I was about 9 years old when I first saw the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). The movie is based on a true story about Joshua Waitzkin who became an International Master at age 16. I always recall a specific scene where Josh shouts chess moves from the bathroom tub. He was playing against his father who was downstairs.
“Move my horse in front of my king,” Josh shouted. “You mean knight,” his father corrected.
After his father moved his knight, Josh asks if they can go out now. His father says, “The game’s not over.”
“Yes it is,” Josh replies.
I was taught how to play chess when I was young, but seldom ever played. It seemed that no one ever wanted to play chess. I suppose why would they when Super Nintendo was an option?
Despite this, I would attempt to bring chess back into my life at different times. There’s something about the strategy I find intriguing. I like the surprise when an opponent would sneak through my defense, or when I was able to do the same.
Once in a while I would open up the chess app on the computer and get my butt kicked. Much later I installed a chess app on my smartphone which paired me up with people all over the world to play with. Both were not the same as sitting in front of another person.
My First Chess Match in a Long Time
I have a chessboard setup in my living room in hopes that someone will see it and want to play. It worked. A neighbor that I recently met noticed the chessboard and expressed interest in wanting to play later in the week. So a few days later we both sat down for our first game. He’s older and has a strong math background, so I wasn’t sure how evenly matched we would be.
At first, I aimed to regain my sense for how the game and the pieces worked. I started to have insights as we traded pieces. I noticed patterns with my two bishops and how they might work together at controlling the board.
I looked for patterns in all of the other pieces. Each piece generates their own patterns based on their type of movements. I thought I might be able to master the chessboard by utilizing board-wide patterns each piece provided.
Insight #1: Look beyond the piece’s primary function to see patterns emerge over the duration of the chess game.
Given that I had no strategy for this first game, I played particularly cautious. I balanced my opponents moves, forced his position, and generally played a clean game. Luckily, my opponent did the same, but I lost that game by a slim margin.
Armed with a new strategy for utilizing each piece’s unique maneuverability, I was looking forward to testing it in our next game.
For reasons completely unrelated to chess, I’ve been rereading a bit of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. I wondered if some of this old military strategy and tactics might work in chess. Using what I learned from game one and, in addition, a simple strategy I picked up from Tzu, I was ready to execute. The strategy was to control the board quickly by going in with a strong offense by removing barriers for the higher value pieces. I opened up my bishops by moving my pawns into position and headed straight for my opponent’s king.
With several key pieces in position before my opponent had the chance to form his layer of defense, I was ready for the takedown. My ruthlessness did cost me the loss of some key players. I was unable to defend them because of my intense focus on offense. As well, I was willing to trade pieces of high value if it progressed the game in my favor.
A series of brutal takedowns from both sides left the board ravaged. Somehow, I wasn’t ahead though. I lost my queen and left my king defenseless. I had nearly ignored my knights and utilized them like pawns. This was a bigger mistake than I realized at the time. My opponent understood the power of the knights, especially when they worked together.
This was my second insight. The most difficult piece to utilize well is the knight, as it’s the only one that can jump over other pieces but is limited in movement. When put to proper use, it’s a force difficult to defend.
As I attempted to chase down my opponent’s king, I was put in checkmate by the opponent’s horses, just like Waitzkin had done to his father in the movie.
Insight #2: The knight is a force on the team not to be underutilized.
I planned to use my new understanding of the knight to try something new in the next game. Although, theory is much different than what plays out in practice as my bishops were constantly blocked by those pesky pawns which nullified my ability to dominate the board in the way I initially intended.
For my next attempt I would use a little of both strategies. I’d exercise caution with diversified protection while positioning an equally strong offensive formation as quickly as possible. My knights would be the foundation for this strategy. My opponent recognized my decision to experiment, which was counter to his strategy for wanting to win which left me at a net disadvantage.
I wanted to learn more before I felt confident with a strategy which might result in a win more often than a loss. I did think to look up strategies online, but decided not to. I wanted to learn more about the game on my own before experimenting with well known and effective strategies. Plus, I thought it would take away from some of the fun of learning.
Our third game was the most interesting yet. First, I moved my knights toward the center of the board. I positioned my other pieces in such a way where none were blocked by others. This allowed for clear paths for each piece to best do their job. I also created what I called a demilitarized zone, where one entire row of the board was empty and would result in the loss of a piece if one ended up there. My opponent was aware, so for a majority of our game, that row remained clear.
I also created a similar row behind all of my pieces where my king rested in the comfort of one rook. This allowed me to jump behind the line of defense if things got hairy. What I quickly learned was this formation amplified standoffs all over the board. Both of us were positioned in such a way that would allow for moves that wouldn’t progress the game forward if that’s what we wanted.
Instead of allowing a neutral dance between our pieces, I decided to trade a pawn to begin the many skirmishes which were about to ensue. The battle was on, and my opponent was frustrated by my extreme defensive position. While progressing the game forward I had overlooked a plan my opponent was setting in place to capture my queen.
My queen was taken down, and I was without my most valuable piece. I pressed forward and attempted to play through my plan, but what I didn’t foresee was my own formation working against me. My formation would only work if all the pieces worked together. However, one strategic move from my opponent forced the retreat of a knight, which broke the entire formation. I had been forced to move into a position which trapped me by my own pieces.
While the start of the game was definitely looking in my favor, after my formation broke down, my position was too vulnerable to complete the game. I conceded the loss as the writing on the wall became clear after the multiple skirmishes ended with uneven trades.
Insight #3: Don’t assume a strong position is tenable, as one unforeseen move can destroy a whole chain.
The next game hasn’t occurred yet, but I plan to be much more subtle with my strategy. My most successful game was my first. This in itself is a lesson. By playing it safe and observing multiple views concurrently, I was more flexible and able to make strategic moves tailored to the current state of the board.
So, instead of using a new strategy and implementing it blindly, next time I’ll arm myself with what I’ve learned works and doesn’t and apply as necessary.
My three takeaways from these three games can be applied beyond chess.
My first insight can apply to teamwork in that one person of the team might have a stated function, but be capable of much more when that function is viewed as a long arcing pattern.
My second insight is similar to the first in that a team member with special skills shouldn’t be limited by a team leader that doesn’t know how to utilize them. Understanding everyone’s special contribution to the team before executing a strategy will give the team more strength and ability to do the best job they can.
The third and final insight is an obvious one. Don’t rest on one’s laurels, or assume what appears to be a strong position isn’t fragile. The loss of a member one didn’t expect to lose could destroy one’s entire position. Have contingencies, or as the old adage goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.