Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Queens, Bishops and phallic fun

So you know that expression about how if it looks like a horse and moves like horse, then it’s probably a horse? Well apparently it isn’t. It’s a Knight. Similarly, if it’s tall and pointy and (let’s be honest) a little bit phallic, then it’s bound to be a Bishop. Freud would be nodding sagely for days about that one.

You may have gleaned from the above that I am relatively new to the world of chess, and thus still not over the desire to think up newer and more cutsey names for the various pieces. ‘Horsey’ and ‘Little tiny marching soldier’ are my personal favourites. This seems to amuse and infuriate my opponents in equal measure, so it’s a strategy worth continuing, even if only for the psych-out factor.

Seriously though, I’m enjoying chess far more than I thought I might. Finally I’ve found a use for the part of my brain that likes to calculate increasingly unlikely scenarios years in advance (This might not sound so bad, but at the stage where you find yourself making contingency plans for the civil war alien flood zombie invasion you know things have gone too far). I like the intellectual element and I like the idea that people have a ‘style’ of play, although mine is currently still floundering in the realms of try-not-to-lose-too-quickly.

My favourite thing about chess though, is the Queen. (Or as I like to call her ‘Kick ass warrior goddess’). Talk about strong female role models! She moves with greater grace and freedom than any other piece on the board, and combats the macho posturing of the knights and bishops with disdainful ease. Losing her dooms a campaign to dismal failure, whereas appreciating her for her unique talents is an excellent way to win.

OK, OK, I know this is unnecessary and slightly simplistic anthropomorphism, and however gender forwards chess might be there are some less progressive class attitudes going on! (Those poor disposable pawns...) I suppose my point is, that after observing the way women are reduced to supporting characters a lot of the time in modern geekery, it’s quite nice to find that the original ‘geeks’ game has a different take on things.

It’s a little depressing to realise then, that off the board chess is still considered to be a man’s game. Women’s participation lags behind men’s at all levels, and the World Chess Federation lists only one woman in its top 100 players (First person to suggest that this is a consequence of women’s intellectual inferiority gets thrown off a cliff for a) missing the point and b) being a massive sexist).

Regardless of perceptions about who the game is for, I am in no way the first person to discover it. Chess is pretty much ingrained in our cultural narrative from Marvel comics villain the Grandmaster toying with his human pawns, to Red Dwarf episode ‘Queeg’ where computer Holly plays for control of the ship (he also adopts my naturalistic approach to naming with ‘horseys’ and ‘prawns’). Chess even has its very own musical, inspired by the careers of some of its most influential players, as well as a rather trippy place in literature from Alice Through The Looking Glass to the Discworld novels.

Ultimately, it’s a game that is so much more than a game. Chess is about power, dominance, out-thinking your opponent. It’s about the triumph of intellectualism over unthinking force. There are a 1000 different styles of chess piece, from the utilitarian to the quirky to the decadent, and a 1000 different styles of play. And ultimately in chess, there is no such thing as an inescapable fate. After all, this is Death’s game of choice and even he sometimes loses.

Despite this grand tradition, I am inevitably, still at the very beginning of understanding the nuances and shades of grey that lie between the deceptively stark simplicity of those black and white pieces on the board. I’m not a brilliant loser either (there may or may not have been some board-sweeping incidents) so it’s frustrating to be plunged into a game that is not immediately and fully comprehensible. Like life though, Chess is better when you play. And as Wilhelm Steinitz once said (yeah, I don’t know who he is either) "Chess is not for timid souls."

This week, Kate is trying not to be taken en passant

1 comment:

  1. "You can learn the rules of chess in a day, but mastering it takes a lifetime." I knew I'd graduated from beginner when my Dad decided he would play with his queen after all (he'd been playing without for years to even out the game). The first day I beat him when he started with his queen was wonderful! (I also call pawns prawns. Half the time it's deliberate...)

    One final piece if triva: there's a shop in Greenwich Village in New York which only sells chess sets & pieces. It's a proper Aladdin's cave!