Last month, I realized I needed to give up on being a writer so I could become a full-time chess player.
That will sound ridiculous if you aren’t a serious chess enthusiast yourself. The writing life is often (falsely) regarded as glamorous, whereas chess is bewildering to outsiders. But chess holds intellectual riches that I believe—truly—are more captivating than life in any other form.
For me, the power of chess is two-fold.
First, like any sport, high-level chess play possesses its own particular elegance. Much as I wish I could explain this, I don’t think it’s possible to do so in anything but the sketchiest of terms. It would be like explaining cigarettes to a robot. Unlike the beauty of other sports, the elegance of chess completely evades the perception of the uninitiated. Basketball, I’m sure, has beautiful moments I wouldn’t appreciate, but watching a game, I can still sense that LeBron is doing some really cool shit. Not so with chess. So you’ll just have to believe me when I say that beautifully played chess feels received—plucked from the fabric of the universe, rather than created by human hands.
Second—and this is, for me, the true seduction—chess is what they call a perfect information game. At every moment, you are informed of everything taking place. There’s no bluffing. No guessing. No suspicion.
If that notion doesn’t immediately excite you, take a second to consider all the imperfect information games you play all the time. I don’t mean games like poker. I mean dating, for example. Have you ever, a month into a relationship, unearthed some hidden facet of your new partner that makes you think, Holy shit, get away from me? Slowly discovering things about people is wonderful, in theory, but we often find that the mysterious reaches of the human soul contain bear traps and poison darts. Imagine if you could instantly behold the entirety of a person before you, and say, “Hi, let’s go to the beer location,” with perfect confidence? And they, looking back at your own infinitude, comprehending you instantly and entirely, would say, “Sure, why not?”
Also, here’s a question: do you think your friends truly love you? All of them? Do you ever wonder what they’ve guiltily said about you in hushed, beery confessions late at night? Do you think that a moment of your bad mood contaminating their evening persuaded them that your basic existence is troublesome? Do you think that when you told them of one of your less rigorous opinions, it convinced them that you’re much dumber than they ever would have suspected? Don’t you want to know?
Much of the human world presents vast swathes of ignorance briefly penetrated by tiny hopeful suspicions. Chess, on the other hand, is a perfect information game. Say it with me: perfect information game. To me, it sounds like a prayer. The only mystery is how artfully you can process the clear sober facts that are easily ascertained in one sweep of the eyes.
This is why, last month, I entered the Bangkok Open Chess Tournament.
Chess devoured my life so entirely because my life, recently, was very empty. Like many white people, I was becoming bored in Asia.
I moved out to Bangkok so I could become A Real Writer—so I could pursue my craft free from the stresses of my expensive life in Toronto. What I discovered, as the weeks passed, is that without the stress the craft doesn’t happen. I am, after all, a dancing bear at heart. I just want to sway people. But being in Bangkok meant being on a Skytrain shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people who couldn’t read my stupid little thoughts even if they wanted to.
Slowly my deadlines dwindled; in January I was writing six pieces at once, but in March I was barely writing one. I stopped pitching. There was a big empty in my head. Days crawled, somehow both large with boring white minutes, but also small as they disappeared without a trace. Barely understanding Thai, I floated in a sea of incomprehensible murmurs; occasionally I overheard one of the maybe 100 words in my vocabulary. “Oh,” I thought, “someone is discussing pork.” Seeing a centipede was the most remarkable event of one of my Saturdays.
Then, during some reporting I did in Nepal, I met a couple of chess hustlers—strong players who make their salary on small wager games with suckers—who were glad of my rupees.
I was rusty. I hadn’t played a serious game since I was a teen, when chess was a major topic. I played on my hippy alternative school’s chess team, called The Pawnishers. I think we did it just so we could call ourselves that. We were Toronto’s best chess team that wasn’t actually very good at chess. We wore black and white chess-themed warpaint to every game, except one we played against Upper Canada College, the city’s snottiest private school for boys. To that game we wore fairly convincing drag. Our team captain, Jacob, absentmindedly fondled his huge prosthetic tits after sliding his bishop through his opponent’s defences. He had a little catchphrase that became the whole team’s mantra: “it’s mostly fine.” He said it when his game was going terribly, when his opponent was approaching absolute triumph: “it’s mostly fine.” To this day, in my most hapless moments, when I’m helplessly watching one of my trivial enterprises fall apart, I think, “it’s mostly fine.”
Socializing in chess isn’t about smartly signaling that you’ve got the right opinions about recent topics. It’s about examining small areas of the game’s infinite tapestry—finding each other in a language that transcends the vagaries of cultural taste.
Though my team’s conduct at the board was sometimes dubious, my love of the game was serious. But the obsession was ended by my brother. He thought chess was a silly game. I demonstrated its importance by beating him five times straight. He began studying it devotedly and got better than me rapidly—my brother is a bit of a genius. Soon he wasn’t even entertained by victimizing me with his intellect. It became hard to take chess, or myself, seriously.
