What is Chess, Besides a Game?

This is a topic that’s been in the fullsizerender-26forefront of my mind for years, so writing this comes with a sense of gratification in my own reflection, as well as in the privilege of sharing it with others.

As a forewarning, I’m no doubt going to be carried away in my romantic raving on the beauty of chess, its many merits, and its impact on my life. Before that happens, let me introduce myself as someone who is perhaps no more qualified to speak on chess than any other formidable tournament player. I do, however, believe my perspective as an artist, philosopher and fervent believer in an inexplicable connection between all avocations of life, will uniquely qualify me to pitch the game of chess to a wide audience. Many thanks to Pawns and Pints, KC for allowing me an outlet for my thoughts. That being said, I’m Dylan Mize, and my goal in this first blog post is not to transform anyone into a Grandmaster, but to capture the attention of a diverse group of people and convince you that chess is a worth while endeavor, as a pastime if nothing else. This is the first of hopefully many chess-related posts I will be making on a bi-monthly basis, and full disclosure: This will probably be the wordiest and gushiest of them all. If you’ve made it this far, you probably have at least an inkling of interest in the game, so please continue to read and enjoy a nerd’s ode to chess.


Chess is entertainment.
 Probably invented in India, chess has been a favorite worthy of even royalty for almost two millenniums. Part of it’s appeal is it’s just so interesting – there’s no cap to the amount of hours you can spend on this game, and this makes its entertainment value incredibly high. Beyond simply playing the game, which I never get bored of, there are countless books, videos, online articles, magazines, and other forms of material dedicated to it which can occupy your time for as long as you want. This is more than you can say about most games. It has been said the mark of a quality game is its ease to learn and difficulty to master, which describes chess perfectly; you get out of it exactly what you put in with virtually no cap. It can be played at any level, and should not intimidate those who have yet to feel the satisfaction of capturing an enemy piece. There are many ways chess can be played – many variants (e.g. Bughouse, Fischer Random, Suicide, etc) and many possible time controls (long, rapid, blitz, and bullet). Again, its replay-ability is infinite.9369239722_1dde82fe53_m

Chess is an art. Just ask famous Modern Artist, Marcel Duchamp, who eventually gave up art for chess. There are many types of aesthetics beyond just the visual. Chess may engage the senses in the same way as other classically recognized forms of fine art, but there are stunningly beautiful moves, lines, tactics, and general positions that appear on the board, and far more beautiful possibilities that are never actually realized. These possible, or hypothetical lines form a virtually infinite tree of moves, our awareness of which brings to light our strikingly human awareness of the a priori, or what exists independent of our senses. The way a chess game unfolds mimics a piece of art in that, generally speaking, no two games are the same. In some ways, it’s a collaborative effort by both players to create a piece both players learn from, enjoy, and can contribute in some small way to the tradition, much like one artist’s contribution to a movement.

Aesthetically pleasing chess games are often compared to symphonies – all units work together in harmony for a common goal. This analogy works with any sort of artistic composition. Chess moves can be thought of as a unit – a brushstroke, or a note. Each unit on its own is simply a coordinate – E4 on a chessboard, B flat on a piano. A blue circle on a canvas. Together, over time, these units transcend into something new. I believe this analogy permeates into most, if not all life’s worth while endeavors.

As in art, strong intuition can play a large role in the strength of a chess player. Over time, the best players have grown an innate, almost automatic sense of tactical and strategic pattern recognition, but it’s also useful to develop a sense or feeling for which moves are correct. Not all decisions in chess must be based on reason alone. This is one aspect of the game I pride myself on having become quite comfortable with. Speaking of chess and art, below are a few live sketches I was able to complete and have signed during elite events at the St Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center (and have signed). In case you don’t recognize them, depicted top left is current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, who has been nicknamed the Mozart of chess, and depicted bottom right is Gary Kasparov (former world champion).

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Chess is logic. Rationality is another uniquely human attribute, and chess is a wonderful way to celebrate it. Nothing is gambled in chess – all of the information you need to make your decision is sitting in front of you on the board; there is no chance involved. Your success in chess rides solely on the decision you make. Learning the reasons to make certain decisions in chess is 90% of the battle. As opposed to a computer, when a person who knows some basic principles plays chess, with each passing move, we go through an incredible deductive process. In any given position, most moves simply make no sense – we would never think to play them because they don’t follow the principles we’ve learned. A glaring example would be that we would never purposefully move our queen to a square controlled by an enemy knight, because we’ve learned queens are more valuable than knights. Thus, we immediately eliminate the majority of possible moves, and this seemingly takes barely any thought. Afterwords, we’re left with a small set of candidate moves of which all but one are eventually eliminated.

I’ve found that most people who are unfamiliar with the game believe all there is to chess is cold, hard calculation; this is how a computer makes decisions. This is not the totality of a human’s experience of chess, rather it is using the various ideas and principles you learn at the right moments to inform your decision making process in a constantly evolving game. You don’t need to be a machine that sees 20 moves deep to succeed in chess, in fact – most Grandmasters will tell you, depending on the type of position, they rarely need to see more than 4-5 moves ahead in order to form an effective plan.

Chess is healthy. Chess engages both sides of your brain. For example, there are moments during every game where it is necessary to calculate – to ensure you’ll come out ahead after a concrete series of trades. Straying from the topic a bit, there are other moments when the position is less strict and does not require such precise moves. On these moves, it is often helpful to think creatively of a plan to move forward. It’s easy to imagine chess as a solved game, one which requires every move to be 100% accurate. Chess is far from being solved. Modern day chess engines can only calculate with complete surety the outcome of any position which is only left with 6 or fewer pieces, including the kings. In contrast, from move 1, a chess game has more possible positions than the countable number of atoms in the universe by far. The point is, there is always room for novelty in chess, especially when you’re just in it for fun. Besides engaging both sides of your brain, There are studies that show chess improves memory, prevents certain age related ailments, improves critical thinking and problem solving ability, raises IQ, improves mathematical skills, and the list goes on.

