I’m not a good chess player. I’m competent enough to win about half the time against another journeyman, but I’m easily outplayed, blunder-prone, and depend heavily on my opponent to make the first mistake. But 30 years after learning the game, I’m finally trying to get better.
When I was in third grade — around the same time I began playing chess — the Rubik’s cube was at the peak of its popularity. Though I figured out through experimentation how to solve the first two layers, for the far more difficult third layer I turned to a book and memorized a dozen positions and sequences. That made me something of a third-grade puzzle master, and I collected a couple bucks fixing other kids’ cubes for a quarter apiece, but it was little more than rote memory.
Years later, when I should have been working on college coursework, I picked up my old cube again and began studying moves carefully. After a few days of experimentation and observation, I had arrived at a handful of algorithms that would get me to the solution, however roundabout. It wasn’t elegant, but it was mine — I felt a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, and finally felt like I could say I had solved it myself.
My current phase of chess playing, which began about five years ago when I downloaded Chess With Friends (before it was Zynga), has been guided by a similar principle. Though I am giving some time to formal study of tactics and openings — you have to, really, to compete — my main goal is to develop my own intuitive understanding of positions and strategy.
Bobby Fischer once complained that “Now chess is completely dead. It is all just memorisation and prearrangement. It’s a terrible game now. Very uncreative.” He was talking about the game at a Grandmaster level, which I don’t really have the ambition to reach, but what he was saying applies even to an amateur. We have enormous resources now, with databases of openings and computer opponents, and a dedicated player can go a long way on the strength of rote memorization.
I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to play like a computer. I want to be a better player, but not at the expense of it being fun. Like a lot of things I do, I’d rather be competent and happy than superior and miserable. And when I do succeed, I don’t want a computer GPS guiding me; I want to draw my own map.