Archive for the ‘Chess’ Category

Mitar’s Childhood

In my early years in Athens, the best thing about my job was that students had lessons twice a week — Mondays and Wednesdays, or Tuesdays and Thursdays — which meant that Fridays were free. All we had to do was go in for a half-hour meeting at 1.00. Raymond, the director of studies, would write the syllabus for the following week on the board and we would copy it down. Then we would all go to a nearby cafe-bar for a few beers.

(The cafe-bar, photo taken at a much later time, after we had stopped being regulars.)

Sometimes I would bring a magnetic chess set and Raymond and I would play a game or two. I always had the advantage in the opening but Raymond almost always managed to turn things around late in the middle game and win. This frustrated me so much that I took to recording the moves as we played so I could analyse them afterwards with the help of my Fritz program and see exactly where and how I had gone wrong.

One Friday the group broke up earlier than usual and I stayed behind to look over the chess game on my own. While I moved the pieces around over and over at the crucial point where I had lost the upper hand, I had the unmistakable feeling that someone was watching me.

A boy of about seven or eight years, whom I’d often seen selling little packs of tissues, was leaning against a nearby table. He often came into this cafe-bar. He had large blue eyes, and a few freckles scattered across his cheeks and his round, slightly wide nose. His short blond hair had cowlicks, and would probably be curly if he grew it long enough.

Once I looked up I thought he would ask if I wanted to buy some, but he was too busy looking at the chessboard. He approached slowly to get a closer look at the board. Did he know the game? Or was he interested simply because he knew it was a game?

In Canada I’d seen a lot of homeless people, and many of them teenagers. They came from all over the country to find work in the big city. They would sit on the sidewalk with their belongings in bags and with dogs curled up next to them. Many were kids who had probably fallen out with their parents. I often had the feeling they chose to live like this, and would some day soon enough find their way back into the world of houses and warm rooms, go back to school, or get a job.

But in Athens, things were different. There were a lot of beggars, but they didn’t seem to be homeless. At night they always went off somewhere and disappeared. The main difference, however, was the kind of person on the street. They almost always came from some other Balkan state. If they were Serbs they would hold up a paper icon to appeal to our Christian sense of charity, and to remind us that, unlike our other neighbours, they were our Orthodox brothers and sisters. They would also hold up a piece of cardboard on which they had written I AM SERBIAN in misspelled Greek. Or they would say how many children they had and needed to feed.

And there were the children, playing the same songs on the accordion or harmonica or looking at you sadly as they held out their packs of tissues, lighters, or key chains. People said they didn’t get to keep the money you gave them, that they worked for somebody who took everything they made. Some people had even told me they’d seen the person, waiting up the street, take the money afterwards.

(This sort of thing seems to have become a big business here in Greece. Organised business. Here in Heraklion, amputees started showing up this summer, waiting at traffic lights to come out on their crutches and ask for change. Sometimes within a kilometre you would see four or five of them, sometimes a couple at one intersection. Then, on another day, they’d all be gone. I’m not suspicious by nature, but I can’t help but feel that someone’s actually shipping them in and picking them up again afterwards.)

“I feel so sorry for the kids,” people would say. “But I don’t give them any money any more. If I could be sure they would keep it or it would go to their family, I would give it to them. What’s 50 or 100 drachmas, after all?”

I had seen this blond boy many times around Pangrati, my old neighbourhood in Athens, often with other kids. A lot of immigrant children would hang around Mesolongi Square, usually playing football. I thought of him as belonging to the area.

He came and stood next to my table and leaned on the wooden armrest. I moved the pint glass away into the centre of the table and pushed the chessboard closer to him.

“Do you know how to play?” I said.

He shrugged. Did he understand the question? The shrug made me think that the question was somehow naive.

“What would you do next?” I said.

He laughed, very quietly. Just a breath of a laugh, little more than a smile and another shrug. Perhaps he laughed at the fact that I had asked him. He picked up the bishop. Almost embarrassed, though, he put it back down, careful to set it on the same square.

“Do you know what it’s called?” I said, but then I thought he might not know it in Greek. “Do you know how it moves?” Again he shrugged. He looked up at the door suddenly, as if remembering something. I had the sense that he was going to walk away.

Sometimes you see a dog or cat that are so hungry that they’re willing, despite their fear, to approach you. That’s what it felt like with this kid.

He pointed to the board and moved his finger back and forth diagonally.

“Right,” I said. “And how about this?” I showed him the knight. He frowned. Was it because he couldn’t remember it or because he couldn’t explain it? (Try explaining how a knight moves. It’s not easy. I know of some concise descriptions, but I’ve picked them up from good chess writers.) At last he pointed again and finally spoke.

“Like this,” he said. “A seven.”

I asked him if he wanted to play, but this time I lost him. He remembered the other tables, and the bar, and slowly went off to sell his tissues. Then he was gone.

