Chess: It’s not for the faint of heart

It’s been a long time since I’ve played tournament chess. Occasionally I’ll take on a family member or a friend, but it’s been years since I’ve sat down across the board from someone with a chess clock ticking and my heart rate going twice its normal speed.

Chess, like most other games, can range from an offhand activity on a quiet afternoon to a take-no-prisoners championship final under strict rules and time limits, and with thousands of dollars in the balance.

I never reached the latter lofty heights, but I used to win a few bucks in tournaments with other patzers. (“Patzer” is chess-speak for a player with few skills and fewer prospects.)

I got into chess as a teenager. I don’t remember how I learned the game — I think a few of us in high school read up on the rules and studied a little strategy.

Later, in college, I played more frequently and delved a little deeper into tactics, learning a few standard openings and endgames. It’s a game with no apparent limit to its complexity.

A carload of us once drove up from New Haven to Hartford, Conn., to play simultaneous chess against the reigning Connecticut state champion. In simultaneous chess, one player stands in the center of a circle of chess tables, playing against all the players seated outside the tables at the same time. The center player comes to your table, waits for you to make your move, then makes his move and goes on the next table.

There were 13 of us seated on the outside of the 13 tables. In chess, the player with the white pieces always moves first. The state champion took black on every board, and used the French Defense in every game as his strategy. He won 12 games and drew (tied) the 13th, beating me, among others, with relative ease.

To win all or nearly all games in simultaneous chess is an impressive accomplishment. To win a blindfold chess game is more impressive. To win a simultaneous blindfold exhibition is many times more impressive, sort of like bowling several consecutive 300 games, or hitting a homer in 20 consecutive at-bats.

In blindfold chess, the blindfolded player sits with his eyes covered, or his back to the chessboard. His opponent gets to see the board. The sighted player makes his move and calls it out aloud (for instance, “pawn to king four”). The blindfolded player “sees” the changed board position in his mind, and calls out his own move. The sighted player then makes and calls out his next move, and so on.

A chess game can easily go on for 50 moves by each player, so the blindfolded player has to mentally keep track of each change in the position of the chess pieces, both his and his opponents’, in his mind through the whole game.

Seems impossible — yet there are chess masters who can win nearly every game while blindfolded. An Argentine grandmaster named Najdorf used to hold the world record — and probably still does — for winning 49 blindfold games simultaneously.

Don’t even try to think how much concentration that would require.

Experiments have been conducted on grandmaster-level chess players in tournament situations. Electrodes hooked up to them show heart rates in crucial board positions at levels achieved only by world-class dash runners in track meets.

Part of the tension arises from the time limit factor.

Tournament chess games are played with the help of chess clocks. A chess clock has two faces, side by side, with a small plunger atop each face. When a player makes a move, he depresses the plunger atop the face nearest him, thereby raising the plunger atop the other clock face and starting his opponent’s clock. His own clock stops while his opponent thinks about her move. When his opponent moves and hits her respective plunger, the opposite clock starts up again, and so on.

A typical time limit for a tournament chess game is 45 moves in two hours. That’s two hours of your own time in which to make 45 moves — your opponent has two hours of her own time for her 45 moves.

It seems like plenty of time, but as the game goes on and each opponent considers the expanding number of combinations and lines of attack and defense, time increasingly becomes a challenge, and your sweat drips faster.

Some players crack under the strain.

Some of the greatest grandmasters have become highly unstable, including American Bobby Fischer, a former world champion.

Maybe chess does it to them, or maybe they’re drawn to chess because of their mental hardwiring in the first place.

I’d like to think that my inability to rise above patzer level is because I’m too normal.

I fall back on that consolation when I recall my record in my last tournament: zero wins, five losses.

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