I’ve recently found myself dusting off old companions like Modern Chess Openings 14, staring into midnight computer screens, fingers trembling on the mouse as I watch my remaining time hit 16 seconds in an online game that should be won, or drifting to sleep pondering the lines of the Fried Liver Attack. Most often I feel like a hack, but on occasion a feeling of artistry emerges, coupled with a sense of disbelief and new-found inspiration. A fleeting consideration that despite my being eons from greatness, I may actually be penetrating a slightly deeper level of this maddening game.
Mikhail Tal. “The Magician from Riga”, one of my favorites.
I never fully left chess, having maintained sponsorship of my school’s chess club for over eight years now. Over the last few years, however, my energy has been primarily devoted to teaching (beginner) beginners, functioning as a tournament director, or simply providing the space and equipment to play, with little attention or effort put towards maintaining or developing my own game. Days of spirited analysis and club blitz tournaments are far and few between now, primarily due to the graduation of a dedicated cohort of chess players a few years ago and my waning energy after their departure.
All of which leaves me in the position of being a much better teacher and chess historian than player. Lines that once easily flowed from memory and hours of study have now become muddled and I find myself all too often blindly falling victim to tactical combinations that once would have been strikingly transparent.
And there is also, of course, the ever humbling experience of being a grown man and losing to a peach-fuzz-mustached Freshman with an oversized backpack during a lunchtime match. That happened today. Again. I tell you, it takes courage, though I have long accepted the fact that as the elder in the room, my ego has absolutely nothing to gain. If I win, it was somehow expected, and nobody cheers me. If I lose, however, I bestow powerful and irrevocable bragging rights on my adolescent victor. I beat the teacher!!!
Yet I feel a powerful need to get back in the game. It may be the only thing that can keep my aging brain from getting too dull and mushy, too fast. My son has shown an increasing interest over the last few months and I find myself catching the bug again.
There’s one small barrier I’ve been facing lately: My Own Brain. Who would have thought sleep disorders are not conducive to furthering chess study?
Salvador Dali Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening
Years and years of alternating nights of waking dreams, sleepwalking, apnea episodes, and sleep paralyses are continually robbing me of rest and leaving me in a perpetual state of sleep deprivation, despite being in bed in time to get 8 or 9 hours. Tomorrow evening I check in to my hospital’s sleep lab for a night of electrodes on my head to see if anyone can figure out what’s going on. I remember a chess epiphany I had years ago while playing on a Saturday morning on the ICC server: I played better than ever at 7:30AM because I wasn’t falling asleep yet. Now I often find myself so tired I can’t think straight by noon, leaving me rapidly losing my power to calculate during the simplest of sequences or during a quick online 5/0. Perhaps my lot in chess will be one of a lifetime relegated to a sleepy stupor at the board and tournament after tournament of getting crushed by gifted 10 year olds in my rating bracket. The price to pay, I suppose, for an overactive imagination and a brain that doesn’t seem to be able to turn itself off. But I do love the game.
As Vonnegut would say, “So it goes”.
Mose Allison’s My Brain has become my chess anthem.
Tonight: 50 problems on Chess Tactics Server, a 30 minute game with my son, and a look at an al-Adli problem (circa 840):
White to move and mate in three.
It’s going to be a long road.
Edit: Perhaps all is not lost. I solved the problem above within 30 seconds of posting this. From a 9th Century Islamic scholar composing chess problems to a ceramics teacher sitting in the suburbs of Los Angeles in 2014, what a beautiful game this is.