Fool's Mate

I’ve never been any good at chess.

This has always bothered me, on some level, and I dealt with it in what I consider to be a very mature and appropriate way: I’ve pretty much avoided playing chess for 35 years.

There are good reasons to avoid chess if you’re not good at it: there’s no randomness, and both sides start evenly, so when you lose, you have no one to blame but yourself. There’s also a nontrivial amount of memorization involved in becoming a really good player, particularly in the opening, and that part of the game just isn’t fun, no matter who you are.

But with the rise of iPhone-driven asynchronous multiplayer gaming, I sort of stumbled into playing a little chess, badly, with my dad, and also with a couple of friends. I lost every game, of course. But strangely, this made me want to get better at the game, rather than to avoid it.

Now, when I say “get better at the game”, I have what you might call a very modest definition. I certainly don’t imagine that I’m going to be winning many games any time soon. Rather, I have a simple desire: I want to get to the level where, when my opponent takes one of my pieces, I saw it as a possibility before he did it.

You might observe that this is a skill that is easily obtainable to anyone who knows the rules of chess and is, let’s say, 7 years old. Nonetheless, the thing about my chess suckitude that has always bothered me is not so much that I lose, but that I lose completely by surprise. All I want is to be good enough that I won’t be surprised.

I’ve spent perhaps the past month playing match after match on, a “correspondence chess” web site. You can play via the web interface, and they also have an iPhone and iPad app that’s convenient. In addition to the matchmaking and games, they also have a pretty nice set of chess puzzles and “post-game computer analysis” so that you can find out, in soul-crushing detail, exactly why 20 of your 40 moves were boneheaded.

Playing so much in such a short period of time has taught me a few interesting principles that I will share with you here. None of them are particularly brilliant, and I will explicitly point out that if you take chess advice from me you are taking reading lessons from the illiterate. But here they are, nonetheless.

Peterb’s Top Ten Chess Lessons Learned Via A Seemingly Endless Series of

Humiliating Defeats

10. Take your time before making a move. If you’ve got a day to make the move, don’t feel compelled to make it in 30 seconds.

9. Look at the square you’re thinking of moving a piece to. Consider how it can be attacked.

8. Look at the square you’re vacating. Ask yourself if by vacating it you’ve opened a gap that can be used immediately.

7. If you’re ahead, don’t be afraid to exchange pieces aggressively.

6. When imagining your opponent’s move, never imagine one that is good for you. Always try to find his best move. Then assume that he’ll make that one.

5. Losing to strangers hurts less than losing to people you know. But neither is fun.

4. Practice moving the knights around until you can ‘see’ their threat pattern in your sleep.

3. Leading an attack early in the game with your queen is like wading into a fist fight jaw first.

2. Properly deployed, pawns are way stronger than you think.

1. Don’t make your move after having had a few drinks. Trust me on this one. Really.

If anyone is interested in playing a match, you can find me as “peterb1201” on Feel free to drop me a line.