Chess, Infinity, and the Abyss

Chess was the first love of my life and my first encounter with the daunting abyss of infinite choices, infinite cause and effect. An important strategy of the game is to analyze the possible outcomes before making one’s move. Carelessness with even the simplest piece could open an advantage for the opponent and alter the course of the game. But as most matches are timed, there must be a limit to the analyzing: the predicting and planning. Every move has a number of outcomes that branch into more outcomes, so the possibilities multiply exponentially and it becomes dangerous to ponder, to let time tick by as one tries to map out the infinite intricacies of possible futures.

I learned how to play in 3rd grade and almost instantly fell in love with the methodical chaos. For most of the day I was a normal 7 year old girl, trading Hello Kitty stickers with Tracy and Sabrina and giggling over Zac Efron. But by the time Chess Club began I was completely transformed. I was Napoleon, setting traps and feeling fiery satisfaction as my victims fell into them.

One late spring afternoon towards the end of 5th grade, my teammates and I were on a bus to the state championships. My school had been reigning as the #1 elementary school for years. We rode into the venue with our black team visors and sponsorship Clif Bar t-shirts, ready to continue the reign of the Cherrywood Charger as well as setting our own rankings on the state ladder. I crushed my first two matches, fueling the fire with Hot Cheetos and Gatorade.

My third match was different. A typical strategy, a no-brainer, is to gain control of the center of the board by moving the center pawns early in the game: this allows the stronger pieces, such as the knight, queen, or bishop to come out and take positions in or around the middle. Pawn to E4 is ingrained into every chess player’s mind. But my third opponent that day, a scrawny boy with silver wiry glasses and a furrowed brow, did not follow the silent rule. Instead, he opened the game with his peripheral pawns. They stood at A4 and H4, taunting me, daring me.

At first I dismissed his choices as that of someone with no skill.  I figured it would be an easy victory. But by the time he had developed his other pieces’ positions, it was clear that he knew what he was doing. I was losing, and with a tightness in my gut I began to scrutinize every single moment, considering at least five different ways he could go for every one move I made. I could no longer map out different strategies; there were far too many, and I was running out of time. Our tournament clocks kept track of how much time we each had: he was still at 4:32 when I realized mine read 0:30. And I froze, staring at the ticking second hand, too paralyzed to even lift my my own.

“Hey, are you gonna go?” He asked, nodding at my diminishing time. I was at 0:12.

At 0:07 I realized the match was over. I let it go to 0:00 and watched him raise his hand. The volunteer judge came and wrote Forfeit on my chart, Victory on his. We shook hands, exchanging a polite “Good game” and went our separate ways.

Thought had gotten the best of me in a game that was supposed to revolve around thoughtfulness and deliberation. I had gone too far in my mind and lost myself in the labyrinth of What Could Be’s and What Could Happen’s. The maze of outcomes that had previously been my joy and solace had betrayed me.

There is a line between thoughtfulness and rationality, and instinct and spontaneity. The missing strategy of chess that I never quite grasped during my competitive days was to plan one’s course of moves, but to also embrace the infinite void as just that. We could all sit there and plan out every outcome and every outcome of that outcome; it’ll make us feel secure in our decision making but it’ll also eat away at time. It’s taken me eleven years, but I finally understand the courage and insanity of that furrow-browed kid’s opening moves. He rejected rational strategy and instead embraced the infinite future that had paralyzed me, trusting instinctual skill over careful deliberation. He stared into the abyss square in the face and laughed as it stared back. 

We can all sit here and deliberate every single move and plan out every outcome, but our clocks are ticking. Some decisions need that extra contemplation and planning out, but sometimes you just have to trust yourself and go headfirst into the darkness.

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