04 April 2008

Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do

So says Uncle Gilbert, anyway, and I'm rather inclined to think that he was right.

One of my favourite short stories is an extraordinary work of horror, or dark fantasy at any rate, by the incomparable Fritz Leiber. Yes, I know, you've probably not heard of him. I've yet to meet anyone who hasn't scrunched their face up quizzically whenever I've mentioned Leiber. It's odd, really, as over the years there can't have been many writers as talented as him to have worked in the fields of fantasy, horror, and science-fiction. Certainly, there's surely been nobody as gifted to have excelled in all three genres; he's one of those writers to whom other writers line up to pay tribute: Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Terry Pratchett... you name them, they venerate him.

Certain themes and topics reappear with delightful frequency in Leiber's work, with theatre, fencing, sex, cats, and chess being the most distinctive landmarks in his fictional landscape. If you can spare the time, you should settle in to read the marvellous 'Space-time for Springers', a hilarious and heartbreaking tale which Neil Gaiman describes as 'a story that everyone who's ever tried to understand kittens should read'.

Rather less easily available is 'Midnight by the Morphy Watch', which I've heard described as the best piece of chess fiction ever written; I don't know about that, but it's a chilling study of obsession and madness, and a wonderful ode to the glories and dangers of the game which Leiber so adored. Try this for an opening:
Being World's Chess Champion (crowned or uncrowned) puts a more deadly and maddening strain on a man even than being President of the United States. We have a prime example enthroned right now. For more than ten years the present champion was clearly the greatest chess player in the world, but during that time he exhibited such willful and seemingly self-destructive behaviour -- refusing to enter crucial tournaments, quitting them for crankish reasons while holding a commanding lead, entertaining what many called a paranoid delusion that the whole world was plotting to keep him from reaching the top -- that many informed experts wrote him off as a contender for the highest honours. Even his staunchest supporters experienced agonizing doubts -- until he finally silenced his foes and supremely satisfied his friends by decisively winning the crucial and ultimate match on a fantastic polar island.
Promising, eh? Leiber's sinister little gem, nominated for a Hugo Award in 1975, tells the tale of an old, but not very good, chess player who one day in San Francisco comes across an odd shop where he recognises an antique pocket-watch that had been presented to Paul Morphy in 1859, when he returned to America in triumph after his victories in Europe. He buys the watch from the shop's owner, who appears to have no idea of its significance, and takes it home, and that night the watch begins to tick.

I'll not spoil the story on you, because you really should hunt it down, but here's another little taster, just to whet your appetite:
"Les échecs fantasques," he quoted, "It's a cynical madman's allegory with its doddering monarch, vampire queen, gangster knights, double-faced bishops, ramming rooks and inane pawns, whose supreme ambition is to change their sex and share the dodderer's bed."
Tempted? You really should be, you know.

So why am I banging on about chess, you might wonder. It's been over six months since I've last done so, after all, when I warbled at length about a metaphor I'd carefully contrived between sips in the pub one night. I'm still rather proud of that one, as it happens, not least because things do seem to be coming to pass pretty much as I expected.

The thing is, I'm not very good at chess. No, scratch that; I suck at chess as badly as some people suck at Photoshop. I should be good at it: I'm pretty smart, I have a good memory, I've a fine visual imagination, and I've spent ten years of my life pondering strategy and tactics. I use chess language when I discuss problems, talking of forks, pins, binds, mobility, stalemates, endgames, king hunts, perpetual check, windmills, poisoned pawns, you name it. There's a whole tactical vocabulary there that I'm utterly at home with, and yet, sadly, it's all for nowt on that chequered board.

I have no idea why. Is it that I just don't concentrate enough? That was Poe's theory, wasn't it, in 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', that in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers?

I haven't won a game, other than when I was teaching the basic game to others, since I was in Jerusalem about six years ago, when over the course of several balmy evenings a friend and I brushed aside advances from some comely lasses who had been attempting to persuade us to join them on the roof of our hostel. Later, we said, each night. The game was more important. The girls, sadly, didn't think so, but they kept trying, their patience eventually running out when we failed to hook up with them in Eilat a few days later, after our desert adventures.

Anyway, today, against my better judgment, I installed the Facebook chess application, and started to play, first begging my friend -- smarter than me, and surely far smarter at anything analytical or mathematical -- not to tell people of how badly he'd beat me.

Possibly because of my confessed ineptitude, or possibly because he prefers to respond to challenges rather than issue them, he allowed me the advantage of playing white. And somehow, I won.

I'm still not sure how. Every game I've played for the last few years I've overstretched within four moves and then been dismantled. This time, somehow, that didn't happen, and I was able to throw bishops, knights, queen, and pawns into a full-blown assault.

'Wow,' remarked my friend, somewhere in the middle of the bloodbath, 'I've never played anyone so aggressive before.' I think that may have been the first time anyone has ever called me aggressive, at least to my face. How much have the last couple of years changed me? I want the ball now, that's for sure. I never used to.

I've a feeling the Jerusalem Jinx is still pretty much intact, though. I reckon I'll be annihilated in the next few games.


Buntifer Green said...

How far off checkmate is that picture taken? Because black is in check, but he can escape...

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

That's the point at which my friend resigned. He could indeed have escaped that check, but only at the cost of his queen. And then you've got his bishop under pressure, and me completely controlling the centre of the board. Resigning was the sensible and polite thing to do, I think.

I can fight these things forever, but like with Just War theory, there needs to be a reasonable hope of success.

Fred said...

Always been a Leiber fan, especially Fafherd and the Mouser...