Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Horsey to Queen Bish Five

I've been trying to learn chess, again. I know the moveset, learned in childhood, but have never learned how to play it: like driving, playing chess is not merely the press of pedal and turn of wheel but the contextual application of those motions.

Chess is one of those things I want to like, because it seems to fit my personality. There are other things like this, cultural artefacts that need to be approached and addressed in order to benefit - opera, theatre, ballet, musicals, Tolstoy - and not merely absorbed. I like difficult movies because of the effort they require; I like modern art because it isn't easy. You have to think, you have to meet the artist halfway, involve yourself. I want to be involved in the art I enjoy.

This is probably why I favour open-world videogames too: a recent Eurogamer article (and the comments thread that followed it) shows starkly that the ratio of art-to-entertainment in this particular medium is much lower than, say, cinema - leaving it up to us to make up our own experiences in devised worlds, an exercise that requires a Skyrim or a Liberty City. You can't meet CoD halfway: you have to be the character they press you into, let go, let them take charge of you.

There's value in that, if you enjoy rollercoasters, which many do. Personally I can't stand them. Finding joy in having your control taken away is a bit BDSM for my taste. In videogames I just want a toolset and a world, and to be allowed to go off and make my own entertainment.

Hence, chess. I should love it, but I don't, still. Every five years I try to love it again. I suspect I just need to play it against someone who is equally crap, so that we can learn it together, but the only chess players I know are skilled, lethal.

What comforts me is that yesterday's easy is today's difficult. Opera was once pop culture, Dickens was once throwaway pulp fiction. Take this, written in 1528 about chess:
And what say you to the game at chestes? It is truely an honest kynde of enterteynmente and wittie, quoth Syr Friderick. But me think it hath a fault, whiche is, that a man may be to couning at it, for who ever will be excellent in the playe of chestes, I beleave he must beestowe much tyme about it, and applie it with so much study, that a man may assoone learne some noble scyence, or compase any other matter of importaunce, and yet in the ende in beestowing all that laboure, he knoweth no more but a game. Therfore in this I beleave there happeneth a very rare thing, namely, that the meane is more commendable, then the excellency.
 Yep, they had chess nerds back then. Basement-dwelling weirdos with Bishops Do It Diagonally t-shirts quaffing Mountain Dew at LAN parties. I find that reassuring, and I don't really know why.

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