Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On Illegal Moves

Many years ago when Lee Faber and I were in high school together we used to play chess. Good times were usually had by all, until one or the other got too wrapped up in the game and then started losing. More than once a game with Faber ended with him overturning the chess board in rage, scattering all the pieces. He may or may not have yelled, "How's that for checkmate, jerk!?" I may or may not have behaved in a similar manner on one or more occasions.

Later, back when I began college--still many years ago now--we stopped playing chess and moved on to the far eastern game Go, a much more complex, subtle, and nuanced game. In chess each player is trying to find the checkmate move or the path to checkmate at all times. Go is different: in Go if I can play a checkmate move that means that you have played a lot of boneheaded moves in a row. In a game with skilled players each side builds up his position step by step, carefully accounting for his opponents moves with each play and balancing his own position against them. In a good game the entire board remains balanced until the end, where finally one side proves to have been the (slightly) stronger.

So, when Faber and I grew up we abandoned chess and took up this new game. There was certainly a learning process to go through. It was a challenge to realize, and then to act on, the principle that the game is not about seeking death for the opponent, and that in fact this strategy usually ends up making one lose. And it's just possible that Faber and/or I may have overturned a board mid-game a time or two. But eventually we began to discover the pleasure of a game that was not so much about victory and defeat as about beautiful and elegant play--on both sides, ideally.

Grown-ups don't toss the board and call it checkmate. They don't demand to start over and then make the exact same moves all over again, acting as though the intervening moves never happened. They certainly don't claim to win based on the merits of insults directed at their opponents' mothers. Not, at least, if they want other grown-ups to play with them.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

Lovely post.

A big problem with the dash-the-board approach in anything genuinely important is that, even if you don't explicitly mention yourself, it's really a way of inserting yourself into something that isn't at all about you, or how clever you are, or how right you are, or how much better you are.

And the more important the thing in which you are participating, the more worth doing it is, the more crucial it is to remember this, however difficult it may be. And the more, perhaps, we should all tremble when we come close to forgetting it.