In early 2020, I had a moderate interest in the game of chess. Sometimes, when meeting friends at parks or coffee shops, I brought a miniature chess set along, in case anyone wanted to push the pieces around. But in mid-March, when the coronavirus swept across the country and people were forced into lockdown, my mild fascination with chess morphed into a hideous obsession. It reminded me of the old saying: “You can learn a lot about a person by the way they play chess.” Over the next few months, I found out first-hand.
It all started with an account on chess.com, where everyone from active grandmasters to idle grandmothers compete in a global forum of pawn-swapping, king-capturing madness. When creating an account, new registrants are given a score of roughly 600, picking up anywhere from 5-11 points per win, depending on the quality of their opponent. The top international players have scores in the 2500 range. Naturally, I chose the username Myndfreek, an homage to magician Criss Angel’s campy and macabre reality show, Mindfreak, which enjoyed a respectable six-season run on A&E. I thought adopting the moniker might provide access to his supernatural mental powers.
To really inhabit the persona, I made Mr. Angel—born Christopher Nicholas Sarantakos—my profile picture. In the photo, he’s wearing an unbuttoned sleeveless shirt, rippled abs on display, a big bedazzled cross around his neck, arms raised as if he’s summoning evil spirits, his vulture-like swoop of hair covering one eye. I suspected this ghoulish image would also provide a serious psychological advantage against my competitors, who might worry they were playing against the real-life Criss Angel, a terrifying and fascinating proposition, like any other task undertaken against someone who practices magic for a living.
Despite my menacing avatar, I lost a lot of matches in the early-going, with little theory or natural ability to inform my gameplay. My strategy involved little more than shuffling the pieces around the two-dimensional computer-generated board. Opponents from chess-crazy countries like India, Norway and Russia, checkmated me within 10 moves. But the longer I sat at my Mac, in my 400-square-foot studio apartment in Toronto, the more I adapted to different patterns, tricks and combinations. The pieces started zipping across the screen with shrewd intelligence, thought embedded in material. Before long, my rating slowly climbed in the 600 range, where I met fiercer opponents who enjoyed a little smack talk.
After stealing my queen with a tricky tactic, one user wrote the following in the little chat box beside the virtual chessboard: “Now I’m going to pick you apart.” Obviously, I read it with some concern, given the expression seemed reserved for anti-social shut-ins and serial killers. When I decided not to respond, he followed up: “I’m sorry, rough day. How are you doing?” I realized that this person just wanted a bit of social interaction, since they too had been barricaded from the rest of the world for the last few months. I felt bad, but the tone of the initial message made it difficult to write back.
Before long, my online chess fixation transferred into the real world. My sister bought me a $140 marble chess set from a home décor store, but the pieces were designed in a way that made the rooks, pawns and queens indistinguishable, making the board effectively unusable. I kept the non-functional board as an art piece, a way to alert visitors of my elevated tastes. Then I purchased a 28’ cherry wood chess table for $550, with $60 hand-carved pieces to match. It took up an excess of space in my already tiny apartment, especially considering I couldn’t invite anyone over to use it. I also got a $30 book called Chess for Kids, which I figured aligned with my skill level and could eventually be repurposed as a gift for my young nephew, Sawyer. Not to mention the costs associated with lost time. The hours that I squandered eyeballing the computer screen—mouth agape, neck lurching forward, shifting the mouse ever so slightly—could have been better spent on freelance writing projects to supplement my income.
I studied a pair of chess movies with the intensity of a tortured film critic. One about Magnus Carlsen, the 29-year-old Norwegian world champion, who can play—and win—10 games of chess simultaneously without looking at the boards, instead memorizing all of the positions while someone tells him each of his opponent’s moves. He quickly became one of my favourite players, perhaps because I lived in Norway, in 2016, while finishing my undergraduate philosophy degree. I think he evoked my nostalgia for Scandinavia. Then I watched Pawn Sacrifice, a 2014 film about American prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) challenging Russian champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schrieber) to an exhibition during the height of the Cold War. The match became symbolic of the American-Russian battle for global supremacy and took on outsize political import. Most memorable were Fischer’s eccentricities, which included a maniacal commitment to practice and preparation, along with demanding outrageous sums of money to compete, like $250,000, back when the highest-ever purse totaled $20,000. These films became part of my education.
So, what did I learn about myself from months of chess immersion? First, the game overlapped with my love of writing. I marveled at its particular language. To wit, a few of my favourite terms: blunder, blitz, fork, tempo, fool’s mate, gambit, desperado. Much like writing, chess possesses a meditative quality, demanding so much attention that external considerations completely subside. No niggling thoughts about familial fractures, filthy laundry or freelance deadlines. Just calculating exchanges, castling queenside and scanning for check reveals. Of course, all of this chess-playing conveniently insulated me from the viral carnage and racial reckoning happening everywhere. My decision to instead focus my energy on chess might suggest something about my ignorance, political detachment, solipsism, selfishness. A not entirely pleasant realization.
Which of my character traits manifested in my playing style? Well, I compete with a child-like impulsiveness, snatching pieces from my opponents with disdain, snarling at their every blunder, guffawing at any move that fails to meet my impossibly high standard of genius. Just kidding. Though I can lose patience and rush my moves, for the most part, I’m slow and measured, losing games because of my short-sightedness, not rash decision-making. But the biggest takeaway had little to do with my gameplay. Instead, I discovered that I tend to commit to things with a fervor bordering on obsession, whether it’s writing or chess, setting aside other interests to pursue my latest passion with a monk-like discipline. Often, at the expense of those other things in my life, like work, friends and family, a tragic trade-off for anyone subsumed by their hobbies. So, I sought to strike a balance between my personal convictions and responsibilities to the people I love.
For the past few weeks, as the lockdown loosened, I’ve tried to spend more time hanging with friends and working on freelance writing projects. As a result, I’ve been stuck in the 800 range, with little to suggest that I’ll ever reach into the 900s, where the players are quite sharp. Something of a personal stalemate. No trouble, though. I thought it might be interesting to take some time away from chess.com, get out and interact with real people, maybe write something about those quarantined nights when chess enveloped me.