chessboardwithclockThe best chess player in the world right now is a 23-year-old Norwegian guy named Magnus Carlsen. Actually, he’s the best chess player ever–he has a higher chess ranking than any chess player has ever earned.

I am not Magnus Carlsen. The degrees of separation between me and him are extreme. This writer at last year’s World Chess Championships puts it well:

The skill gap in chess is remarkable: these Grandmasters would demolish someone who would easily beat someone who would wipe me off the board.

And I’m guessing that this writer would crush me. Chess is one of those things that the more you play, the more you realize how little you really know.

coolchessboardI knew how to play chess growing up. My parents have this amazing marble board with really heavy metal pieces (pictured right). I learned how to play on it, and would play friends or family a couple times a year. I have no idea how well I did. Well enough to want to keep playing, I guess.

In college, my roommate Joe played, and he was very good. I started to want to get better so that I could beat him, and eventually bought a book on chess. I skimmed through the first part, probably grabbed a couple quick lessons, and called it good.

Most summers since college I have had a chance to see him again and we’d fill our time with basically three activities: going to movies, going to bars, and playing chess. For most of that time, he’d crush me. We’d play seven games in a few days and he’d win them all. Maybe I could force a stalemate if I was lucky.

But slowly I got better, and I could snag a rare victory here and there. I bought another book on chess and tried to read it a bit more thoroughly than I did the last one.

Two years ago, I started playing regularly using the iPhone app Chess With Friends. Which means that my game has substantially improved, simply because I’m playing a lot more chess than I ever have before. When Joe visited last summer, I actually won the majority of games we played, a big first for me. (That said, I’m still probably down sixty games or so to him, though).

Which catches us up to the present.

worldchesshalloffameOver new year’s, Mary and I were in St. Louis to see her family. It turns out that St. Louis is quite a chess hub, and hosts the World Chess Hall of Fame and a chess museum. I don’t know if it was the museum that inspired me or just feeling like I’ve improved, but I decided that I wanted to play more games in 2014. Not just chess–I’d like to play more cribbage, card games, and Acquire this year as well. But that was my new year’s resolution: more games.

So I started with chess, and decided that I should try a tournament. I found one this past Saturday, and entered, thanks to the encouragement of Marty Campbell.

I knew it was going to be hard, but I was partially inspired by this quote on a recent blog post from a writer I love:

Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. You must have an awkward phase. All of us would like to skip that awkward phase. That is not how it works. Here is how it works: Get your ass in the water. Swim like me.
Ta-Nehisi Coates

I knew going in that I would likely lose. I knew I wasn’t going to look cool. And I was right.

The tournament had four rounds: 10:00, 12:30, 2:30, and 4:30. Each side had one hour on the clock. I’ve played with a clock once or twice just to see what it was like, and I’m glad I did–it’s stressful if you’re not ready for it.

erikatthechessboardMy first opponent was younger than me… and  by that, I mean he was in the first grade. The tables with chess boards were up on a sort of mini-stage in the room, and since his leg was in a cast and he was wearing crutches, I literally had to pick him up and help him get to his chair.

It takes no great sage to see where this is going.

I got crushed. Handily. He was generous in victory and pointed out where I went wrong, and I was gracious in defeat and decided that since I didn’t need to look cool, I may as well listen to him.

After that, I went over the game with the president of the Tacoma Chess Club and he also showed me where I went wrong. Apparently I opened with the Leningrad variation of the Dutch defense (my plan all along, I’m sure) which was fine, but I went wrong later when I lost control of the middle.

After that, my young opponent asked if I’d like to play a practice game (we did have a fair amount of time to kill before the next round) and I agreed. That game actually went well. Although I still lost, I was a little heartened that toward the end of the game he looked at me and asked in a quiet voice, “This is for practice, right?” At least he was worried I had a chance.

I ended up losing every game I played on Saturday.

One game I took all the way to the end, and my opponent told me that I would do well in tournaments. (In larger tournaments I’m more likely to play people of my own skill level.) So that made me feel good.

We’ll see how long my awkward phase lasts. It was an excellent learning experience, though!