Jul 28, 2007

Irrelephant To Queen's Pawn Four

A friend and I were discussing Life a while back, and the metaphor of Life as Chess Game came up after talking about games, and be damned if it didn't fit.

I enjoy chess, you see. Not so much that I bought any of those chess softwares that had the wizard on the cover, the one whose eyebrows seemed capable of beating you by themselves, nor did I ever spend time in Central Park across from a very old Jewish man in a tweed coat with a timer between us. No, the most serious I ever got over chess was to learn most of the lyrics to a failed mid-80's Broadway show.

My relationship with chess goes a long way back, you see, and I'd dare say as a past it's very...checkered. *snort* My earliest exposure to the game was a set of pieces my father had from his time in the Air Force, probably liberated from an old Morale, Welfare and Recreation office closet. He had two identical sets, each stored in a cunning wooden box with a sliding top. The white pieces were natural coloured wood with a glossy finish, and the blacks were coated with some very fine ebony paint or stain and finished glossy also. Each set of pieces rested in their own felt-lined compartment, separated one from the other by a thin wall of wood.

I would take them out and line them up on my old tatty red and black cardboard checkerboard, carefully lining each pawn up, then setting out rooks and bishops and finally the King and Queen, and I'd just look at them, facing each other, ready to play out whatever intellectual battle was in their future. My brother and I would play occasionally, but I never quite grasped the idea that to win at chess you had to plan ahead, far ahead, and be willing to set traps, make intricate plans and even sacrifice powerful pieces so that others could succeed.

It wasn't until high school that I learned the rubric that was meant to teach new players the diverse ways that each piece moved: pawns who were the foot soldiers, so anxious for battle that they charged ahead two spaces, but then became tired and so could only move ahead one at a time, taking pieces to their right or left only because a soldier hacked to either side of him with his sword. The rooks, great siege engines that were so powerful they could move most anywhere, but only in long, straight lines as they could not be steered, only drive in one direction like juggernauts.

The knights always enthralled me not because of their equine nature but because of their "L" shaped path--the knight charging with lance would strike and turn to one side as he finished his attack. The bishops with their long diagonals, "moving in ways not known to common men" seemed to me the most powerful, and the most subversive, creeping up on you from a direction you never expect. And then there was the doddering old King, able to move anywhere he wanted but slowly, oh so slowly, one halting square at a time, and his Queen, the real power behind the throne, she who could go in any direction she cared to, and take any piece.

As I got older I kept playing. Never a great deal, never enough to get truly good at it because I still had a hard time wrapping my mind around so many pieces, so many plans, and trying to balance all that strategy against my opponent. I'd finish a game, to a draw or to a win or loss, but I'd always finish with a headache from so much fierce concentration.

When I got in college I envisioned the chessmen as something more, something much greater than a tactical tool or a challenging intellectual diversion. I saw the pawns and knights and bishops as real people, saw the roles the tiny wooden pieces represented, and decided, as many artists before me have, that I would remake the chessmen to my own liking, make of them a deeper symbology. With potter's clay and a knowledge of firing and glazing I set to. The pawns became tall, thin bullets, each ribbed around it's head with three deep incisions to catch and hold in the grooves of a rifle's barrel. The bishops were thin, emaciated things with grotesquely pointed tops to mock the pomp and circumstance of a religion that I had grown to find burdensome and ridiculous as the old men in their robes.

The King I saw as the impotent old man he really was in the game--critical to it's success or failure, but requiring a Dali-esque crutch to hold his sagging form up. All the pieces were far taller than normal; I wanted the tactile sensation of moving the pieces to carry a certain physical weight to mirror the weight of the tactics involved. The King stood nearly seven inches tall when finished, and his crutch helped keep his bent to near-broken figure upright. The Queen, the true power of the game was almost eight inches tall, a brutally clean, embellishment-free tower of strength and fear, a piece with a fierce weight and imposing nature, utterly implacable.

Well, that's how it was envisioned. Making eight identical pawns was hard enough, but my engineering skills, never that great to begin with soon failed me as I laboured to design figures that would fit on a chessboard: the King's crutch spanned most of three squares, but there was no confusion about which direction he was facing. When he stayed upright, that is. Art imitating life, such as it was, my weak and doddering old King could barely stand upright at the best of times, and when the greenish-ivory White King fell and broke in several pieces the idea of chessmen as art was broken for me as well. I had set my goal far too high for my youthful patience and knowledge, and chess had taught me another valuable lesson.

Work this last week has been a game of chess more than ever, and the metaphor binds me about with hoops of steel. The Queen is solidifying her power, trying to dominate the board and draw the entirety into victory, all the while taking on more and more pawns to stand in front of her. The distant, aloof King is the most powerful as always, but still he dodders, uncertain as ever, willing to let the game swirl and flow around him while his attention is divided a dozen ways. I'm not even certain where the rest of our pieces are anymore. The brave knights seem to have lost their way before they ever reached the battle, or never been on the board in the first place, the bishops long since discarded in this clinical world of computers and prescription drugs for every ailment, and the rooks are mired in the mud, unable to do anything but serve as perches for the crows.

Even the colours seem to have taken on a certain ambiguity: seeing the black and the white has never been an easy task when you're standing in the middle of the board, but when the battle is afoot the flags and colours run, blend and mesh until we seem to be fighting our own troops, uncertain where the actual front is anymore, and the enemy has become ourselves.


Scott from Oregon said...

That's all just plain cool...

I always played a mean game of "don't lose" chess, meaning I could play good players to a draw, but I ever could figure out how to win.

I just figured to trade pieces until neither could win and then go for a beer run.

Mickelodeon said...

Awesome post and analogy to life and work (and the girl, the gold watch, and everything). I need to revisit the game of chess, although I don't think I'll ever be more than a sub-sub standard player.

Sort of like life.

Mickelodeon said...

Say, did you know Chess the Broadway play was written by the two dudes from ABBA?

Nancy Dancehall said...

Excellent post.

So what did the rooks look like?

Yup, that's why I don't play chess; way way too much like life.

Irrelephant said...

Scott, I gave up chess after I figured out that there's no way to get a girl to take playing Strip Chess seriously.

Mickey, I don't think ANY of us are any good at chess, unless you're a young Max von Sydow fresh from the Crusades. And no, I didn't know that! That's nuts!

Thank you so much, Nancy. Words like that coming from a writer of your talent I think I owe you money or something. *g* I never got as far as designing the rooks, unfortunately. And I haven't so much as looked at a chess game in years. I'm afraid of learning something about myself.

Anonymous said...

Backgammon is SO much more fun.