Chess at Almost 70

by Daniel Bailey

I played in an online classical chess tournament not long ago. Which means chess as you probably think of it: slow. It was, in fact, not so slow. The 90 minutes per player is a lot faster than decades back. True, now there’s a five-second bonus added to each move. But this current control is certainly faster than the days of yore, when we played 40 moves per player in two hours, then 20 more moves in one hour, and 20 more in yet another hour if necessary.

What changed? Life. Everything. Which gave scope to the persistent American question, re chess and all else, How can we speed it up? Only baseball still takes as long as it needs to.

I played bad this weekend. Real bad. But why?

I was an average to slightly above average tournament player for five decades. From age 16 I stubbornly refused to get either better or worse. How do we players know we’re average, or better or worse? We get nifty numerical ratings, carefully scrutinized by all and adjusted after each tournament—each game, actually—depending on how well we do against other players with their own ratings. If I win against a guy with a rating a lot higher than mine, wow, fat city—my rating is going to take a healthy jump up. If I lose to a woman who looks like she’s pushing 100 and loses nearly all her games, my rating is going to fall off a cliff. (Note to reader: foreshadowing advisory.) That’s how we fit ourselves into the national pecking order with all the other tournament players in the country—by our stacked-up ratings. And how I know I’m falling off the aforementioned cliff.

But playing a tournament game still feels the same as when I was young. I sit there, I stare at the board (or, in this plague-time, the computer screen, where many tournaments have migrated), and move the pieces around in my head. I go here, he goes there, then I go here, then he goes there—unless he tries that other move. I’m still enjoying myself thoroughly, thinking of things I’ve studied in books about the opening, the middlegame and the endgame. Applying them best I can to the current struggle. Writing down all the moves in a notebook. All seemed to be going well this weekend.

And why not? It’s never necessary to lose a game of chess. Not to World Champion Magnus Carlsen, not even to Alpha Zero, a computer program far better than Carlsen. To lose a game of chess you have to make a mistake. But why do you have to? You can see all your pieces and all your opponent’s all the time. There is no fog of war in chess. Not on the board.

Yet everyone makes mistakes. Because the fog of war is in your head. Chess is inhumanly hard. It asks your brain to be a flawless calculator under a time constraint. It tempts you to become over- or under-confident. It doesn’t care if you’re getting tired. It seduces you with its possibilities spinning out like lines of poems—and then spills you hard on your butt like you’re a beginning ice-skater.

Chess is getting harder for me. Now, in addition to errors in calculation, to over-and under-confidence, to gaps in my knowledge of this beautiful three-visaged game, each face veiled in its own beguiling logic—I’ve grown old.

I can’t remember what I’ve already calculated.  An example from this weekend: I look at Move A. If he answers with Move A1, let’s see ahead two or three moves. Hmm, it’s good for me. Or if he tries Move A2, also good for me. Or if he varies after playing Move A2 with a sneaky Knight move, does it help him? No, it does not—still another good line for me. Let’s look at one last response for him, Move A3. Good … good … wait.

Three moves into the A3 variation he’s got a killer shot. Takes my Bishop, threatening my Queen with check. Devastating. That would be game over. So Move A by me is out.

I go on to move B.  Same process, climbing the branching analysis tree of he-does-this, I-do-that. Move B is a turkey, a bunch of nothing for me. Let’s look at Move C. Attractive, but risky-feeling. Too speculative. Experience tells me I’m listening to the siren call of wishful thinking. Move C is out. By now 12 minutes have passed.

What am I going to do? Can’t sit here all day and run myself short of time for future crucial decisions. Let’s look at Move A again—I seem to recall it had some good things going for it. Move A1 for him, I’m doing fine. Move A2, ditto … so what was my problem with Move A? It’s wonderful! I shouldn’t burn any more clock time. I play Move A.

He takes my Bishop, threatens my Queen with check, just as I had seen. He has massacred my troops. I resign. Which is chess-speak for “I quit, and don’t even think about blocking my way to the exit of this effing tournament room.”

I couldn’t remember that capture of my Bishop. Age is eroding my short-term memory.

Another game from this weekend. We move and move, many minutes pass, and I’m doing all right. My opponent is playing unexpectedly well, but that’s okay. I’m feeling good. Now I work hard to see what to do about a Queen move she has available. Sure enough, she plays it. Ah, but what a beautiful response I find: I move one Rook beside the other so they defend each other. To boot, the newly placed Rook attacks the enemy Queen.

The two Rooks look beautiful side by side. Chess can be aesthetically satisfying on the visual plane. I’m particularly pleased with my conception (even though her Queen can then take, and does, a nearby pawn) because my Rook isn’t done with its travels. It now moves forward three squares to attack the Queen again, which must move again. Then the Rook will go, I figure, to the adjacent vertical row of squares to once again defend the other Rook, and pressure the white pieces—but now more aggressively than before, from three squares up the board. Elegant! I think about this maneuver a long time before I play it. It satisfies something deep in me, something to do with art. I feel securely in the chess groove.

There arises a single problem. When my Rook attacks the Queen the second time, the Queen captures my other no-longer-defended Rook. With check!

A whole Rook blown for nothing. I have played like a beginner. Since she’d hurt her position earlier—and I am indeed playing the lady who looks like she’s pushing 100 and loses almost all her games—it was justified to play on. I pulled myself together for what could be no other than an extended and grim defensive effort. Eventually the game came down to Rook and four pawns for her and Bishop and four pawns for me. There was still some chance—maybe—to draw. The books give certain drawn positions in Rook-versus-Bishop endings (not that I know them). But I might stumble on one, if I hang tough.

Then, just like my Rook, I blunder again and give her my Bishop.

Shaken, embarrassed, I click the “Resign” button. I report the result, as required, both to the tournament director’s personal email account and to the tournament’s chat group for all the players to see. I have just lost to Doris Duff, gray and sere, aged somewhere north of the North Pole, with a rating deep in the Mariana Trench. Doris Duff who never misses a tournament and almost never wins a game. But she has just won one against me.

What happened? Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation is probably right. I got tired. Couldn’t think straight anymore. Because I’ve grown old.

Such things have happened in my last four tournaments. I performed poorly in one and horribly in the others. Far below my mediocre level of 50 years. I had to give up running after nearly that long. Bad hips. Now maybe tournament chess is on the chopping block. Bad wits?

Or ought I try to emulate the dogged and noble warrior Ms. Doris Duff?

Daniel Bailey currently resides in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with his wife. He’s a semi-retired educator and part-time freelance editor from the Pacific Northwest. He’s lived abroad in seven countries half his life and is a past chess magazine editor whose love for the game is lifelong.