It’s nine at night and I’m half pissed on white wine. I’m doing something I never would have thought three months prior; I’m playing an online game. I’m swearing like a sailor out of frustration at the current loss I’m suffering.
I am a competitive gamer. You’ll know me as the guy swearing in frustration to his friends on Skype or the guy quietly growling your name when you screw up and the rest of our team suffers for it, or the guy shouting with joy after taking a win for a game that is otherwise completely inconsequential and irrelevant in the real world.
Smite: where else can you find adolescent males controlling Hindu gods that swear and vomit racial epithets?
I wasn’t always that way. Up until a few months ago, I stuck with competitive and single-player games. On the board, even with friends, I mostly enjoyed games where you worked together as a team to beat the system. Did you know there is a huge market for co-operative board games? Hell, there are actually quite a few solitaire board games out there as well, and none of them are called “solitaire.”
“Cards of Cthulhu” is a solitaire game for 1-4 players.
In a way, I had a perpetual fear of alienating people. I have never fit well into most social groups, and I have had a very short history of friendships with most of the people in my life. I’d play games like Goldeneye and Mortal Kombat and lose on purpose just so my friends would keep playing with me. I was afraid to be assertive; afraid to experience even a moment of victory or superiority.
Would you lose a match in this game to a friend on purpose? I used to.
It wasn’t until the gravity of life took me on a roller coaster ride the size of space-fucking-mountain that I had any remote interest in the competitive aspect of gaming. I had nothing to prove to anyone until then, after all. But when I hit the bottom of the barrel— when life was at its miserable worst and I was feeling sorry for myself more than “bitch-tits” from Fight Club— I started to fight back. You can only be pissed on so much before you start getting pissed off.
What was my way of fighting back? What game would give me the control of my life that I craved? The game of chess. Chess, after all, is a game that is all about control.
At a surface glance, and to the eyes of a newcomer, Chess is deceptively simple. The first time I ever played was with my dad when I was around six years old. Apart from having a difficult time remembering the movements of all the pieces, all that mattered to me when I played was how many pieces of his I could take off the board. Through the eyes of a child, things have such a binary function.
“Who’s” up for a little Chess?
After seeing Chess referred to in one of my favorite films, my interest in the game was ignited. “Pawn to B4. Bishop to D3.” I had always wondered what those notations were all about, so out of total depressed YouTube-surfing boredom, I decided to look into the game through the eyes of an adult; inspired by the happy nostalgia of my youth.
What I found was a game more complex, more diverse, and far more interesting than I ever had the capacity to understand as a boy. After digesting oodles of study materials on the game and reading about the great players of Chess over the centuries, I sat back and said a rare and somewhat difficult thing: “This is the greatest game ever made.”
Exterminate! Wait, no, I meant to say Checkmate!
It wasn’t long before I decided to dive in and start playing. For a guy who shied away from any kind of competitive games his whole life, this was a difficult thing to do at first. Every time I hit the “PLAY” button on my web browser to start a new game, my heart skipped a beat. I was afraid of the punishment I knew was coming, and of the vitriolic lambasting I knew I was going to receive.
You see, the most vicious attacks in an online Chess game don’t come from an opponent’s well-placed Queen or Rook; they come from the player’s sense of spite. Sometimes, they’ll express this through direct taunts, or messages left on your profile page afterward. Other times, they’ll disconnect from a live Chess match on purpose, thus leaving you in limbo until the timer runs out, forcing you to sit and wait until the match ends in order to claim your win.
What is it about Chess that incites players to treat their opponents this way? It’s because more than any other game in existence, Chess is not just about control of the board through the placement of pieces; it is about the total control and eventual decimation of the opponent, both in the game and psychologically as well.
Mikhail Tal (left) wages psychological warfare on grandmaster Nikola Pedevsky with his icy, deliberate stare.
There was a well known Chess player named Mikhail Tal, known for his addictive smoking and drinking habits, his strange style of play, but most famously, for his cold, unflinching stare. He would make a move, and during the full duration of the other players turn, rather than watching to board to plan for his next attack, he would simply stare at his opponent as hard as he could. Much like a bluff in Poker, his mannerisms at the table had an unnerving effect on his opponents, and fit part and parcel with the rest of his bizarre, creative playing style.
More than anything in my life at the time I discovered Chess, I craved control. The conceptual cards felt like they had slipped from my fingers. The world had fallen out from under me, and I was desperately trying to grab hold for dear life. While the first few games were ridiculously one-sided and laughable, I worked up the courage to continue hitting that play button. With a liberal amount of study materials at my disposal, I slowly began to improve. More importantly, I started to win.
Magic Man vs. Gob, Glob, Grob, and Grod. My money is on BMO.