The following Friday I took my chessboard with me even though Raymond and I were not going to play. I stayed behind when everyone had left and set up the pieces. I had taken a book with me, Alekhine‘s games, and played out the some of the annotation. But my mind wasn’t really on it. The truth is that I wasn’t good enough at chess to understand his annotations.

Soon enough, the boy came. I thought I saw him look for me when he came in. Or maybe it was the look of recognition when he saw me. I nodded to him. This time he made his round of the cafe. The Argentinean woman who worked there often gave coke or even a sandwich to these kids, which made the place popular with them. He came to the table, unwrapped his sandwich and started eating. He was intrigued by the book, especially by the tiny chess fonts. I set up the pieces to the initial position and turned the board so that the white pieces were in front of him.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Let’s play.”

He frowned. Was he thinking of his first move, or was he trying to decide if he should play or not? He seemed to have reservations. I waited. Finally, he picked up the King’s pawn and moved it forward two squares.

We only played part of a game. About ten to fifteen moves into it, he got restless and left. I don’t remember if he said why he was leaving so suddenly, or if we spoke at all. I wrote down the position so that we could continue the game from where left off the next time I saw him. But he didn’t come back.

I didn’t see him again until about a year later. M. and I went for a walk down to Zappeio and there was a photography exhibit there. We walked around looking at the large black and white photos, and there he was in a group of portraits, with the same serious, guarded expression. I asked M. if she remembered him, since she often came to the cafe-bar with us, but she had no recollection of him. I looked around at all the people strolling about looking at the photos. I wanted someone there to recognise him, to know who he was, so I could tell them that I used to see him often, and had even played a little bit of chess with him.

This was all about ten years ago.

* * * * *

One day I read in the newspaper that hundreds of children had disappeared from the streets of Athens, most likely sold by the child trafficking rings that had brought them down in the first place. Did it happen all at once, or slowly, child by child? Had anyone been paying attention? “Yeah, you’re right!” people said. “I hadn’t noticed it at first, but it’s true: you don’t see them around any more.”

According to Terre des Hommes and other organisations, up to 150,000 children of immigrants have been forced into child labour in Greece, usually selling tissues and trinkets. After years of pressure, the Greek government finally started doing something about the problem, but you still see a lot of children on the street, children even younger than the blond boy whose name I never learned.

Over the years, I tried to write a story about him. I made him Serbian and called him Mitar, a name I picked up from a friend years ago in Canada. I filled pages in notebooks about him, about his story. In all of the notes, he is at an intersection, at a crossroads; a change is coming, and it’s the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him next because I’ve never written beyond that point. I don’t know how the story ends. Everything is frozen, like the image of him that I saw at Zappeio long after he had disappeared.

All I have is my own image of him, of his interest in the game of chess and desire to play, but his hesitation, his fear of opening up, or perhaps his sense that, despite his youth, the desire to play was pointless, as if he had already learned that what the rest of us call childhood was nothing more than a delicate myth, which for him had long since shattered into a thousand little pieces.

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More democracy (and chess)

Author Tim Krabbe (there’s an accent on the e, but I can’t get it to show up) has a chess site called Chess Curiosities. In his Open Chess Diary (anyone interested in chess who hasn’t seen it before should go all the way back to the beginning) notes that at his website, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq has posted information on what is Halal (permitted) or Haram (permitted)in Islamic law. Although cricket, anal sex and oral sex are permitted, playing chess is “absolutely unlawful” and “absolutely forbidden”, even when you don’t bet and have no bad intentions playing it.

Since Krabbe is interested in chess problems and puzzles, he wrote to ask if composing and solving them were permitted, since, as he says, it is “more like inventing riddles and creating poetry” than playing.

He was sent this reply:

So all those people who were cruelly forced to play chess during Saddam’s regime can now rejoice in the fruits of American-sponsored democracy.

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Computer mind at work

Thanks to Helion for pointing out this site, which has a chess-playing Java applet. The program allows you to see the moves the that it’s considering. The green lines represent White’s possible moves, and orange Black’s.

The program is not particularly strong. I played it and won. The pieces are not represented conventionally, which makes it a bit more difficult. When I played my twentieth move, I was expecting to resign soon because I had a hard time visualising the board.

I had the white pieces.

1.d4 Nc6 2.c4 e5 3.d5 Nd4 4.e3 Nf5 5.e4 Nd4 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Bxd4 exd4 8.Qxd4 Bb4+ 9.Nc3 c5 10.dxc6 bxc6 11.e5 Qe7 12.Nf3 O-O 13.Be2 Nh5 14.O-O g5 15.Ne4 Nf4 16.Bd3 Ne6 17.Qe3 Nf4 18.Nexg5 Nxd3 19.Qxd3 f6 20.Nxh7 Qxh7 21.Qxh7+ Kxh7 22.exf6 Rxf6 23.a3 Ba5 24.b4 Bc7 25.Rfe1 Kg8 26.Re8+ Rf8 27.Rae1 Ba6 28.R8e7 Bb6 29.c5 Bc7 30.Rxd7 Bf4 31.Ree7 Bc1 32.Rg7+ Kh8 33.Rh7+ Kg8 34.Rdg7#

OK, I don’t claim it’s a gem, but it’s not often that I play without committing a couple of blunders. And it’s always a good feeling to beat a computer.

