When I was in high school, I discovered the French Defense in a classic overview book by I.A. Horowitz entitled "How to Win in the Chess Openings". From almost the beginning of my time as a chessplayer, I have had the dilemma that I am not a particularly gifted attacker, and that I am uncomfortable with wide open spaces on the chess board. In the French Defense, after white moves the king pawn two places forward, black moves the king pawn merely one place forward, intending to set up a closed system for defense against white's on-slaught.
In the French, black is defending rather than trying to immediately counter-attack, but black hopes to lure white to his doom. I like that image of luring opponents to their own doom--it has a nice aikido feel, without all the need for martial arts discipline.
Chess openings for me have always served as kind of a metaphor for personality style--much more reliable than Myer-Briggs, much less expensive than a self-help seminar.
I suppose that "being defensive" now is a pejorative term. "Don't be so defensive", a friend will say, when one is not so much being defensive as setting the record straight in light of a misrecital of the facts by someone else to a conversation. There's an appealing, forward-looking air to always attacking, always being on the offense. In warfare, the trite but tried expression is to the effect that the best defense is a good offense. I am not sure that this rule applies to all things in life. I read in my paper this morning that Texas Tech University managed to gain over 550 yards of offense against North Carolina State, and yet still was shellacked into defeat in the game. Texas Tech probably could have used a defense as the best alternative to its blameless offense. Offenses usually can't make very good tackles--defensive tackles have to make the tackles.
I'll skip over the obvious metaphor about how good offense has us in a quagmire overseas, as I am hesitant to give offense. Instead, I want to (defensively) glorify the importance of a good defense. When someone is described as "closed down", this is usually said as if it were a bad thing. A position in which one tries to remove the wildness and instill a bit of order, though, seems to me to be a very playable thing indeed. The coffin of creativity can be hammered shut by the coffin nails of order. But I sometimes think that the closed position has its own virtues, and that from such inward constrictions great, pleasing complexities can arise.
A chess player playing the French Defense frequently has to endure frightening attacks in order to survive white's onslaught. Indeed, I don't really play the defense that often anymore, as the sheer venom with which white can attack can be discouraging. Also, I am marred by the fact that during my college years, the amazing Anatoly Karpov devastated French Defense players with the dreaded Tarrasch variation. In the Tarrasch, white takes no foolish leaps forward, but instead slowly strangles the black player, in an almost defensive, safe way. Nothing frightens a defender more than an attack consisting in its own turn entirely of compelling defense. Instead of withstanding the fire, and then turning on fire of one's own, French Defense players found themselves going into endgames in which nothing had happened, but their pawns were almost inexplicably isolated and weak. I can take many things, but a lifeless game in which I am inexorably defeated is worse than being stuck in the most wide-open, pieces-flying, death-dealing Sicilian Dragon formation. So now I play things like the Philidor or the Pirc where I set up a different sort of strong point attack on the center, or I play the Small Center System, in which I give up conventional "good chess" altogether in hope of confusing my opponent.
I'm always intrigued, though, that the French Defense among grandmasters seems to draw a personality type--creative, dogged, relentless, committed, yet quirky. The defense, which has been around since 1497, contains subtleties and complexities on an almost subconscious level. The opening is like a passionate but fickle lover. When a French Defense player finds the right moves, incredibly glorious feats of defense give way to spellbinding attacks when white, overextended, is savaged. When the right resistance to white's aggression is not found, then the faithless French Defense lays one open to raw humiliation. She grants grace, she grants Hell. Infidelity has a new face, and it begins with a closed-in formation.
Grandmasters tend to become French Defense experts, or abstain from the opening at all. Wolfgang Uhlmann, the German grandmaster, won games against most of the finest players of the last quarter of the the last century. He could handle the defensive opening with a deftness which at its best truly astounded. But he also got decisively humiliated from time to time, as new ways to handle this very old opening kept being devised. I rather think of him like a scientist, who doggedly pursues an particular theory, when the theory has always shown incredible promise, but now seems on the verge of being shown to be unsound.