As often as Chess has been used as a metaphor for life, it is also a metaphor for the human spirit. In the same way we conquer our opponents on the board, we conquer our own insecurities. The patient and deliberate planning of each move on the board teaches us patience and silence. The blunders we make teach us to learn from our mistakes. The losses we suffer teach us to be analytical; to painstakingly go through every move we made in a game and see exactly where we went wrong, where we could have done better, and what possible variables in the game could have arisen from a single changed move.
The first time I realized the sweet thrill of victory was when a particularly snide and arrogant co-worker boasted about his high school Chess achievements after he noticed a book I was reading about the subject on my counter. He was a competitive gamer himself, and I naturally disliked his boastfulness. With a game night coming up soon in the store where I worked, I challenged him to a friendly game and he accepted.
When we finally got to the Chess board, I had a taste for blood. After a particularly annoying instance of him exerting his superiority over me and talking down to me like a child, embarrassing me in front of my co-workers in the process, I decided I wanted my pride back. I was going to take it by force on the Chess board.
It was Chess: Good vs. Evil.
Chess has always had a reputation for being a game of the mind, so winning or losing often reflects one’s own intellect. It is associated, often unfairly, as a bourgeois activity. The learning curve is a mountain in terms of the strategy and tactics necessary to be skilled at the game, but it is no more difficult to learn than Monopoly, Backgammon, or Checkers. Because of this association though, it can be extremely damaging to suffer a loss in Chess. At my local Chess club, the very first time I attended, I watched a young boy break into a fit of tears when he lost a game, much like the prodigy Chess player Bobby Fischer used to do when he was young. A loss in chess hurts the ego and crushes the spirit. You don’t need to be intelligent to play Chess, but you can’t be a softy, either.
A young Bobby Fischer plays chess. Beat him, and you just might bring him to tears.
I offered that my coworker play white, allowing him the advantage in our game; a sublime, subtle insult. He began to play with a wry smirk painted on his face, picking up each piece, and putting them down with confidence, quickly and deliberately. I took my time. I worked on a simple opening which slowly gave me control of the middle of the board and opened up my back row so that the King would have more freedom of movement. He focused on deliberate threats and attacks, but it was clear he had Chess experience, as he avoided a very noobish mistake and didn’t activate his Queen too early.
As I started to take minor pieces from him and put him in several difficult positions, his smirk started to fade. “I’m not really trying,” he’d say. “You’re taking this so seriously,” and, “I’m totally flipping the board if I lose.” As the game wore on and became more difficult, we both made mistakes. I made a critical blunder, confusing our Mario-themed vanity pieces, resulting in the sacrifice of my Queen. Such a major mistake could have easily cost me the game against a more experienced player.
I struggled on, mouth dry, focused hard on the game. Although he had taken a valuable piece from me, I still controlled the board. My major pieces were now surrounding his King, and I was able to consistently attack his King.
Each and every turn, check after check, he was forced to respond to my movements rather than focusing on his own strategy. He was dead-serious now, no longer talking or joking. Psychologically, I had already beaten him; I was in complete and total control.
When I finally put him into mate, he hovered a shaking hand over his King, desperately trying to find a way out. Then, just as he promised, he flipped the board.
One major benefit of online chess: your opponent can’t flip the chessboard if you win.
He barely said a word to me after that until the day I finally quit.
When I think about it, it was a fairly stupid conflict, mostly created in my own mind and from my own insecurities at the time, but it allowed me to feel in control of the situation in my own subtle way, even if I couldn’t directly tell the bastard off and be done with it. More importantly, it showed me that the work and time I had put into practicing and learning, did have an eventual payoff. The one-on-one nature of Chess forces the individuals at the board to be completely responsible for their own fate. They don’t have a team to rely on. It’s just them and their enemy staring back at them; the purest form of psychological conflict.
Beating an opponent in a hard-played game of Chess showed me the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. It made me hate failure, and urged me to affect my own survival and dominance both on, and off the board. While I now play competitive games in a team setting as well, Chess is still simultaneously the most fun and frustrating experience of all. Even when I have found myself in hopeless situations where, after one-hundred moves later, I am just barely able to squeeze out a draw after a long and bitter struggle, there is a victory there as well; a win over my own insecurities and my own damaged confidence. A victory that comes from an unwillingness to quit even when the best possible result is that I will come out exactly as I was when I went in.
The lessons I learned from Chess helped me in my life.
No matter how many bad moves I make in a game, I will always play it out until the bitter end. The same goes for life. It isn’t for any grand prize or recognition, but for the simple reward of going back again to play another game; to wonder at the possibilities it will bring, and the challenges presented within that must be overcome.