Until about two months ago, I’d never played chess. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because there were so many other games to play, so many board games, with which I was certainly addicted, as was my sister, in my childhood. Since – see the online family history bit on my website – my sister and I took to playing two-handers to make sure my brother didn’t get a look in, which was undeniably cruel, and has made him the fit, healthy counsellor he is today, it is quite surprising we didn’t give chess a shot. Maybe it wasn’t colourful enough. Maybe it had the status of playing a musical instrument, or of being serious, or something like that. But now I have a chess partner who is much the same age as I am, and as much of a novice, and we are playing the game online like things possessed. I haven’t got to the stage of understanding castling yet, or indeed the importance of castles, but I am just starting to think two moves ahead, and, watch out, maybe three.
I’m not used to thinking so hard about a game, although I do like the fact that it isn’t a game of chance, that every move you make has some significance even if you don’t know what it is. The natural instinct is to protect and survive, whereas, it looks as if it’s about tactical sacrifice. I can see that I might be one of those old men in parks, setting the timer, and stroking his stubble. Not that I have ever seen a public chess square in England. In fact, I have only seen them in American and European movies.
If you are a chess beginner at the age of 56, and could be beaten by your nephew, which I could be, there is no time for amour propre. It is brain-bending stuff: much more efficient than those barmy brain-trainers advertised by Julie Walters and Chris Tarrant, which stop working after a few goes, and are consigned to the Christmas out-tray.
I am in love with the game enough to hate it. The bishops which can only move up one set of coloured squares! The fickleness of the side-stepping knights! The smart-alecry of the queen! The shy, closeted torpor of the king … And as for pawns which get stranded behind other pieces, well, I am still at the stage when I think of them doing it on purpose.
My opponent started unluckily. She lost and lost. But now she has had the heady scent of a checkmate, you can hear the cries for blood all the way from Lewisham to Devon (yes, I’m playing online, and yes, I also lose at online Scrabble, and at ‘Lexulous’, in which my step-niece, if there can be such a thing, sits in California inventing words like QOPH, which the machine actually accepts).
The one thing I can’t do at all is read chess notation, and I have not risen to the challenges of understanding (say) ‘The Sicilian Defence’. But I look forward to trying. At the moment, my life consists of cramming in obsession after obsession, but what the hell. I am a grown-up at last. N-QB3! No idea what that means, but I am working on it. And in fact, it’s an out of date notation, so I discover, although I never knew that N stood for Knight.
Your move, Lewisham.