April 1, 2021 | Arts and Culture
an ode to chess
a lifelong journey with the greatest game ever made
“This is the hathi, the elephant.” My father held a strange wooden figurine between his earth-brown fingers as we sat cross-legged on the ground. He placed the hathi on the checkered board between us and slid it gently over the board’s surface. “It can move only in straight lines, front to back or left to right,” he said in Hindi. My five-year-old imagination began to race as he demonstrated the hathi’s strange movement. I started to see the lumbering, unstoppable strut of the great elephant, walking over the board and taking everything in its path. “Yeh ghoda hai,” he continued, picking up a different piece. “This is the horse. I’ll tell you a secret—this one’s my favorite. It moves in an L-shape, and it’s the only piece that can jump over other pieces.” Watching my dad make the figurine dance hypnotically over the brown and white squares, my young imagination saw the graceful horse galloping around and over all obstacles.
He continued, introducing me to the rest of the pieces: the pawn, the camel, the king, and the queen. He taught me the rules of the game, and I began to see the board as an arena, captivated by the almost magical interplay between the jungle animals, Indian royalty, and the creativity of the player to direct them all to the win. In only a couple hours, I learned how to play chess. I had fallen in love with the game already.
For the next couple years, chess stayed a family thing for me. I would play on weekends with my dad or sister, and every Diwali, Thanksgiving, and Christmas my whole extended family would gather around the chessboard and play nonstop until a victor emerged. Being the youngest of 12 cousins, I started off the undisputed loser—an easy win in every bracket. But within a couple months, I began to really get the hang of the game. More and more, I’d leave my 18-year-old cousins scratching their heads and breathing through their teeth on the other side of the board. By the time I was 10, nobody in my family, except my dad, could beat me.
“I’m taking you to a free chess class in town this Saturday—I think you’ll have fun,” my dad told me on a sunny spring Thursday. Usually I would have complained about spending weekends in more class, but this time, I happily agreed. A couple days later, my dad dropped me off in the basement of our local town hall. I sat quietly in the dingy corner as a strange old man barked strategies at us. He called the pieces unfamiliar names: the magisterial hathi became the rook, the prancing ghoda became the knight, and the knobby camel became a bishop. At the end, when we sat down to play, he checkmated every kid in four moves—a gimmick called Scholar’s Mate. Where was the beauty, creativity, and interplay? Where were the jungle animals and Indian royalty? If this was the next step of chess, I didn’t want to be a part of it.
My dad made me attend a few more classes, just to give it a shot. Each one was worse than the last, and soon I stopped going. I continued to play chess with my family as I had before, but the game’s original magic was missing. Where before I enjoyed positional beauty and imaginative movements, the class had drilled the ethos of winning only for the sake of winning. As my already mature cousins grew older, left home, and got jobs, our Diwali tournaments and Christmas chess-fests dwindled. Outside of the odd game, I even stopped playing with my dad. By the age of 13, chess had faded entirely out of my life.
I got back into chess during last winter break thanks to my brother-in-law, Phil. He came home with my sister for a couple months around Christmas, and with him, he brought his obsession with chess. His first day home he asked me to play with him. I said yes, hoping to spend some time together, not so much caring about the game. An hour later, Phil had destroyed me five or six times in a row. Trying to wrap my brain around the genius way he moved his pieces on the board, I felt a familiar spark light in my chest. I did the first thing any quarantined 18-year-old would—I made a chess.com account and binged The Queen’s Gambit.
From winter break on, chess developed into a full-blown obsession for me. I still love the beauty of each game the way I did as a kid. I’m fascinated by the near infinite possibilities of play. The Shannon number puts a conservative lower bound estimate of “typical” 40 move chess games around 10^120 (for scale, there are estimated to be around 10^81 atoms in the universe). Chess, a game centered around decision making, requires players to think ahead multiple moves, attempting to consider the thousands of possibilities of what their opponent could do. Chess is a world of what ifs. There’s nothing hidden on the board—it’s one of the rare games with no randomness. Players can see everything their opponent can, and it’s simply about who can interpret it more fully, coupling creativity with analytical rationality. Super grandmasters, the top competitive chess players in the world, can think around 15 to 20 moves ahead, considering the merit of an unfathomable number of positions. In 2019, for example, Russian grandmaster Daniil Dubov (my favorite player) found a forced checkmate 13 moves ahead in his game against Rasmus Svane. This means that Dubov chose his move because he saw that no matter what Svane responded, he could force checkmate 13 moves later. Although I know I’m unable to do that level of calculation, I find immense joy in trying to parse through infinity for those impossible-to-find lines.
Outside of the positions and possibilities, chess is still a two-player game, and the opponent is everything. With the infinite possibilities available, a player’s choice in moves— their playstyle—is incredibly individualized and reveals aspects of their personality. My brother-in-law Phil prefers aggressive and tricky moves that throw off the opponent, a playstyle I see in the way he played tennis during college. My roommate Sacha plays sly defensive maneuvers that reveal themselves as brilliant attacks five moves later, and I see his playstyle in his quiet kindness and thoughtfulness. As for myself, I like to think I center my game around aggressive pawn moves that disrupt the opponent’s position—I try not to think about what that might say about me. I’ve realized my childhood chess teacher was wrong: chess isn’t really about winning. It’s about the ways in which you try to win, how you play to your own strengths to achieve your goals.
I’m far from alone in falling in love with chess over quarantine—online chess has surged globally since March of last year. In many ways, the 1500-year-old Indian game has found a new home in the world of e-sports. Long before COVID-19 pushed tournaments online and top players started getting signed to e-sports labels, online chess was already hugely popular: in 2014, chess.com reported 1 billion games played on the site. Online chess personalities like Agadmator and Hikaru have garnered millions of subscribers analyzing games, giving lessons, and streaming on Twitch and YouTube. In many ways, good chess is more accessible than ever. For centuries, chess was the game of elite European gentleman; now all the tools necessary to become a good chess player are available to anybody with an internet connection. Despite this, professional chess remains incredibly inaccessible—increasingly, reaching the upper echelon of play requires training from the earliest age. Becoming a professional chess player requires expensive classes, a childhood dedicated to the game, supportive parents, access to tournaments, and so on—all the marks of privilege. Even more, chess and its fans have made the game an elitist online space that worships a false and constructed idea of “intelligence.” As masses flock to the game, the world of professional chess remains elite, inaccessible, and dominated by white men. This doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
Despite its issues, I still appreciate all that chess has added to my life—the mesmerizing moves, the individuality and communication, and the self-discovery I associate with the game have made the overwhelming stress of the last few months much more manageable. In January of this year, a month after getting back into the game, I challenged my dad to a serious match. After some clever maneuvers with my ghoda and hathi, I trapped my dad’s king in the corner of the board—a suffocating checkmate.
“You played a good game,” he said, resignation weighing on his voice.
“It really wasn’t all that,” I replied. “Here, let me show you where you went wrong.” I moved the pieces back to where they had been a couple moves earlier. “You should have moved the rani here, not here. Now I get to fork you with the ghoda and your entire position crumbled.”
“Ahh, I see. Chalo, I won’t do it again. You want to play one more?” he asked.
“Of course.” I slid all the pieces back into position, watching the jungle animals reform around their king and queen. “Let’s play.”