Monday, June 6, 2011

I'm Not Good Enough To Play Chess

Inevitably when people in my real life find out that I’m a tournament chess player they invariably say two things; 1.) Wow I’m sure you get a bunch of chicks! 2.) I know how to play chess but I’m not good enough to play in tournaments.

Let’s deal with this chick myth first. While it’s true that most tournament chess players are exceedingly handsome, debonair, hygienic, and possess sparkling, charismatic personalities, typically we find that dealing with such distractions as hordes of gorgeous women detract from our play greatly. So we do the right thing and generally ignore the scads of fans and paparazzi that follow us around at chess tournaments.

Now on to the point of writing this fine article; the myth of “not being good enough”. In the last three and a half years since beginning tournament play I have probably talked to more than 100 people who have almost said the same sentence verbatim, “I wouldn’t mind checking out a chess club but there’s no way I’d play, I’m not good enough.”

Bull crap.

Every person that can talk and not drool at the same time (although there are some good chess players that do just that) is totally capable of putting together a respectable chess game in a short amount of time. I think most people have this feeling that going to the chess club to play chess is akin to wanting to learn karate by challenging a ninja to a fist fight. This is not so.

Sure the first time I went to a chess club I was a little bit nervous about being embarrassed. But when I looked around and saw some of the outfits, observed some conversation, and watched a little social behavior, I realized it’s hard to take ridicule seriously from a balding, single man who wears white socks pulled up over his calves while wearing sandals. I need not ever be embarrassed in front of this man, about anything.

The point I’m making is these people are human, they come from all walks of life. They range from the totally down-to-earth to existing in another reality. If you are a terrible chess player you should not worry about being embarrassed in front of a group of dorks. Actually these dorks will help you become quite good, quite fast.

A chess club is nothing more than a gathering place for people who enjoy and appreciate the game of chess. There is no mystical powers possessed by this group. People in chess clubs range in skill from people who barely know how to move the pieces to seasoned master. Here’s the catch: when you go to chess club for the first time, you will not be paired up against the seasoned master. This I promise you! Even if you are, great! He probably won’t take you seriously and you’ll get a free lesson out of it.

The main reason you should go to a chess club is if you want to get good, playing against good players will make it so. A friend of mine use to run a chess club in Salt Lake City. He has a great anecdote about a guy who would bring his son to chess club every week. The father always refused to play citing he wanted to avoid embarrassment. He told my friend, the club president, that he trains at home frequently and he wants to get his playing level up to about 1400 before he comes and competes so as not to make a fool of himself. My friend watched this guy’s son gradually improve over two years from a sub-1000 player to over 1600. Meanwhile the father trained for two years at home on his game. One day the dad showed up and said he was ready to play and was confident he was about a 1400-level player.

My buddy paired him up with a 1300 player and at last the dad was in for his first, and last, tournament game after he was shredded at the board. How did this happen? My guess is that while dear old dad got “trained up” at home, his 1300 opponent had gobs of tournament experience under his belt. 1300 knew how to manage his clock, write down his moves, think critically about a position for several minutes, etc. He knew all of the things that go into a tournament game outside of just moving the pieces. While dad didn’t know anything except maybe a bunch of tactical exercises he did on a computer.

Another analogy, if you please. If you wanted to become a good boxer, I would teach you some basics and then I would toss your sorry butt in a ring with someone who knows how to fight. Why? There’s only so many skills you can learn smacking around a punching bag at home. The first time you leave your guard down and you take a shot square between the eyes, you’ll learn not to do that again, ever.

Getting in the ring with hundreds of different opponents will form and shape you. It will give you skills to achieve victory in numerous, unexpected ways. It will also give you tough losses to draw your biggest lessons from.

All good chess players welcome lessons that follow a loss, instead of fearing the embarrassment that may come along with it. Trust me, I should know! I’ve been checkmated in 9 moves by a 10-year-old and I’ve lost a game in 4 moves flat! Horribly embarrassing. But I didn’t close up shop and go home humiliated. I let everyone laugh at me, make their jokes, and I picked myself up and kept playing. I have had my share of embarrassments, but no one laughs when they see that they have been paired against me for a game.

So quit being a pansy. If you like chess and want to get better, join a chess club! If you don’t want to get embarrassed, then don’t ever take a risk.