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Palace in a Pup Tent

I was already twenty or twenty-one when I began learning chess, which was far too late for me to get really good at it, but old enough to approach the game with a more well-rounded intelligence than I would have had if I’d taken it up at the age of five or six. I passed through the common stages of first learning how the pieces move and what the object of the game was, and then there was the difficult part when I was afraid to touch a piece. I knew that each move I could make would have countless negative repercussions, but I wasn’t good enough to know what I ought to play. It was the only time when I would sit and stare at the board, overcome with a paralysis of doubt and fear.

It was also the point at which the game became fascinating. It was as if I had crawled into a pup tent and found a palace inside.

I played like this for about a year. My opponents were a few friends and an uncle of mine, and although I hardly ever won, the game lost none of its fascination for me. And then one day, before I had fully realised what had happened, I was better at the game. I started winning most of the time.

For about three or four years, I was addicted to buying chess books. At one point, I my library numbered about 200 books, with both instructional books and collections of games. My knowledge of theory was quite good, although this did not clearly translate into better playing.

The books that have always interested me most were ones which traced the development of man’s understanding of the game. Two classics of this genre are Richard Reti’s Masters of the Chess Board, which I’ve heard is out of print, and Max Euwe’s Development of Chess Style. Both treat the development over the centuries of our understanding of the game as a mirror of the development an individual undergoes as he learns the game, and both books attempted to use this historical approach as an educational tool.

As I worked my way through them, especially Reti’s book, I began to understand why I had felt as if I were entering something which kept expanding, and why the game held such a fascination for me.

It’s generally believed that chess was invented about 1,500 years ago. For centuries it was a slower game than what we have now, because the pawns could only move one square on their first move, while the earlier form of the queen could only move one square diagonally. By the 16th century, the pawns could jump two squares on their initial move, the en passant rule had been established, the queen had been given the free reign she now enjoys, and castling had been developed. This sped things up considerably, and the game as we know it was born.

The earliest players of the modern game were interested mainly in tactics. Their games are strange to look over now. They neglected the proper development of their pieces and made premature attacks. Despite improvements in ability, this basic approach continued until the 19th century, and is often called the Romantic Age. It was believed that a strong, successful attack was a reflection of the player’s genius.

The first dramatic advance in our understanding of theory came in the 18th century, with L’Analyse des Echecs by Francois Andre Danican-Philidor (1726-1795), although his work was neglected for over a century. Philidor is famous among chess fans for having declared that “The pawn is the soul of the game.” He demonstrated that the direction a game took was largely determined, not by a player’s genius, but the structure of the pawns on the board. Pawns are the only pieces that cannot move back, so a player must be sure of what he’s doing before he advances them. Most weaknesses in a position stem from the pawn structure.


Philidor first pointed out that control of the centre of the board was of primary importance, and that an attack made without the support of one’s pawns was very dangerous.

The Romantic Age is epitomised by the games of Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879). The basic ideas of Philidor had been assimilated, but still mainly with a view to supporting violent attacks and counter-attacks. Here we find the most brilliant combinations — series of moves which seem justified by the position, and which seem to force the defender’s responses. Playing over the games now, we marvel at how far ahead players of this calibre could see, and at how beautiful the combinations were.


No player has ever towered over all his contemporaries as much as the young American Paul Morphy (1837-1884). What is most amazing about him is that he somehow discovered those basic principles of the game which still escaped other players, entirely on his own. His understanding was natural and intuitive. His games show that he knew you must first develop your pieces before you attack. Your development must facilitate the free mobility of your pieces. Playing the same piece twice in the early stages wastes time, since your opponent can move a new piece and then outnumber your pieces.


Morphy’s opponents would oblige him by not developing properly, and his attacks were as dazzling as any of Anderssen’s, but much sounder.

Morphy did not expound his ideas, and gave up the game quite early in his life. It took quite some time for players to understand the general principles on which his victories were based. This was done by Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900).


Steinitz is the most important theoretician of the game, even if he is rarely acknowledged as such. He pointed out in his writings that in order to win, you must have a plan, and that your plan must be a response to what is actually on the board. You must attack your opponent’s weaknesses, which means you must wait for these weaknesses to present themselves to you. With Steinitz the early stages of chess become a sort of waiting game, each player developing his pieces, strengthening his position and waiting for his opponent to make even the smallest error in judgement. Then that weakness is attacked until it gets bigger and bigger. Modern games are often decided over the loss of a single pawn.

If the development of chess style mirrors the individual’s development, with Steinitz we have the birth of the modern Grandmaster. Advancements from now on are slower and smaller, and much more difficult for mortals like us to understand.

This is a very crude outline of the development of theory. I haven’t endeavoured to give any real insight into the principles discovered over the centuries. What I wanted to suggest was this: that human beings invented something which, for some 1,400 years, transcended their own understanding of it.

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