Chess for chess's sake

SHORTLY before my 50th birthday I entered a chess tournament. It was my first tournament in 30 years or so, and I wondered if there were anything left of the talented teen-ager I had once been. After two years and several tournaments, I can report that my style is pretty much the same as it was. But there has been a big change in my attitude. When I was 12 years old I hated the idea of being a novice, at chess or anything else. The first time around, I could hardly wait to become a grown-up. Now that people call me ``sir,'' there isn't the same hurry. One of the best ways to enjoy chess is to hold on to a neophyte's openness of mind. If I don't insist on becoming an adult too quickly, I can even hope to learn something new.

At the very beginning, during what might be called the Garden of Eden period of my chess career, I was completely unaware that the game had a serious competitive aspect. I thought of it as mere play, and imagined that nobody could really care who won the game. For a short, blessed time I didn't know there was such a thing as a strong chess player.

Soon enough it became clear that chess could be savagely competitive, even among children, and that I myself was a relatively strong player. I could beat most of my schoolmates, and then older men; before long I was playing on my high school team. It seemed that I might go very far.

During my freshman year in college, one of the stronger players on the chess team told me, rather solemnly, that if I applied myself I could hope to become a master by the time I graduated.

It was like one of those scenes in an old-fashioned spy story in which the hero, an undergraduate at Oxford, is tapped for British secret service. Young Fotheringay may have been keen as mustard, but I wasn't, and chose not to apply myself.

I gave up tournament play and for years my relation to chess was that of a distant spectator.

Now that I have taken up tournament chess for the second time, I find myself playing against teen-agers who remind me of my younger self.

In my teens I had a low opinion of men who had played for years without - as I thought - learning anything at all. They were easy meat, and all I asked was that they lose quickly and get out of my way.

It is now my turn to be a steppingstone on the youngsters' path to the top, but I've found out what those men knew and I didn't. Not how to play the game, perhaps, but something more important, which is that it is possible to live and learn without being a hotshot.

Children have the whole world before them. It was thrilling as well as frightening to imagine that I might grow up to be a champion at one thing or another. When I was in that state of mind, I couldn't be a true amateur. An amateur is one who loves, and I was too taken up with the enormous appetites of youth to do very much in the way of disinterested love. Chess was part of my desire for more and more of everything.

Now it is part of a life. By profession I am a writer about art. If necessary I can explain to the uninitiated why a cube of rusting steel is one of the outstanding sculptures of the 1960s, whereas a calendar picture of a cute cocker spaniel is not art at all. From time to time, while I am flying in the artistic stratosphere, I suspect that I have something to learn from the cocker spaniel people.

In chess I am one of them. So as my understanding of avant-garde ideas is concerned, I am the chess-playing equivalent of a Norman Rockwell fan. Just as I can love to waltz without needing to equal Fred Astaire, I can play chess without needing to know everything.

The secret of enjoying the game and even learning a little is to remain a beginner. Mikhail Tal, a former world champion, is said to make a habit of watching the chess lessons broadcast on Soviet television. Perhaps my secret is the masters' secret as well.

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