Being a Learner, Again... and again?
Yesterday, Marcus & I at last succeeded in meeting at his place to talk about chess. As with everyone else in our group, we talked over many other things, too. He & I are both 54, and both studied English at university, though in different cities, and he took Classics, too, and went on to a master’s in Cambridge… and other degrees, since. He's been a learner! We found friends in common, in Hobart’s choirs. I really like it that a “proper” study of chess can lead us out into social and public worlds, and back to inner, private ones. But I warn you! Little said to me will remain private! Treated with respect and care, yes; but private? No.
In a way, Marcus’s life has been a leisured one. So has David C’s; and so has mine, necessarily so, restricted by illnesses. Marcus’s has been supported by the family’s wealth, and as we talked inside, the Laycock peacocks cried harshly in the drying summer garden, trailing their iridescent eyes over hissing lawns, and scratching under the tea-trees. Have you noticed how a peacock’s tail seldom touches the ground? They were calling as Marcus concluded regretfully that “someone has to win, in chess.” This reminded me of a wonderful quality which is more likely to be evinced during earlier days of acquaintance with the game. You can see something of it in the photo I first put up about a month ago:
“Checkmate - if that’s okay with you?”
(that's a caption. Marcus was speachless)
Marcus’s embarrassment at winning is in delightful contrast with this morning’s email from Chess.Com, “Discover your chess personality: play like Magnus Carlsen!” Carlsen is famously a brilliant super-brat, the John MacEnroe of the checkered board, the “Aussie-Aussie-Aussie” who would like to sledge you and your wooden pieces with his bat.
Okay, I’ll fess up, strategically: I was a brat, once, and thought myself already superlative. Then I stopped playing chess, and ceased another competitive sport, too, returning to both only half-a-dozen years ago. And oh dear, I no longer believed in my invincibility, previously sustained in the face of inconvenient truths. A brittle ego had shattered, and I now (O brave new world) espoused ideas about cooperation rather than competition, and about shared pleasure, shared vulnerabilities. Life had intervened. I don’t know how many “steps forward” that might entail, and how many backwards. I don’t propose this to you as linear progress: there is certainly loss in such change. The words, “I am” have become dubious, at best. So in taking chess up again, I became a beginner, in a way.
I liked it that I wasn't focussed on outcome, six years ago. I didn't need to win, much, and didn't know when one side had a winning edge. I sometimes disconnected from the other player's intentions and truly played with my own (hmm, sounds dubious, doesn't it?), playing about with trying to create pawn-structures of different kinds, wedges and wings and holes and phalanxes. I found pleasure in making my pieces supportive, and mobile (the masturbatory analogy is hardening). Perhaps most importantly, I was no longer hastening the game to the end of its detective's plot, the orgasmic finale, that reductive conclusion so inadequately defining a game, 0 - 1/2 - 1 . Beginning again, I was more leisured; and six years on, one of the most valued things on my chess.com account is a couple of words from a Finnish man, "great games", celebrating our hard-fought tussles.
So the learner's state is a valuable, enviable one! And it is possible to maintain it. A few years ago, I got to congratulate a friend who had won a tournament the previous weekend, ahead of others rated more highly.
"Yes, I was delighted; I'm still taking it in," he said; and, "You know, in those games I mostly just concentrated on making my positions stronger, and let others make the mistakes."
I liked hearing from him that he wasn't attacking to force conclusion to a game, and that his account wasn't triumphalist but modest, still. That's a valuable aspect of the learner's state, too easily lost and too lightly given up.