But, far from my home, in Nepal, with Tenjing, my opponent, that old love was coming right back. While I was destroyed in a pitiable fashion in the first few games, by our last match, some long-dormant parts of my brain were waking up. We had a good long struggle until, finally, Tenjing beat me in a striking fashion very suddenly, with a subtle tactic I had not foreseen.
Later that night in my hotel room, I lay awake, thinking about the game’s final position. A week later I was back in Bangkok playing chess online all night. I did almost nothing else. Wanting to share my obsession, I made my way to the city’s only chess club.
The club meets on the upper floor of a pub on the far end of Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok’s high-efficiency sex markets. Up and down the neon-coated avenue, the working women preen with numbers pinned to their chests. The idea is you go up to the madam and say, for example, “79.” On slow nights the sales tactics are aggressive. That night, one hard-working employee took my hand and asked me where I was going. When I didn’t offer a distinct answer, she took hold of my crotch. I gently removed her from my person, saying something like, “Excuse me, ma’am, I have to go to chess club.”
You might have a stereotyped conception of what a chess club looks like. You might imagine that club players tend towards the bespectacled, the dramatically ectomorphic, and the pimpled. There are, in fact, some pretty hot chess masters—one rising young player, Robin van Kampen, is notably sexy—but chess doesn’t, I think, tend to attract the attractive. After all, chess is a sport that rewards seclusion. Top players study thousands of previously played games, taking inspiration from little scraps of tactical invention discovered by earlier players, while ruthlessly deconstructing their pitfalls. The great player has a sprawling inner library of the game’s possibilities. If you’re very pretty, there are more easily obtainable joys.
I found the unloveliness lovely. I grew up a sexless nerd who hung out with a tight crew of fictional characters. Heaven was fries in solitude. Chess club took me back to that sweaty part of myself. I have since evolved some tentative social skills that allow me to hang out with pretty artist types, but I’ve long felt that my mannerisms are simply a thin scrim suspended over an essential resentful bookishness. Among these awkward friends, I felt a sense of belonging in a way I sometimes don’t at house parties with charismatic people I find vaguely threatening. Socializing in chess isn’t about smartly signaling that you’ve got the right opinions about recent topics. It’s about examining small areas of the game’s infinite tapestry—finding each other in a language that transcends the vagaries of cultural taste.
Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor, on their honeymoon in Nice, had to put up with Duchamp leaving her every day for the local chess club.
The Bangkok chess club was composed of Thais of all ages, a clutch of barely stubbled Bangladeshi adolescents, and a paunchy German expat with a very shiny forehead. My first games at the club were against a Thai guy, Jim, who was mildly intoxicated after one drink, which impelled him to brag loudly of being very drunk. He was, in other words, 18. He spoke, without apparent self-consciousness or innuendo, about wanting to “grind” in the “holes” of my pieces’ position on the board. “I want that hole,” he said, pointing to a gap in my pawns where his knight might nestle with his playing hand—the other was coated in sauce from the sticky ribs he ate throughout the game. He was a very quick player—beating me handily in short games—but in longer games, his excitability led to sloppy, exploitable mistakes.
“You should enter the tournament,” he said, during our last game. “When you’re not playing like a dickhead, you’re not bad. You could learn something by being crushed by a grandmaster.” He was referring to the fact that the upcoming tournament, the Bangkok Open, was, as the name indicated, an open tournament, where any lonely journalist could play alongside real competition—experienced veterans or very young chess assassins practically suckled on the game’s classic offensive maneuvers. Previously, playing in the tournament had seemed like a faint fantasy, but Jim’s retainered smile was strangely convincing. Shortly after his backhanded compliment, I checkmated him with a flashy piece sacrifice—a sequence in which I allowed the capture of one of my rooks, but undid his position by dancing through the resulting chaos. “I guess you’re right,” I said, as I cornered his king, “I guess I’m not as bad as I thought. How much are the entry fees?”
Mike, a stronger player, told me to call him “teacher Mike.” He was one of those wiry little men who seems like he’d be handy in a hypothetical knife fight. This impression was corroborated by the knife holster he wore on his calf. He was vicious on the board; he smiled as he captured my pieces with the joy of a child advancing on a butterscotch. We played until the bar closed. “You have some potential,” he said, “some of your moves are very good.” He gave me an unexpectedly earnest hug, his nose landing somewhere between my pecs. I filled out the tournament forms as soon as I got home.
This chess story might sound familiar if you know the biography of Marcel Duchamp. Everybody knows about Duchamp exploding realist portraiture with The Nude Descending a Staircase then infuriating the art world by demanding reverent appreciation of a urinal. What’s maybe less well known is that, at the age of 36, he quit art for chess.
Well, that’s not entirely true. He secretly crafted one sculpture in his dotage. But it was basically all chess. It led to a divorce. Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor, on their honeymoon in Nice, had to put up with Duchamp leaving her every day for the local chess club. Before their marriage dissolved—it lasted six months—she glued his chess set’s every piece to its board. This apparently did not deter him.
Duchamp saw in chess what was unattainable in visual art. “I am still a victim of chess,” he said, later on in life. “It has all the beauty of art—and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.”
