Ran across this and thought it worthwhile:
In Chess Season- Alyce Miller
Massachusetts Review 42, no. 3 (Autumn 2001):
It hath reached me, 0 auspicious King, that when the damsel was playing chess with the expert. . . whatever move he made was speedily countered by her, till she beat him and he found himself checkmated.... So they placed the pieces a second time, when he said in himself, "Open thine eyes or she will beat thee . . . So he moved ... but behold, she moved on, little by little, till she made one of her pawns a queen and pushing up to him pawns and other pieces, to take off his attention, set one in his way and tempted him to take it. Accordingly, he took it and she said to him, ". . . 0 son of Adam, save thy greed. Knowest thou not that I did but tempt thee, that I might finesse thee? See: this is checkmate!"
from The 462nd Night of The Arabian Nights translated by Richard Burton
SOME YEARS AGO when I went through a strange, lonely time, my brother Mark flew out to visit in Berkeley and taught me chess. In fact, now I can't think of chess without remembering the vague unhappinesses preceding his visit that lingered ghostlike at that time over my life.
As children, we'd learned to move the pieces, and over the years I played erratically, without strategy or design. On the other hand, by his late teens, Mark had become a master. My father once referred to him in a fit of pique as a "chess bum." In between sight-seeing at the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands, Mission District, and Chinatown, Mark patiently taught me how to "see," not just a few squares at a time, but the whole board, how to recognize combinations, and what to anticipate. I had all but failed math, with which chess is often associated, but now I yielded-no, submitted-to the dense algebraic puzzle that is chess, an alternate universe so startling in its symmetry that it took my breath away. I was jolted from my doldrums, which had been long in the making.
We played more games than I can count, none of which I won, of course. But the initiation was similar to my first exposure to jazz at a very early age, falling in love with the force of something I could not comprehend. My response to chess, like jazz, was purely visceral, a fact which will always limit me as a chess player. An international master I hooked up romantically with for a couple months informed me once with great disdain, "Chess is played with the head, not with the heart."
That visit, Mark and I played game after game after game in my rent-controlled Berkeley apartment with the 51 bus rumbling by at regular intervals. Sometimes we'd amble down to the cafe patio at Bancroft and College, one of the few coffee houses around that permitted chess games. Usually by midafternoon, amid the college crowd, half a dozen tables had been taken over by chess players, mostly locals, and their boards and pieces. Kibitzers made the rounds, faces tensed, murmurs were exchanged, and chess clocks were punched back and forth.
From age 5 on, Mark had shown prodigious talent at chess and by 7 was playing tournaments. I had always known this, had watched him wandering off with his board and books. He might as well have been going to another planet. Like any good chess player, Mark easily and naturally memorized openings, patterns, sequences, and whole games. He had a gifted mind, a math and logic mind, and went on to major in philosophy, and then law. I, on the other hand, stocked up on literature and foreign language. I was given to dreaming. And so it was that as a distracted, restless child, I fell victim to easy traps in chess, like the vicious fried liver attack, the humiliation of which every beginner will eventually suffer and never forget. I was what is known in chess circles as "chess blind," misreading positions, unable to see the trouncing awaiting me two or three moves ahead. Soon my very smart little brother wearied of my inattention and stupidity, and went off to haunt the college campus in pursuit of more suitable opponents. That was the beginning of our separation and how he got himself into some very deep trouble that lasted well into his twenties.
But now we were both adults, referring back nostalgically to long-ago childhood intimacy, before we'd each gone our separate ways, to opposite Coasts, to very different lives. The first ten years of my life we'd been like twins: spent hours devising schemes, killing each other at Monopoly, spying on people we determined were crooks, trading deep dark secrets. Now we sat, intimate strangers, on a sunny West Coast afternoon under the dappled light of loquat trees on a coffee house patio, plying ourselves with espressos, and playing chess. Mark always played me with a handicap, allotting himself 3-5 minutes or less on the clock to my 30. Each game brought on me a kind of feverish excitement, the old gulf of loneliness filling now with unexpected purpose and hope. Without realizing it, I was infused with a kind of mad joy, slowly transforming into a born-again chess player. There is nothing like the zeal of the newly-converted. I played until I was wrung out. I didn't want to stop. With Mark's encouragement, I began to play strangers, all men, most of whom won. The occasional win I managed to eke out left me almost delirious with satisfaction. By the end of the day, exhausted, my brain pulp, I fell into bed dreaming of 64 squares and their innumerable possibilities.
