Chess and Loneliness
Ah, a cheery subject for Christmas! Let me establish that I love my friends and family and spending time with them. However, the introspective personality needs something to get lost in, lest it become lost in itself. Music, films, books – games of chess. I freely admit I'm a loner, and it's a rare party that could make me happier than I would be relaxing into an armchair with a chessboard, a good chess book, and a huge mug of tea.
While we all know that the stereotype of the chessplayer as an asocial nerd is not true, one has to wonder at people who are content to sit at a chessboard for hours, poring over variations without speaking to anyone. To be able to do this it helps to be able to be comfortable with being by yourself with nothing but the workings of your own mind – but not too comfortable (as the Fischer example shows). It's interesting how the top GMs often have large teams of seconds working for them. I believe this is not just so they can benefit from the knowledge of others, but also so that they can interact socially with like-minded individuals, and perhaps even gain emotional support. Even loners need other people. What can a shy person do that goes beyond the virtual world?
Befriending a stronger player who is willing to show you a thing or two will really boost your strength. It takes a little toughness – stronger chess players sometimes enjoy making fun of weaker ones, pretending their superior skill is based on native talent rather than hard work – but if you stick in there you're guaranteed to get something out of it. Take any mockery as a kind of test rather than a barrier. You'll usually find that strong players are happy to share some of their knowledge if you have a genuine interest.
Chess clubs are also terrific. While it's true that putting a large number of somewhat socially awkward people together is not always a recipe for good times, you're guaranteed a conversation about something you all hold dear. I can't say I've ever been bored at a chess club. Clubs tend to have the same people frequenting them as well, so new members are usually very welcome even if it doesn't appear that way at first. You'll just have to ease into the banter, the in-jokes and the references.
Tournaments can be a lot more intimidating, although actual social interaction is minimised. Most competitors are happy to do a post-mortem after your game, and even a weaker player can show you something you didn't know before. You do need a thicker skin for this, though. The majority of players are polite and follow etiquette, but ocassionally you'll run into someone unpleasant.
An anecdotal detour: One of the rudest things I've ever encountered at the chessboard was an opponent who, when she saw that her position was lost, retreated into the bathroom for an hour, leaving me twiddling my thumbs. The TD noticed but I don't think there was anything he could do, since she wasn't trying to cheat or break the rules. She came back with two minutes left on the clock to blitz out the losing moves, then barely shook hands, and refused to sign the scoresheet. I was speechless. I'm sure others have encountered worse! Unfortunately, I saw her use the same trick in a different tournament on another opponent. The TDs are there to enforce rules, not basic courtesy.
Finally, don't be discouraged if you lose a lot of games. If you're new, you have to realise that most established players have been playing for a long time and have a lot more experience and skill. You may think you are smarter or more booked up – and you may be right – but experience counts for a lot. Don't be afraid to admit you don't understand something.
If you're going to take this advice and try something new, please don't make it a New Years resolution. Just do it. The change in thinking required for something like this does not occur in one big moment, but over thousands of little moments that will never be noticed, let alone recorded. Get the wheel in motion, don't just write about doing it.
To quote the high stakes poker player David "Viffer" Peat: 'The only thing stopping you is fear.'
Merry Christmas everyone!