as I waited for the class to end.
After some weeks, this was not enough for me and I hovered about the boards at the adjacent chess club, watching the regulars play their skittles and blitz, and browsing the large collection of chess books. I purchased some and studied at home, eventually mustering the courage to test myself against others in the club. I lost 21 games in a row before having my first victory over a young beginner. I continued to study and play, and eventually I began to win more games. Each such victory fed the beast within. Even when I lost, I was satisfied if I made the victor work for his win, or if I learned some previously unknown principle or tactic.
Today chess is part of my daily life. I study or play nearly every day. I am never satiated, only empassioned, whether from a loss, a win, or a scrap of knowledge. Chess seems a self-organizing entity to me, an intellectual black hole, animated with gravitational power to engulf anyone who comes near.
The game encompasses seemingly limitless paths to pursue. The personalities of the game attract the psychologist, its development the historian, and its form the mathematician. The opening is a riddle for the scientist, the middle game a canvas for the artist, and the endgame an equation for the engineer.
Personalities in chess abound, and strange behavior is not uncommon. Perhaps the best known example is Bobby Fischer. Paul Morphy is not the only ‘pride and sorrow’ of chess. And why are so many child prodigies to be found in this game, but not others? Can the psychologist illuminate?
Its long global history serves chess well as an object of study. GM Daniel King wrote that, “It is a curious fact that great advances in the development of chess theory have often taken place in cities and countries where there has been a general flowering in culture or advancement in learning.” There is much to attract the historian.
Form and structure preside over the 64 squares of this universe. Mathematicians, to whom no topic is immune, have created an entire literature of the game, and the solitary scholar can spend countless hours exploring the vast abyss of the game.
The student may become devoted to learning the intricacies of opening theory. Why do chess masters prefer one move over another in this or that opening? What is the reason behind each move? What are the refutations to moves outside “the book”? What if the masters are wrong about this move? Is there a branch to the tree that bears riper fruit than what they can see?
A player can become engrossed in the novelties and beauty of the tactical middle game, that great wellspring of human creativity. We all secretly dream of being Morphy at the Opera House, our games studied and admired for centuries thereafter.
The endgame appeals to those with an exacting mind who understand the physics and equations of the game. There are two solutions to the quadratic, and the engineer knows them both. This endgame is a function with one answer to each of the opponent’s possible moves. The engineer has internalized it.
If I can be psychologist, historian, and mathematician, if I can be scientist, artist and engineer, then I can be Renaissance Man of chess. Chess is seductive. It draws me in with its passion, the Passion of Chess, and I am enticed by its allure.