Who Moves the Pieces?

Chess Pieces

Here is one of Jorge Luis Borges’s sonnets about chess. Except, as you can imagine, it is about more—a whole lot more.


Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,
straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn—
over the checkered black and white terrain
they seek out and begin their armed campaign

They do not know it is the player’s hand
that dominates and guides their destiny.
They do not know an adamantine fate
controls their will and lays the battle plan.

The player too is captive of caprice
(the words are Omar’s) on another ground
where black nights alternate with whiter days.

God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
of dust and time and sleep and agonies?

The translation is by Alastair Reid. Having just finished a cup of hot yerba mate at 9:30 in the evening, after having read a collection of Argentinean short stories by César Aira, I find myself, once again, drawn toward the land of the Sol de Mayo.

Haibun: At the Ruins of Dzibilchaltún

The Temple of the Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltún

A Haibun is a uniquely Japanese medium in which prose and haiku poetry are interspersed. I will attempt to memorialize some of my travel experiences using the Haibun genre from time to time. My intent is to follow the style of Matsuo Bashō:

First look at the ruins
My eyes glued to the chess board
Losing to my guide.

On my first trip to Yucatán in November 1975, I ordered guide services from a company called Turistica Yucateca. The lady who ran the company couldn’t speak a word of English, but we managed to communicate by nouns more or less common to English and Spanish. As my first destination, I chose Dzibilchaltún, about 20  miles north of Mérida. My guide, who had his own vehicle, was Manuel Quiñones Moreno who spoke good English and was well educated. I spent a few minutes looking at the ruins, which were mostly fairly ramshackle; but then he brought out a chess set, and we played several games. I lost all of them.

I have always loved chess, but not with any degree of proficiency.

In any case, I didn’t hold it against Manuel. I hired him the next day to show me the ruins of Acanceh and Mayapán. I kind of wish that Turistica Yucateca were still around, but that was almost half a century ago.

Things change.



Why I’m Such a Lousy Chess Player

White to Move and Mate in 2

Actually, I do not know the solution to the above chess problem, although it is a famous one by fellow Hungarian György Bakcsi. I suppose, given a large expanse of time, I could figure it out. (My source is here, but no solution is given.)

I probably would never have gotten into this position. You see, I am an odd sort of chess player. Instead of seeking unbalanced positions that lead to a win, I seek balanced positions that have a high aesthetic value. And that’s when I lose. I have frequently lost to people who learned the moves from me. I’m very good at teaching people how to play chess; but I’m not very good at teaching people how to win at chess. Oh, I can go over the corridor mate, the fool’s mate, and various other typical positions as samples; but I am useless at showing how to set up the position.

And yet I love chess. If I could, I wouldn’t mind traveling with a chess set and chessboard, setting it up in a public place, and going over the moves of such great players as Capablanca, Alekhine, and Keres. You know what would happen, though? Someone would come up and offer to play chess with me. I would invariably turn my would-be opponent down, because I am more interested in studying chess than playing, especially with strangers.

No matter, I still love the game. When the children of my friends try to interest me in their computer games, I always tell them there is only one game for me, and that is chess. It is infinite. The different combinations of the first 10 moves by white and black alone is a number larger than the number of atoms in the universe.

My Periodicals

The New York Review of Books (Semi-Monthly)

There are four periodicals to which I subscribe which I actually read. They are, in descending order of importance to me:

  • The New York Review of Books, a semimonthly on politics with book and art reviews.
  • The New Yorker, a weekly that has seen better days, but still publishes at least one or two great essays a month.
  • Gilbert, the monthly publication of the American Chesterton Society.
  • Chess Life, a monthly which I scan and about which I entertain a pipe dream of being able to read with the attention it deserves.

The one that is probably least familiar to most readers is Gilbert. Each issue has a couple of rare essays by G. K. Chesterton and other articles on Catholicism and distributism, Chesterton’s pet economic policy that is described at length in several of his books.