Chess is hope. It’s a tool to stay out of trouble in underprivileged areas. Not only does it occupy your time, but it teaches the consequences of your actions. It can teach empathy – to play unselfishly and to take your opponent’s plans into account without blindly carrying out your own. There are many accounts of inmates who have nothing better to do than play chess, who claim to be rehabilitated in part because of the game. There are also many accounts of children growing up in poverty, in areas with prevalent drugs and crime, who take up chess as a means to escape such a life, and who end up coming out the other side with an improved sense of self worth and self confidence. This next image down shows the first ever African American Grandmaster and established commentator, Maurice Ashley lecturing a group of high school athletes from all over St. Louis county about the parallels between chess and football. He is making comparisons between how chess pieces move and how players in different positions move in football. Besides providing a relevant metaphor, Ashley is well known for advocating the game as something that will provide an invaluable tool to learn important life lessons – the fun way.

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Chess is a sport. What is considered a “sport” is subjective and at the end of the day, just semantics, but chess meets all of the criteria typically set forth for something to be considered a sport. The world chess championship match used to last for 2 months – 1 game per day lasting for hours. In contrast, the Superbowl only last a few hours. Unlike many athletic activities, it doesn’t require concentrated bursts of physical exertion, but players do benefit from a high level of stamina and physical fitness, nonetheless. To be competitive, chess requires high levels of experience, focus and stamina – no different from other sports. All of the world’s top players include an exercise program as part of their training regimen. I can vouch for how mentally and physically taxing competitive play can be– I have played weekend-long matches, playing all day with games lasting up to 6 hours apiece. I always go to tournaments prepared with a bottle of Tylenol.

Chess is a community. Scaled down to the individual game level, a chess game happens with 2 players, starting from the same odds (minus white’s first move advantage). Each game is a joint realization – a partnership, almost. At some level, each move is a reaction to your opponent’s. I learned the game from my dad when I was 8, and chess still carries a certain amount of nostalgic weight from being with my dad as a child. I came to realize these fond memories linger with every opponent I play. You may not remember the details of the game, but after playing chess with somebody, you and that person share a relationship you didn’t before, and that’s special. It’s always exciting coming across someone in everyday life who plays chess because you instantly know you share something with that person. For this reason, it’s easy to make friends, and chess is by far the most diverse community I’ve ever experienced. I’ve played against people of all different ages, races, nationalities and gender. Chess is universal, and I think that’s telling.tournament-hall

Chess is fashion. Maybe not in the traditional sense (although the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen is a model part time), but as in clothing style, art, and many other forms of culture, there are ways to play chess that go in and out of fashion with time, often based on what top players are having success with at the time. There are also certain timeless openings such as the Spanish game, popular at the top since the game’s advent. There is not just one way to play. You can pick openings that best suit your style, and this is a fun way to show individuality.gallery05

Chess is history. Chess has lived through some trying times – wars and social conflicts during which any normal, silly game would have fallen by the wayside. Quite the contrary, during the cold war, for example, chess dominance was an integral component in Soviet Russia’s campaign to prove communism was the ideal form of government. They thought if they could prove their cerebral superiority, they would in turn, prove the superiority of their societal structure. Communist authorities would even go to the lengths of making their best players sign written agreements to win certain tournaments and matches. Indeed the Soviet Union dominated the chess world for the majority of the mid -late 20th century, but in the heart of the cold war, American Grandmaster, Robert James (Bobby) Fischer put a wrench in the Soviet cogs by winning the 1972 World Championship. This was actually televised and covered by major news sources. By all accounts, this match was a huge factor in deciding the outcome of the cold war as it was a giant psychological blow to the Russians. Chess has long been seen as a symbol of status, wealth and intelligence, and as such, it is bound to carry cultural significance. Below is a shot of Fischer making a (probably devestating) move in his critical match against Boris Spassky. f_s_1972_3_300

Besides playing active roles in specific historical events, chess is rich in metaphor. Chess boards and pieces themselves are often crafted in different shapes and forms to resemble different, but analogous units. Perhaps the most obvious and famous reference is to war. The different pieces form your army which deploys from their starting positions to attack the enemy king and once he is checkmated, the game ends. Just as it’s vital to have the high ground in a centralized location in the heat of a battle, it’s equally important to control the central squares on the chess board.

I hope this was eye opening for some, and that I have at least garnered some interest in the game from someone who would have otherwise not thought twice about it. Incidentally, part of the reason I will be making these posts is in exchange for a space to teach chess lessons at Pawns and Pints in the crossroads – an opportunity I’m very fortunate to have. If you are interested in lessons or have any questions, please get in contact with me via the information below. Since I began playing tournament chess as a freshman in college, I’ve viewed it as a passion, alongside painting. I’ve traveled regionally to tournaments, having won the third tournament I ever entered in my section, and have quickly improved my rating from the 1100s to upper 1600s, and still steadily growing. Whether you simply want to learn the game, improve or become a competitive player, I will be able to provide you with a solid foundation. I’m also an aspiring art professor (once I receive my masters) – teaching is my thing.In future posts, I won’t be talking about myself much so while I’m taking this opportunity to advertise myself, if you’re interested in viewing my artwork, visit http://www.dylancmize.com.  I’m open for teaching chess to people of any age, though I am only permitted to teach adults at the venue of Pawns and Pints due to the presence of alcohol. Stay tuned, as I expect to make more chess-related posts on various topics I find relevant, whether it be current events, historical, or instructional!14247637_10154472278018851_1979684492_o

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