Chess Strategy

Cliches and aphorisms live on for a very simple reason: we recognize their essential truth.  This is the story of how one became dazzlingly clear to me one day, long, long ago.

Once upon a time I played chess a fair amount.  Not that I was particularly good, since I lacked the patience to learn more than a few of the basic gambits, but I had a friend with whom I liked to play.  Bill was spooky bright, which made him a challenge, but he, too, was a bit too lazy to be a really good player.

In short, we were pretty fairly matched.  Bright enough, largely untrained, and ferociously competitive.

Every once in a while one of us would suddenly sport some new stratagem, sure indication that the desire to win had temporarily outmatched indolence.  I.e., we’d looked something up.

Fortunately, the advantage never lasted.  The new strategy learned, we would go back to a fairly even trading of victories.

But one day it all changed.  We met, as usual, at my house after school.  Bill wasn’t sporting any of the obvious signs of having a secret plan to insure victory.  If anything, he seemed a bit more casual and chatty than usual.  A little abstracted, perhaps, but then Bill could be abstracted eating a cookie.

I opened and began setting up my latest favorite: the French defense.  This is an elaborate defense, with a sawtooth line of pawns designed to make it very expensive for an opponent to
crack your line.  Bill, however, didn’t respond with any of his usual gambits.  Instead, he simply advanced a few pawns on one side, trading one of mine for one of his in the process.

As I continued patiently building my wall, things began to go wrong.  Bill seemed unusually willing to trade pawns, leaving my wall with sizable gaps in it.  The he started to move out his knight and bishop on one flank, obviously intending to sacrificially swamp my defenses on that side.  I replied by starting to move out some of my heavier pieces to meet him.

Somehow that didn’t work out too well.  Instead of charging through my line, Bill’s pieces turned inward, picking up a knight of mine on the way.   I tried to confront his pieces, but he seemed more content to run away, sliding his pieces away from his opening flank attack.

It just didn’t make sense.

So I decided to start attacking from my opposite side, the one that had so far sat idle.  Meeting that, Bill started to move out his pieces on that side, either initiating another flank attack or simply trying to stop mine.  I couldn’t be sure, but I somehow lost a bishop along the way there, too.

This was getting serious.  I was two major pieces and a couple of pawns down by this time, but I still hadn’t been able to tell if Bill was mounting a very clever attack or a brilliant defense.

I’d love to be able to tell you that at some point his whole strategy became suddenly clear to me and I was finally able to stop the rout, but that’s not what happened.  As the game wore on I thought several times I’d figured him out, but the loss of more pieces soon proved how wrong I was.  No matter what I tried, I always seemed to get surprised from the side or be forced to choose which piece to lose.

It was truly a bloodbath.  In all the years we’d played together I’d never lost as badly as I did that afternoon.  And I’d never felt like such a total idiot.  It was as if I’d suddenly stumbled onto a grand master.

Mercifully, nothing, no matter how bad, lasts forever.  I eventually got far enough behind that Bill let me concede with whatever shreds of dignity remained.  I had rarely felt so humiliated and so clearly second class.  But at last we were done.

Except for one thing: I had to know where Bill had learned his brilliant new way of playing.

Bill looked mildly surprised.  No, he hadn’t been reading anything new.  And, no, he hadn’t spent hours secretly working on some new method of playing that would put me in the shade.  In fact, he hadn’t really been trying all that hard to beat me at all.

Uh, gee, thanks.

Instead, he explained, he had just decided that instead of working so hard to win the game, it would be fun to see if he could try to move all of his left hand pieces over to the right and his right hand pieces to the left.

That was it.  Oh, and whenever one of my pieces got in the way, he took it.

There are lots of lessons we learn and then just as quickly forget.  Not this one.  Years later I found an aphorism that perfectly matched the scars on my psyche:

Never ascribe to malice and forethought what can be explained by ignorance and stupidity.

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