Thursday, April 21, 2011

Chess Phobia

I’ll repeat something I’ve said here before. My friends who think I’m brave, outgoing, and extroverted inevitably will be surprised—maybe even disappointed—at some point when they discover that I have a serious streak of cowardice. And it’s always cowardice over some seemingly minor thing. There’s the way I am terrified of speaking on the phone, even to people I know very well. Never mind that I can walk up to a complete stranger in public and start a conversation over some fascinating hat he or she is wearing. The phone is a different beast entirely. My guts actually twist into knots when I have to call someone on the phone.

Then there was the time when my pal Walter and I were in Thailand. I had the guts to give a gorgeous Thai waiter a slip of paper with a message stating in poetic but crystal clear terms that I’d be willing to do all kinds of things alone with him on the beach that night. But then when his sweet, adorable little girlfriend came running after me when I left the dining hall, telling me in broken English, “Do you think he is nice? But he is…he is…my…” I was humiliated, and therefore TERRIFIED to go back to the dining hall that night, where I knew I’d see that waiter AND his girlfriend. Walter found this quite entertaining. He’d seen me do all kinds of things he thought were brave, but here I was, too much a coward to own up to a situation I myself had created. (Eventually, I did let Walter drag me back to the dining hall, and I turned as bright red as my hair was dyed at the time when the waiter teased me about what I’d done. Oh, was Walter amused!)

So yes, I can be the most yellow-bellied coward of all in the stupidest little situations.

Ahem. So chess… Chess is one of these. Years ago, I had a beautiful and brilliant love who taught me to play chess. I was just starting to bloom then, and was still very insecure and doubtful that my own mind could have wings. Meanwhile, he, my chess playing love, was brilliant and often more beautiful than I felt capable or worthy of embracing. So somehow, our chess games got wrapped up with all my doubts, fears, and insecurities, and when we broke up, I stopped playing chess because I just couldn’t handle it.

Now fast forward a few years, to the moment in which chess has re-entered my life. It has come from an unexpected source. I have written here before about my student who is so talented at creative writing. This kid is a supernova. These days, he spins galaxies of philosophy, history, and imagination on the tips of his fingers, like they’re nothing at all. He is as much my teacher as I am his. Our Friday night tutoring sessions are no longer spent on English. Instead, we have “Philosophy Night”. Well, a few weeks ago, I showed up at his house for Philosphy Night. He and his mother were in the living room when I arrived, and while I was untying my shoes, he muttered something to her in Korean and pointed at the chessboard they have in their living room. (A glass board with glass pieces. Magical looking.) His mother nodded, and he picked up the board and carried it upstairs toward the room where I tutor him, the pieces wobbling haphazardly on the board. That was when my heart filled with panic. In the way that agoraphobics can't bring themselves to leave their homes, I just have not been able to sit down at a chess game since the days when I was with that beautiful love of mine. I have had chess-phobia all these years. I have been terrified of other people seeing me play chess, especially those whose intelligence I am intimidated by. (And young as he is, I am definitely intimidated by my student’s intelligence.) I know it's irrational... it's a matter of needing more practice... But phobias are never rational!

So I made the excuse of needing to use the restroom before we began. I leaned against the bathroom sink and tried to calm down and breathe. I had a fierce inner battle between pride, fear, and the desire to not be a slave to either. I took a deep breath, and then went upstairs and sat down with my student. I told him I didn't remember how to play at all, which was a lie. I just wanted to stall... I wanted to eat up time by having him explain the rules of every piece’s movements to me. He didn’t allow that to go on for long. He made me set up the pieces to play. And he made me be white! He made me move first! I know, I know, being the first to move is an advantage in chess, and beginners are always supposed to play white, but it was so terrifying to me to have to make the first move. Not only was I about to show that I was a total idiot, but it was going to happen in the first five seconds of the game! I tentatively moved my middle left pawn forward two spaces. "Good choice," my student said, and from that simple compliment, half of my fear disappeared. (Who knew the approval of a 16-year-old kid could mean so much to me? But he’s really not a kid anymore, and it truly meant everything.) I was nervous and hesitant through the whole game, taking way too long to make every single move, and feeling too panicked to realize when my pieces were in danger. After the inevitable ass-kicking, he then gave me some end-game lessons. He showed me how to pair a rook and a king to attack the opponent’s king, and how to do the same using a queen and king pair. I was SO impressed by what a great chess teacher this kid is. No one else has ever been able to explain chess strategy in a way that my brain can hold onto, but somehow, this scrawny, 16-year-old boy seems to be the best chess teacher I could find. I went home feeling SO happy. I dug out my Bobby Fischer chess puzzle book, given to me years ago by that old love of mine, and I stayed up late going through chess puzzles.

Now Friday night tutoring sessions are “Chess Night”, not “Philosophy Night”. And I am asking every intelligent person I know to please, please kick my ass at chess so I can get over my phobia and learn this game, at last!


  1. I love how chess sets are a genre of art unto themselves. The glass set sounds beautiful.

  2. Between learning the Russian language, and becoming obsessed with chess, you really should boot Nabokov up on your reading list. Chess, writing, and butterflies were his three passions.