Why does chess fascinate us?
It could in part be due to the almost “secret society” that chess is surrounded by. To know and understand the way the pieces move on the board, and to appreciate not only the game itself, but some of the most beautifully crafted boards and pieces around the world, is evidence that chess is more than a game.
As with most things, you have the casual fans and the diehards who view chess as a way of life. They solve the daily puzzles in the newspaper; have several chess apps on their mobile phones; play with colleagues during lunch.
Chess is literally everywhere.
Expressions like “putting someone in check,” and the company worker who feels like “a pawn,” are two examples of how ingrained the language of chess has become. So subtle. So richly detailed. Yet few actually learn to play the game (some finding it intimidating or just plain boring). It is, I suppose, an acquired taste. Not to knock anyone’s favorite board game (I’m thinking of you, checkers), chess is a superior game for the mind.
Celebrities as wide-ranging as iconic actor Humphrey Bogart and R&B legend Ray Charles were fans of the game. The movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” gave audiences of the ’90s a view into the chess world.
Unfortunately, like literary biopics, it’s a tougher job to dramatize the internal. However exciting the writing of “Carrie” may have been to Stephen King or the composition of “The Old Man and the Sea” to Hemingway, the process of dramatizing an internal art form presents numerous problems for the filmmaker (and perhaps less of a problem for the novelist or biographer). While there will continue to be occasional dramas with chess as its, pardon the pun, centerpiece, don’t expect an influx.
Not surprisingly, chess continues to evolve alongside our technologies. Listed as one of the top free downloads in Apple’s App store is Chess.com, which allows you to play chess against the computer at varying difficulty levels as well as playing someone from another country.
When Pam Grier made her first appearance on “Smallville” as Amanda Waller, head of the Checkmate organization, I smiled to myself as she ran through a set of chess-inspired lingo. Sure, they went a little overboard with it, and some of it was eye-rolling-y bad. Still, I love popular references to chess.
I have a box full of trophies that my mother keeps in her basement as a reminder of chess’ impact upon my world. Though I’m hardly as strong a player today (very little time to polish up), I do manage to get a game or two in, usually on my iPod.
The good news is there are thousands of kids in the U.S. who are learning the game and competing on a national level. In Detroit, chess is giving inner cities kids a broader view of the world, an alternative to the degradation seen every day: boarded-up schools, the desolation of vacant lots; stripped of its garment, the city dwells in a state of incorporeity, haunting the memory of its inhabitants.
In contrast, chess is a locale, a city, a state of mind, and in some cases, an escape.
Chess, for these kids, is a more attainable dream than becoming a pop star, a basketball star or a rapper – the pieces, whatever their composition, are very real. They can touch them. Test its weight within their palm. They can dream.
Chess teaches visualization. Furthermore, it demands a visionary’s eye; a mathematician’s skill at discerning probabilities; an artist’s innate ability (and need) for invention. And they discover something about themselves in the process.
One Cornerstone Charter School-Washington-Parks Academy chess team member told me, that chess, very simply, prepares you for life. Every decision you make carries consequences, great and small, good or bad.
And that’s the lesson.
Chess is more than a set of strategies, moves and pieces on a checkered board – chess can change lives. And minds.