Thursday, 19 August 2010

In praise of small things- part six - a game of chess

Chess appeals to me on a  number of levels. It's a game of complex thought and infinite options, but there's also something mathematically simple and reassuring about the board - 64 squares (that's 4 times 4 times 4, which is nice). 32 white squares, 32 black squares, 16 white pieces, 16 black pieces. There aren't many other situations in life where it all adds up so neatly, or where you can assert, with total confidence, that it really is all black and white.
At the same time, there's something of the fairy tale about it - kings and queens, pawns and bishops, rooks and knights, facing each other in battle - you can almost picture the handsome prince hacking his way through the forest to save the day.
And it doesn't really matter how good you are. Enjoyment isn't dependent on your level of skill - you can be a complete chess numpty and still enjoy a game - you just have to find someone else at the same level.
My Dad taught me to play chess when I was young. One of the very few things I still have of his, is an early computerised chess game that my sister bought him for his birthday. In his later years, when the kids and I went to visit, I'd often pick up the chess game from its home on the rattan bookshelf and play a game on my own, revelling in the chance of a small piece of quiet reflection, while the little treasures climbed all over their grandad and messed up his hair.

And probably because it was my Dad who taught me to play, I've always assumed that men who play chess have a level of intellectual superiority. Which is where my dearly beloved comes in.
I first met Philip when we worked together. During that year when we were colleagues and just starting to be friends, I enjoyed the way he challenged my thinking. I loved the fact that he always had an opinion and even if I didn't agree (which was very often the case), I enjoyed the time we spent, putting forward ideas like pawns, checking and countering each other. It wasn't too much of a surprise, when we eventually became more than colleagues, to find out that Philip also played chess.
When he first came to live with me, and my four teenage children, it wasn't a particularly easy time for any of us - the kids could see no need for him to be there; he wasn't their dad, and he was butting in on their territory. I wanted him to be there, but I'd worked hard to build up a measure of independence and self-reliance,which I wasn't letting go of too easily. And Philip was starting out all over, living in a new part of town and trying to feel like it was his home too, while treading on egg shells through a maelstrom of teenage (and womanly) hormones and resentment. So we often retreated to the dining room while the kids claimed the sofas and the TV, and that was when we started playing chess. The sounds of Nick Lowe's album 'The Convincer' played softly in the background as we played game after game, keeping a tally of who won in the lid of the chess-set box. We were pretty evenly matched.
Once, we went to Frinton for a day at the sea-side. It poured with rain. All day. Anyone who knows Frinton knows there is nothing to do in the rain, so we found a toy shop, purchased a chess set, and sat in the pub all day, warm and happy.
Another time we were spending a few days in Barcelona, when we found a fantastic shop in the old town, selling all sorts of chess sets.

Of course we bought one. Since then, we've often packed the folding wooden case with our holiday clothes, knowing that the 'chess mood' will fit well with our relaxed holiday heads.
Nowadays, with the hours we spend down at the allotment or writing at home, there isn't so much time, or need, for chess. But every now and then, we'll stick Nick Lowe on the CD player and get the chess set out. We're still pretty evenly matched.


Pat said...

Some post! You touched on a number of interesting issues there. I wonder if Philip has ever played chess with the children? It's nice to have a shared interest to fall back on.
Thanks for the memory of summer holidays with the kids in Frinton.
The first time we took the boys abroad we met this man who had done everything - been everywhere and he asked my younger son - 'Where do you usually go for your holidays?'
A replied 'Frinton - it's smashing!

Sharon Longworth said...

Hi Pat,
you made both Philip and I smile at the thought of him sitting down to play chess with the children - at the time I was writing about, they would have been more likely to throw the chess pieces at him than play with him - but perhaps it's an aspiration for the future as we all grow older and wiser.
We loved Frinton - it had a nice genteel feel about it - might try to get back there one day when the sun shines.