Sunday, December 15, 2013
Well, that's one way to pay for ObamaCare! Citizens of Washington state who used the Washington ObamaCare exchange are reporting that their accounts are being debited (having money withdrawn) when they shouldn't be. Oopsie! How long do you think that will take to get fixed?
One winter when I was perhaps 7 or 8 years old, my dad and I were down in his office, in the basement of our house. Winter was the season when he had the most time to catch up on his correspondence and research, so he spent a lot of time down in the basement. I don't remember what precipitated this, but for some reason my dad decided to teach me how to play chess.
My dad enjoyed playing games, but chess doesn't really fit the pattern of the kind of game he liked. I remember him getting most engaged in word games (like Scrabble or Boggle), in math games (like Krypto), and to a much lesser extent in board games like Monopoly, or any of the many card games we played as a family. In many cases, he was less engaged in the games themselves than he was in the social element; games were another way to spend enjoyable times with his family and friends. Some things you could count on: if our dad was playing a game with us, there was going to be lots of laughter, playing around, joking, and awful puns. We always had a lot of fun when he was playing, no matter what game we were playing together.
But with chess, my dad was a bit different – at least with me (chess, of course, is a two player game by definition). Instead of the unseriousness I'd come to expect when playing games with my dad, he was very serious about his chess.
Staunton chess pieces (like the ones shown at right) and a cheap cardboard checkers board. With the board set up on his desk in the basement, he brought the pieces out one by one and taught me how they moved. While he was doing that, he also told me how he had spent many hours during the war (WWII), both in North Africa and in Italy, playing chess with the others in his unit – he didn't like playing cards with his fellow soldiers, as they played for money and he wasn't about to lose his meager pay that way. But he'd found a group of like-minded men, and they played chess with each other instead. Very competitive chess, too – but not for money.
My dad always tried to win, no matter what game we were playing – he was definitely the competitive sort. My mom also plays to win, so we kids were always striving to beat them. In cards, my mom wiped the floor with us (and still does, most of the time!). My dad would often get the better of us in word games, and he really enjoyed it on those occasions when he'd beat us in Monopoly. However, you never got the sense, with those games, that it was really important to him to win – just fun.
With chess, though, my dad morphed into a serious competitor – it was important to him to win. The many games of chess I played with him were serious affairs, not the rollicking fun that other games were. When we first started playing – remember how young I was! – our games were full of him correcting my movements, as I'd often try to move a piece in a way it wasn't allowed to go. Later, he'd show me why a move was a bad one (or occasionally, a good one), by showing me what it meant a move or two ahead. He taught me some basic chess tactics, things like pinning a superior piece, forked attacks, etc. Still later, he taught me a few rudimentary strategic elements of chess, especially with openings and endgames.
This dad-as-subtle-game-teacher was a brand new experience for me, as was the seriousness of his competition. I can't offhand think of any other recreation activity that he approached in this way. I think part of it was due to his wartime experiences; he told me a few stories about competitions there being very fiercely fought, with dozens and dozens of quite good players involved. If my dad ever got anywhere in those competitions, he never mentioned it to me. I suspect not, however, because I know now that he wasn't actually a very good chess player.
My dad and I played chess intermittently for perhaps seven or eight years, more in the winter than otherwise. When I was in high school, my best friend then (Nom Loy) was a very serious chess player who was far better than I was, and practicing with him did wonders for my own play. At some point I started actually beating my dad with some regularity, and then something happened that greatly surprised me: my dad's interest in playing chess declined very quickly. You'd have to know my dad to know how uncharacteristic this was for him – in any other game, he really didn't care whether he won or lost; it was all just for fun – a game. Not so with chess. It's not that he was angry or upset about it, just that it was no longer any fun for him to play if the likelihood was that he'd lose. There was a period of a few months when we were roughly matched in our play, and he thoroughly enjoyed those games – real contests, with the outcome quite uncertain. Of course, prior to that period my dad almost never lost to me :)
In high school I discovered that there were actually books about chess – lots of them. I remember discovering the rules for en passant and being open-mouthed in astonishment that the game my dad taught me had more rules than he told me about. At the same time, I kept finding entire chapters that covered subjects my dad had taught me about (pinning a superior piece, for instance). I had thought of my dad as being some kind of chess titan, but the more I learned about chess, the more I came to realize that he was really just an enthusiastic amateur – who really, really wanted to win those games.
I probably played a few hundred games of chess with my dad, all told, over a period of perhaps seven or eight years. The vast majority of those games were in the first few years of our playing chess together, mostly in winters. I have a number of vivid memories of him form those earlier games, studying the chess board in great earnest – elbows on the table, hands cupping his face, scowling down, eyes darting all over as he imagined moves playing out. The entire idea of thinking hard about something was, then, a novelty for me. So too was the idea of thinking strategically, which my dad struggled with himself, but tried very hard to teach me about. He said, on not a few occasions, that the ability to play strategically was what separated the excellent players from the wannabes.
Many years later, on one of our trips together, my dad and I reminisced about those chess games – both of us remembered them fondly. Something made me ask him how he had learned to play chess. Because I'd only heard him talk about chess as a wartime experience, I was expecting to hear that he'd learned from an Army buddy. It turns out his oldest brother (Earle) taught him to play when my dad was in elementary school, and then my dad had joined the chess club in junior high and high school. That really surprised me – joining a club isn't the kind of thing I'd ever imagined my dad (a lifelong introvert, like me) ever doing. When I asked him why he would do such a thing, I got another answer I didn't expect: to prove to the other kids that he wasn't a dummy. I had to drag the rest of that story out of him, and even then I could only get the rough outlines. It seems that my dad didn't get particularly good grades in school; just slightly better than average. But somehow he'd gotten a reputation for being thick-skulled, a country bumpkin overly interested in raising chickens (his first business, started when he was in high school). Playing chess reasonably well was a way to for him to dispel that notion – and, he said, it worked rather well, as the other members of the chess club weren't very good at all :)
I don't play chess any more; it's been quite a few years since I've known anyone else who was interested. I don't really miss playing, as I've developed many other interests that have quite effectively taken its place in my life. But I'd love to play a few games again with my dad...