Chess is a logician's game, not one for the flighty-minded, which is why still, in chess circles, women players are treated with suspicion. It has always been a man's game, the territory of the intellect. Sure, I lacked stamina, I lacked discipline, I lacked technique. But my passion for chess had been curiously lit.
The day of his departure Mark handed me a flexible green and white chess board and the little gray cotton bag of standard plastic pieces. He urged me to consider the Hungarian wunderkind Zsuzsa Polgar as my role model. Oh, generous brother! (Several years later Zsuzsa's younger sister Judit became at age 15 the youngest Grandmaster up to that date, younger, by months, than Fischer when he achieved the same level.)
As if under a spell, I subscribed immediately to Chess magazine, ordered a battery-operated, hand-held chess computer for $49.99 that arrived within a few days, and discovered an on-line chess club with invisible opponents. I kept records of games I played, pored over them to see where I'd gone wrong, what I might have done differently. Being erratically self-employed at the time, I had days of free time, the perfect life-style for the socalled chess bum. It became pure habit to waken in the mornings and reach for the chess books and board, review a few openings, study an end game, and shake the sleep from my eyes. Armed with Reinfeld's Chess Openings and Winning Chess and Nimsowitsch's My System, and a little magnetic travel board, I headed off, still slightly rumpled in body and mind, for coffee to study in public places buzzing with other people, providing the perfect balance of anonymity and companionship. "The chess board is the world," wrote T.H. Huxley, "the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature." And somewhere in that parallel cosmos, I began to come to life again.
Openings, middle games, end games. Pins, forks, discovered checks, exchanges, doubled pawns, tempo, control of the center, gambits accepted and declined became the stuff of not just my vocabulary, but my dreams. There is the elegant movement of rooks and knights and pawns and bishops assuming their shapes and positions, a kinetic sculpture, a perfectly balanced jazz riff, a villanelle. Files, diagonals, pure geometry that I had fought so hard against in tenth grade when earnest and spectacled Mr. Petit tried unsuccessfully to ignite a love in me for the isosceles triangle, the right angle, and all the other figures that translated for me into little more than jagged lines on a page.
I now set forth these words like a naif, an outsider standing on the edges, still in awe of what she will never understand. Any real chess player will read what I've written and scoff. I am the art lover who shamelessly fawns over artists at openings, but couldn't draw a figure to save her life. I am the devotee at the jazz club listening to music I can only lamely pretend to imitate on my flute.
The chess pieces took on lives of their own, and all I did was follow. There is a post card from Switzerland of a life-size chess board, with human players for pieces, each in costume, walking through whole games. I began to imagine the pieces, like the players who handled them, as characters in a novel. Annotations for games in chess books read like miniature narratives: "Black's knight, having done his work, retreats hastily to the safety of his queenside refuge, giving White's bishop an unexpected advantage," or "White's reply, while positionally well-motivated, offers no protection to his exposed and helpless KP."
I began studying openings (the way one practices scales in music) bearing poetic names: Ponziano's Opening, The Giuoco Piano, Petroff's Defense, The Queen's Pawn Counter-g42, no. 3 (Autumn 2001): p. 401-412ambit, and The Ruy Lopez, the Colle system, The Dragon and its variations, The Accelerated Fianchetto, and The Sicilian Defense.
Friday evenings became synonymous with "Berkeley chess club tournaments" at the local YMCA, with pick-up games going on until midnight. It was where the full spectrum of humanity converged strictly for one purpose: to play chess. Scruffy male transients emerged from starkly lit hallways to the large open gymnasium where card tables with chess boards sat in long rows. There was often a stale and musty scent in the air, occasionally overlaid with a sharp bite of urine. Chess players from a...