The Deceptive Pleasures of Chess

In my hometown of Daruvar, Croatia, in the late sixties, a friend invited me to the chess club, which was actually the pensioners’ club and populated by World War II veterans. I was thirteen, my friend a few years older. My history teacher read newspapers on a stick in a corner; an old cop who had been suspended for killing an unarmed man in a bar paced around, kibitzing; some of the men wore partisan caps with red stars. In the back room was an air-rifle shooting gallery for the young (so that the country would have a good crop of sharpshooters for future wars) where I had spent a few evenings. In the front room, in the stinging smoke of stale tobacco, through which you could see the weak round lamp like a moon drifting in clouds, men lined up along the tables and slapped chess clocks.

The Chess Players, 1863
(Oil on canvas, 24 x 32 cm)
BY Honoré Daumier
Musée du Petit-Palais

The ticking of clocks and the slaps gave you a sense of urgency, as though bombs were about to go off. From all that slapping, sometimes a walking stick, leaning precariously against a table, would fall to the freshly oiled floor and startle me. I didn’t smoke, unlike most kids my age, so with all the ticking and the nicotine, I became deliriously anxious. I was terrified of making mistakes. Sometimes I won, and often, just after painstakingly gaining an advantage, I would make an oversight, and a knight would leap and pin my rook. I envied my friend on beating the old men who had spent fifty years playing chess; he had a grand time patting his stomach while checkmating them. I would leave with my cheeks red, nauseated from tobacco. It was a thoroughly miserable experience, yet when people asked me what my favorite hobby was, I answered without hesitation: chess.

I didn’t like to play those who were much stronger than me, and I didn’t like to play those who were weaker because the victories felt empty, so I was getting worse by playing bad players. Of course, finding an equal would be the best, and for a while, there was a chance I would have such a partner.

I didn’t like to play those who were much stronger than me, and I didn’t like to play those who were weaker because the victories felt empty, so I was getting worse by playing bad players.

Boro, another friend, studied openings in books, and when we got together, we played and discussed chess strategies. Rather than opening wildly, bringing out the queen without a supporting cast of other major pieces, we now followed the concept of tempi, each developed piece counting as one tempo point in the first ten moves. Good development is essential for effective attacks in the midgame. Soon, we wanted to apply what we learned, and for several days, we played. If I touched a piece, he insisted that I move it. When excited I sometimes did not control my hand, and it would leap ahead of my thoughts and touch a piece. Sometimes I let Boro take back moves, in exchange for his overlooking that I had touched a piece. So instead of playing chess, we negotiated our way through games, which would have been fine if we had simply analyzed various possibilities from a given position. Gradually, I managed to control my hand, and I began to win most of the games, while Boro huffed and smoked more and more furiously. On one occasion, I waited for him to make a move, but he didn’t. He stared at me hatefully. I waited. He stood up and swept all the pieces off the board.

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