A Recent Issue of Chess Life Featuring U.S. Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura

I’ve always had this dream of being able to take the time to analyze grandmaster-level chess games intelligently. It takes intense work, and if in public, one is likely to be interrupted by someone who wants to play chess with you. (I would prefer to avoid playing chess with strangers—too much ego involved!)  I don’t actually want to be able to play chess well as much as I want to develop better analytical skills. At my age, I don’t think I can become a much better chess player than I already am, but it is fun to see the decision-making skills of people like Hikaru Nakamura. It’s actually more of an aesthetic impulse on my part.

I also have a library of books with annotated chess games by the great masters. Whether I will ever be able to spend any time doing this remains to be seen. Some people go for golf or fishing. Fior me, it’s chess.


Staunton Design Chess Pieces in Play

Staunton Design Chess Pieces in Play

Chess is for me a lifelong obsession. Not that I’m any good at it: I tend to be too unaggressive, too defensive. But I love to follow the game and even, from time to time, solve endgame problems.

Why am I drawn to chess? Is it because it approaches infinity in the number of possible chess games—a number that exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. According to Chess.Com:

The number of legal chess positions is 10^40 [that’s 10 to the 40th power], the number of different possible games, 10^120. Authors have attempted various ways to convey this immensity, usually based on one of the few fields to regularly employ such exponents, astronomy. In his book Chess Metaphors, Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy. Another staple, a variation of which is also used by Rasskin-Gutman, is to say there are more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the universe. All of these comparisons impress upon the casual observer why brute-force computer calculation can’t solve this ancient board game. They are also handy, and I am not above doing this myself, for impressing people with how complicated chess is, if only in a largely irrelevant mathematical way.

After only a few moves, the chess player is staring at infinity. No doubt, many of the moves are atrocious, perhaps even borderline illegal; but the variety of possible moves is truly staggering.

Even if I am not a good player, I love the literature of chess. I have just finished re-reading Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle (translated as Chess Story). That short novel was itself turned into a great film directed by Gerd Oswald called Brainwashed (1960) starring Curd Jürgens.

Borges has written a great poem about chess, which I will post soon. Also, you can expect to see a short story by Lord Dunsany entitled “The Three Sailors’ Gambit.”

I will also tell you about some of my heroes, such as the Estonian Grandmaster Paul Keres, Former World Champion Mikhail Tal of Latvia, and. of course, the never-to-be-forgotten Bobby Fischer.


Not Exactly a Chess Master

The Young Would-Be Chess Master at Age 9 or 10

The Young Would-Be Chess Master at Age 11

Ever since I first learned the moves at the age of eight, I loved chess; but I had to love it from afar. The fact of the matter is that I was never very good at it.

My high point was about thirty years ago when I was a correspondence chess Class B International player. In the day before e-mail, I played chess—move by move—using special postcards that I purchased from the U.S. Chess Federation. I had up to three days to formulate a response and send a card to my opponent. To avoid making mistakes, it took a lot of time, up to three or four hours per move once we had reached the middle game. Because of computers, I don’t think that correspondence chess exists any more in the snail mail world.

Now, when I have a lot of time on my hands (which is almost never), I like to go over the moves of famous historical chess games. There are some excellent compilations of these games available from Dover Publications at a reasonable price.

The photo above was taken in our kitchen at 3989 East 176th Street in the Lee-Harvard area of Cleveland. You may notice that there is a parakeet perched on my right shoulder, making me feel very much like a pirate. (It bothers me that I cannot remember, after all these years, the name of our parakeet.)

Notice the string tie.It must have been a school day, because we were required to wear ties to our classes at St. Henry School. For convenience, I usually opted for a string tie. You can also seen the bottom of the cord for our rotary wall-mounted telephone.

I could tell that I was eleven when the above picture was taken because that’s when I started to wear glasses. It made me look very intellectual, I thought.