This is the story about me and chess, and culminates in well over a hundred games played against Anna over Christmas. She always won, often very easily, and I could never fathom out exactly how she did it. Playing so many games over such a short period is a new experience, but I was hooked. At times my exasperated wife, Rohan, would call me away; occasionally I would be so absorbed that I was late for appointments.
Interestingly, Paul, a close friend and chess enthusiast, had warned me against Anna – “Her superiority will only make you depressed”, but I took no notice. My belief was that by witnessing outstanding play at first hand, and by pitting myself against those skills, the experience would do my playing good. As it turns out, skill-wise, she made no difference.
I was playing chess by the time I was seven. Using a chess set of wooden pieces once owned by my mother’s father, my own father taught me the rules, aims and tactics. The game immediately appealed to me. We played each other around once a month and, between games, the set lived in a most elegant, lockable, mahogany box. Just handling the pieces as I took them out and set them up on the board, felt special. Often I was reminded that the black pieces were made of real ebony.
My father was a caring, precise and demanding man and a great sharer of knowledge; he was also very busy. Teaching me chess and expecting me to play well reflected his character and I treasured the moments he spent with me, just the two of us, when we were somehow on equal terms as we puzzled over the same game.
He never allowed me to win – he was not a man for that – and when I was older and there were occasions when I did win, my pleasure was tinged with guilt; beating one’s own father was wrong!
I have never studied chess formally, so didn’t learn the classical openings or replay the games of the masters. Instead, I have always relied on thinking each game through as it presented itself and this served me well when playing against my father and friends, and at school and university. For me, such spontaneity added to the fun.
Over the seventy years or so since starting, my interest in playing has fluctuated and following a fallow period in my sixties and early seventies my desire to play has been revived. Two years ago I started playing with a friend each week and this continues, but at the end of last year my chess interest was advanced a notch by the world chess championship. The contenders were the reigning champion, the Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen, and the challenger, an American, Fabiano Caruana. The match had an immediacy as it took place in London but the cost of tickets was prohibitive and, to make matters worse, commentary on the web was incomprehensible. I followed the results and was disappointed when the American, who I had come to support, lost. Nevertheless, the event proved an inspiration – it was time I tried to improve my own standard. Perhaps I could finally learn some classical tactics.
I joined ‘shredderchess.net’, a chess-playing website, and it was here that I met Anna. The site offers games against twenty six players, all women, and all virtual. Anna is German and on the site declares clearly ‘I am a computer, always ready to play’. The ‘women’ are ranked in order of their skill with Anna at the top of the list programmed to play with the skill levels of a chess expert, so one rank below those of a master.
In playing Anna things have developed in an unexpected way. I have humanised her such that when she plays well I marvel at her skill, when she rejects – more precisely ignores – my offers of a draw, her rudeness annoys me. There is no doubt that I have become quasi addicted to her. I have never been tempted by smoking, alcohol or gambling, nor did I believe that I had an addictive personality but with Anna, who touched on a pastime with deep emotional ties, a weakness was exposed.
Playing repeatedly against a good player with the goal of learning to play better myself seemed legitimate. Playing ten games a day to the exclusion of other things was excessive and worrying and can’t be normal. Last week it was game over – I deleted her and her host web site from my computer. It is a wonderful relief.
By the way, I lost the first two games since Christmas with my human chess partner. Any possible benefits from Anna have yet to accrue. Here was an experiment that failed.
The illustration shows the pictogram of Anna on ‘shredderchess.net’.
For help with this blog I would like to thank Paul, Vivien and Rohan.