The authorities labeled me as “smart” very early in my life, forever cancelling any chance I’d had for a normal childhood. Being smart, I was expected to do and like certain things, in much the same way as a boy who grows to seven feet in height is expected to be a basketball player, whether he really wants to or not.
The game prescribed for me was chess, and I never really liked it. Now, I’m not talking about messing around with friends and relatives in the den or in the car or under the trees in the backyard. I’m talking about SERIOUS chess with people who are SERIOUS ABOUT chess. Even at that young age, I had hoped that maybe people who were “Smart, Like Me” would be like me in other ways, for example, not competitive. How wrong I was! My chess peers saw the game not only as a measure of relative intelligence, but also as a gauge of one’s value as a human being.
Of course, chess is not a fair measure of intelligence – it’s all about pattern recognition, patience, and experience, but don’t try telling the chessters that. Theirs is a universe bounded by the game, and nothing else matters. Man, thought I, this is really what I’m supposed to be? I’d rather wander around town with my camera, watch ballgames, and chase girls. Why was I not offered that option?
My career as a competitive chess player started when I was thirteen, and lasted for four months. I was politely asked to leave by my coach and the team captain, who acted as if they were concerned that I might slit my wrist upon hearing the news. I spent the rest of the day at the park, and I can’t remember ever feeling better in my life.
The main reason they wanted me out was not that I was so bad – it was because I didn’t have the proper “competitive attitude,” or that’s what they said. A look at my match record gives some insight into this: I had zero wins, one loss, and seventeen draws. You see, I’m an Aquarius, and I’m easily bored. I’d start off well, then lose focus and start making mistakes. But I had learned to recognize and exploit the patterns related to earning a draw once I could not longer win. So I did it. I though it was fair, but the coaches, my opponents, and even my teammates hated me for it. It got to where I hated going to practice. I was ecstatic to be released, and as I watched the Little Leaguers in the park that day, I swore that chess would never again be part of my life.
Over the 35 years from then until now, I’ve done pretty well in that regard. But quite recently, I found myself fulfilling a social obligation with a casual acquaintance I’ll call Simon. I won’t take up time with the details – I’ll just tell you that I was going to be with him for three hours and there was no way out.
Simon wanted to play chess.
Well, it won’t be so bad, thought I. I actually won the first couple of games. But then, my focus waned. I started to think about other places I might be just then, and I started making mistakes. Then I was forced into going for a draw, and then another one. It was kind of cool that I still remembered that stuff, but all I could think of was how much I didn’t like to play chess and how much I didn’t want to be playing chess. Then Simon scored a win, and his bray of triumph was almost more than I could stand. I excused myself to visit the restroom and get some water.
We’d only been playing for one hour – two hours left to go, and I’d already been seconds from clobbering poor Simon in the jaw. These days, I have the maturity and insight to realize it’s about me and not him, but I still have to figure out effective ways to intervene myself. What would I do?
I realized one thing that was bothering we was the rapid pace Simon had set – we’d gotten through six complete games in just one hour. What if I could slow it down, and in so doing give my mind something to do that didn’t have anything to do with the chess game? So when I returned, I kept an eye on the clock on the wall, and made sure I took two full minutes before each move. Then I calculated how many more moves there would be in two hours, and how many more games there were likely to be, and estimated all manner of game play milestones, updating those estimates as we played on.
I thought Simon might complain about my slow pace, but he never did, so I pushed the time up to three minutes. I furrowed my brow and pretended to be deep in thought. Sometimes I’d reach toward the board, then pretend to change my mind and draw my hand back. And often, I’d just sigh, shake my head, and look at Simon, as if his prowess had confounded me totally.
Before long, Simon and I were singing along to the songs he was playing on Spotify, joking about each other’s singing, and having a grand time. I stayed fifteen extra minutes to finish our last game. In the car on the way home, I thought, I actually had a good time. How the hell did that happen?
For years I thought that I hated chess, but as it turns out, it was really the feeling of being trapped within the expectations of others that was making me squirm. As I struggle to find a livelihood that utilizes my talents and soothes my soul, I often find myself feeling trapped in this way. At least now I know that I’m clever enough to find a way out.
And there is nothing wrong with a draw, nothing at all. I will never tease my soccer friends again.
***** Copyright 2014 by Mud Toe Sasquatch – all rights reserved