After decades of total devotion to chess and unbridled love of the game, you might suspect a man of Duchamp’s intellect to become a pretty good player. But he went to his grave mediocre in pursuit of his truest passion. He never even approached top-level play. He was maybe—maybe—notable at a regional level. He gave up being one of the great shit-stirrers of the artistic tradition in order to become a mild curiosity in the history of chess.
It’s not Duchamp’s fault that he was never that good. He was just too late. All the great chess players got their start way before the first whisper of pubescence.
Unless you started playing when you were under ten, you’ll never be a top player, or even very good. Your brain is old and rigid now. Chess is a deeply unnatural skill—it requires the full command of a bunch of neurons that the adult mind has already donated to the ability to navigate a grocery store lineup without screaming.
So I knew my quest to pursue a life of chess was basically doomed from the start. Also, I have a brain defect that makes chess especially difficult. Good chess play relies on visualization—picturing how the game will proceed once a few pieces are swapped around. Expert players are capable of playing blindfolded, following the game entirely through interior illustration. Top-level elite players, in an impressive example of cognitive specialization, often play multiple blindfolded games at once, painting many strategic mental pictures in parallel. But I am a sufferer of what’s called aphantasia, the total lack of mental imagery. There are only words in my head; there are no pictures whatsoever. When I close my eyes and try to visualize a beach, I am trying to divide murky darkness into water and sand. My memories are film treatments. My former loves are concepts.
Nevertheless, I persisted. I tried to believe in a lie of pop psychology that I know to be a lie—that hard work is more important than talent. I neglected all else. Someone very nice I met on Tinder stopped messaging me back after my own responses became distracted and unenthusiastic. This was a wise decision on her part. Chess invaded my dreams—strangely, despite my inability to visualize in waking life, my dream life is vivid. I imagined knights soaring through the sky, occasionally descending through the air to crush me.
On the day of the tournament, the sky was empty of clouds. I awoke from a half-sleep feeling as human as a gum wrapper. The tournament was held in a giant ballroom at a fancy-ish hotel. I got there three hours early. I wandered around lavish mezzanines, unaccompanied except by my sweaty palms. As the players filed in, Teacher Mike greeted me in the lobby, wearing a beautifully tailored ugly paisley shirt. “I’ll be watching you,” he said.
I was slipping into the kind of full panic in which my physical co-ordinates were somewhat mysterious to my conscious mind, and time became unaccountable. Somehow, as if placed there by a fastidious tornado, I was sitting at one table among many, alongside a placard bearing my name, with a slot accommodating a small tabletop Canadian flag, upon which I wiped my forehead.
My opponent was a friendly Scot named Surinder. We chatted amiably before the game began. He told me of his life. I barely listened—the noise inside my head threatened to drown him out completely. The air was hard, slippery candy in my lungs. I wore a charcoal suit in which I was cooking, lobster-like.
As the games began, the room was abruptly drowned by total silence, broken only by the quiet clacks of the clocks that delimit professional play. Before me, on the board, a position was taking shape.
I started to feel true dread. I felt like I was gazing into The Void.
My own personal conception of existential dread is, like my inability to visualize, idiosyncratic. Many people, I think, are troubled by their own insignificance, preferring not to think about being a tiny part of a vanishing species in what couldn’t even be called a corner of the universe. Not me—I’m fine with that. Moreover, I’m not perturbed by the fact that I’ll be remembered by very few of the 108 billion people who have ever lived. Yes: I’m a standard-model dude in an endless something or other. It’s mostly fine. Endlessness is easily understood, easily labeled with a three-syllable word, placed in the dictionary beside equally simple concepts like “enchilada.” Infinity itself escapes experience, but the notion is a short phrase—it just doesn’t stop. That’s all infinity does, or rather doesn’t do. It doesn’t scare me.
What does scare me—what provokes real horror in me—is excess reality. I see mental horror—The Void—in the tumbling numbers of securities trading, or the heaps of barely decipherable ancient papyrus dug up in the near Middle East, or the global weather patterns which have evaded, to this date, capture by any mathematical model. I am troubled by the world’s great throngs of data—by thickets of facts I might comprehend individually, but that together make a chaos capable of receding before me as long as I live—the miles of definition leading nowhere.
That’s what I felt, staring at the board in front of me. I felt like I couldn’t put my pieces anywhere, because I felt like I could put them everywhere, for all eternity. I basically blacked out.
I lost the game in fifteen moves, in fifteen minutes—an astonishingly brief amount of time, considering that tournament games usually last around four hours. My incompetence surprised even myself. I played worse than I ever had. I gave Surinder two of my pieces then gave up. He seemed apologetic. I couldn’t stop laughing a crazy, red-faced laugh. A tournament official threatened to eject me if I didn’t quiet down. I had the adrenaline of someone flayed. I left the hotel quickly.
I was scheduled to play six more games that week. I e-mailed the tournament directors, announcing my resignation.
My firm belief is that it’s important to discover your own tremendous lack of potential. You should know whether one of your dreams, if you reach for it, will burn your stupid hand. Given the choice of any profession whatsoever, I would choose chess genius. I have not been given that choice.