Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Playing for Rococo

"The style I recommend is Baroque, a term without fixed meaning even in chess circles but chosen faute de mieux for the occasion. I use it to mean irregular, grotesque, artificial and ornate"--Richard Wincor

Today I placed several more of my unused chess books on ebay, which include a number which were purchased long ago for just this purpose. I also placed my cool picture book "Helen Mirren, a Celebration" up for auction, which I got for 99 cents at my local remainder store. I felt that Helen Mirren deserved a better fate than the remainder store. It's been so liberating to get things off my shelves and onto auction. I tried that, but nobody ever logged in that they found what I released for free. Ebay is more satisfying, because one knows the book ends up with someone who wants it enough to pay for it.

As I went through my chess book collection, culling out the "gee, I might play this opening" books from the "I must have bought this for resale, because these strategies are far too risky for me" books, I ran across an old gem the other day. Last night, I read it once again, the latest in an endless series of re-reads that stretches back to the time I was 13 or so.

The book is Richard Wincor's Baroque Chess Openings--How to Play Your Betters at Chess, which was published in 1972 (which, interestingly, is when I was 13, so that I must read it when it had just hit the library shelves). Mr. Wincor was not a master, but only of an expert rating; in his 'real life', he worked as an attorney based in London for a New York law firm.

The chess opening is the phase of the chess game arising from the first ten to twenty moves by each side. As I've discussed in previous journal posts, the openings have been subjected to much study and analysis, and earned fascinating names like The Sicilian Defense, the Ruy Lopez (after the Spanish cleric who popularized it), the Cambridge Springs Defense variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined, and so forth. Typically, openings can be broadly subdivided into "romantic" openings, in which the player gambits pawns, embarks on endless attacks, and seeks out a form of chess beauty based on the checkmating patterns; "classical openings", in which the player seeks to play for a solid positional advantages, and prove the mastery of his/her position through careful patient exploitation of small advantages; and the "hypermodern" style, a fascinating set of openings whose arrival on the scene in the period 1900 through 1930 happened in direct and perhaps conscious parallel to the many "new" movements in art and literature of that time period. The hypermodern player brazenly defied the "rules" of romantic and classical development, eschewing the traditional pawn center in favor of an approach based on wing attacks with bishops arrayed in one or more corners of the board in that formation known by the elegant term "fianchetto".

One can literally study openings for years and be entirely lost as a chess player (to this, I can personally attest). But early in my chess studies, I found Baroque Chess Openings, which probably helped my chess rating as much as almost any other chess book I've ever owned (and I have owned many hundreds of chess books). The theory of Baroque Chess Openings is simple--it's a way of playing to avoid all the expectations of the chess world (and in particular one's own chess opponents). Mr. Wincor posits that the romantic player is frustrated, because when s/he wishes to play in a wild, spree filled fashion in the manner of the 19th Century insane New Orleans world champion Paul Morphy, he or she may instead find himself or herself frustrated by a classical player who closes up the position tighter than a Kansas shutter just before a windstorm. Meanwhile, the classical player, who wishes to defend the ponderous queen pawn opening with the hyper-solid queen's gambit declined pattern, may find himself or herself faced with the fascinating, unsound, but entirely frightening Blackmar-Diemer Gambit, a strategy that would have made Morphy proud, in which a pawn is needlessly sacrificed, for the compensation of a wild, wide open attack.

Wincor suggested a different way, without requiring the arcane book study of the esoteric and exoteric hypermodern systems. Wincor called his strategy baroque. It's based on a simple strategy, which I will summarize as "play weird openings", "avoid confrontation as long as you can", "put your pieces near the center", and "use the principles of siege to attack your opponent, blockading as much as you can".

To the youthful gurdonark, the baroque strategy sounded like a godsend. I could have my weirdness, and play it, too. It was like the perfect invitation to revel in one's adolescent flaws and uncertainties. As the years pass, I find more and more that not only are all my great chess achievements based on baroque strategies, but a good many of my life's achievements as well. Although on their face, these strategies may sound passive-aggressive, I prefer to think of them as the recognition that sometimes one simply does not fit in, and yet one must win, and not only win, but win in a pleasing, amusing fashion. In my own case, I must amend that to I never really "fit in", and baroque is less an option than a life's necessity.

I play baroque chess openings in roughly half to two thirds of the time that I play these days. They are much more effective in blitz chess, which is my usual internet mode, than in slower time controls. I find,though, that whether I play a "correct" opening strategy or a "baroque" one, my winning percentages are about the same. But almost all of my "notable games" arose from baroque openings. There was the game against Mr. Draper, the strong Los Angeles "A" player, who relaxed too much when faced with my passive "Small Center System", a formation in which I push each of my center pawns one square, hide the knights behind them, then shuffle the knights around, and hide the bishops behind the same pawns. Mr. Draper, seeing this ponderous, slow, passive opening, felt that he could throw all his wing pawns in a wild attack at my king. Unfortunately, while he was doing so, my forces came out from their massed hiding and gave him checkmate, in an almost underhanded way. Paul Morphy, had he not already died insane, would have died insane from the sheer injustice of a romantic pawn surge denied. There was the time I beat the kind man Chuck Niggel back in Arkansas, using a modified version of the Stonewall Attack in which I added a queenside fianchetto for emphasis, and after blockading everything, pushed a pawn forward to sacrifice it at e6, unleashing a fierce mating attack. Then there was the time I met another strong A player's Sicilian Defense with a transposition into a weird blockading English Opening, a line played decades ago by the Russian world champion Botvinnik, but abandoned when its baroque blockading strategy became outmoded. I held a draw in that one, and narrowly missed a win--heady stuff for a B player. In each game, my strategy was based on indirection, staunch defense, immense blockades, and hiding out as much as humanly possible. If that is not a credo for life, what is?

As life goes on, I am arguably less baroque in person. I am personally a rather forthright person, if still a person who does not like emotional confrontations. I do not revel in "nemeses", other than over the chess board or in a lawsuit, and I prefer for things to be done by the rules.

But deep down, I wonder constantly if I am really baroque enough.
So many things I value in myself I learned from Richard Wincor. Even to this day, I'd have to say that my close friends would, to a person, say that my eccentricity is what they value about me the most. I'm reaching the age at which I should be more classicist, but I must confess I'm adding a bit more filigree, and hoping for rococo.

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