Friday, September 19, 2014

The Grandmaster

About a week or so ago, something amazing apparently happened in St. Louis, where the 2014 Sinquefield Cup was held. This is, of course, one of the title matches for chess.

Chess has always been a little weird to me. On one hand, it's an ancient game whose rules are reasonably simple but the board and situations open up multitudes of possibilities. On the other hand...well, it's been used from everything from a barometer of nerd martyrdom to an awkward Cold War proxy.

Oddly, for someone who is a board game hobbyist like myself, I was never really all that good at chess. Well, basically I had a plateau: I was a decent enough player up to a point. After that, though, it was either intellectual limitations or simply boredom where I really just couldn't master anything. Thinking two or even three moves ahead makes sense, but to somehow get seven or eight ahead just seems like a waste of time. And memorizing different openings and moves wasn't something I really enjoyed, so studying it like a science just seemed like a chore.

I've always found it weird that chess somehow got tagged as an "intellectual" game. I suppose it makes sense, since you have to conceptualize a lot of abstract movements in your head. But it always seemed like that kid in class who memorized all the facts in the book but couldn't order lunch without jacking it all up; on paper, he (or she) was smart, but actually applying that skill to anything in the real world revealed exactly how much of a disaster that person was. And just like similar games (like Scrabble), a lot of it is less about situational awareness and more memorizing stuff.

OK, maybe that's a little harsh. Every game plays out differently, and I'll admit that watching two skilled players play against each other is fascinating. (Well, watching edited footage of two players. I ain't watching that live because I am a normal human being.)

Add to that the very, very weird modern history of the sport--Bobby Fischer turned into a reclusive  batshit crazy anti-Semite; the current head of FIDE (arguably the most powerful international chess organization, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, insists that he was taken on a joyride with aliens that unlocked the mysteries of chess to him (or something like that, and, no, I'm not making that up); the rise of computer chess players and how that's a thing; and all the weird Cold War shenanigans that basically everyone went through for a few decades. It's just strange that we've taken this honored ancient game and turned it into some odd weirdness sink. 

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