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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Player of Games, #110: Chess

My father has always had a beautiful wooden chess board, as long as I can remember. When we were kids, he taught us how to play, and we would at times spend hours staring at the board together, as he habitually and ritually subdued us. He has ever been a player more dogged than inspired, a grinder, examining every angle of every piece on every turn. You're unlikely to be caught by surprise in a game against my dad, but then you're also going to lose a lot. Chess is a game that rewards patience and diligence in equal measure with creativity and boldness, making it that rare enterprise where people of broadly divergent gifts can compete on the same playing field.

And what an elegant playing field it is, sixty-four circumscribed squares in a simple eight-by-eight pattern that still yields virtually incalculably varied experiences. You only have sixteen playing pieces, and only a few of these possess any real threatening power. And yet, and yet...bring a pawn and knight and a rook in the right configuration, and you can capture a king.

"See the whole board," President Jed Bartlet tells Sam Seaborn in an episode of The West Wing that juxtaposes the playing of chess with geopolitical maneuvering. In other words, don't become so fixated on your own aims, your own machinations, that you become blind to the efforts of those who oppose you. There are so many parallel wisdoms between chess and life that I wouldn't begin to list them here. The main thing to remember is that the board is in a constant state of flux, and that each of us alternates between dashes of aggression and calculated withdrawals. Knowing when each is called for is most of the trick in living.

I have a beautiful wooden set myself. I think I need to play chess with my dad again while we still can.

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