After the First World War, in which the German army had rolled well into France, halted at last only by trench warfare and barbed wire, deterrence became an issue. By 1929, the French government came to consider how any future German incursion could be prevented. The solution adopted as a sort of mini-great-wall of France called the Maginot Line. It took twelve years to contruct, until 1940. The idea of the Maginot was that the line would give the French army the necessary time to mobilize troops in light of a German onslaught. Andre Maginot and Paul Painleve, its advocates, understood that France had too few soldiers and too much access for a future Geman army. Their system of walls and forts would serve as one step to deter invasion. After much lobbying against a left unwilling to spend more on war, they got the line approved for construction. Sadly, though, the French began to rely on the Maginot Line as their principal defense, perhaps their only defense.
The problem with the Maginot Line, though, was not in the wall itself. It served its purpose nobly. Yet, within a matter of weeks after the Nazi invasion of France, France fell. The French had put their trust in a wall, when modernity had generated tanks and planes and more effective weaponry. The Maginot Line, not a bad idea in and of itself, became a mind-set, a trap. It became a reminder that outmoded defense is not an alternative to facing the threat outside. Complacency and internal treachery, ever the bane of the staunch, walled-in defender, took their toll. In the main, the Wehrmacht merely went around the wall, and they took France. Some of the forts along the Maginot Line are now used for mushroom farming.
The metaphor about inward Maginot Lines is so easy to draw that I'm going to forsake the explication. I'm instead going to think of grandmasters who devote their life to a defense, which will either make them or break them. I also think about how each week brings forth new evidence of some national Maginot outlook at work, as we learn that our power grid, our water supply, our cargo shipping system, and all the other bulwarks of commerce are intensely and increasingly vulnerable. Our physical Maginot Line surely was breached on 9/11, but our emotional Maginot Line continues to be breached each day.
But politics is politics. The main virtue of politics, sometimes, is just to create a focus for one's values. One votes, one encourages others to vote, and perhaps one speaks out. But ultimately, one does live one's life in a world in which one's vote is one's vote. Only one vote per customer, please.
But I am mistrustful of the Maginot Line of suburbia. I am mistrustful of the Maginot Line of intellect. I am mistrustful of the Maginot Line of material success. I am mistrustful of the Maginot Line of glib assurances about weighty matters. I am mistrustful of cool, of disdain, and of being above the fray.
Maybe those Shakers had it right when they made their furniture so simple, and strong, yet had such ecstatic spiritual experiences. I don't know. It seems to me sometimes that a powerful defender must seek out the complexities as well as the simple. The right move is not always the obvious one.
Today I must work again, and this idea fatigues me, a little, and yet I am grateful to have work to do in a time when so many people I know struggle to find a job. I think of various non-work projects I have undertaken, and I am fatigued by them. How did I get my list of things to do to be so long? I think of parents whom I visit more often than ever, but far from often enough. I think of friends I could be a better friend towards, and of steps I could take to make my present healthier and my future more meaningful. I don't think there's any question, really, that in many ways I am one of life's defenders. I hope that the things I defend are things that matter, and not merely my own fear and resistance.
But I do get skeptical of calls for wild gambits and needless attack. It's easy to throw a pawn to the gods and play 30 fevered moves as if one is Paul Morphy. But Morphy did not die a sane man, and the king's gambit sometimes merely leaves one a pawn down.
When I was in college, some local master's and experts played a system called the Goring Gambit, in which one gives up a pawn on move 3 in return for a powerful attack. They thought it was a "bust" of 1...e5, that is, something that would decisively disprove a particular black move order. In fact, the opening is almost tame, absent a blunder by the black player, and they were cruising on their own adrenaline the way a balloon flies on helium.
Sure, they crushed weaker players, but they would (and in one case did) do it just as easily from the tamest openings imaginable.
In life, as in chess, I play best in closed positions. I find that they give my imagination tremendous room, even as the space on the chess board is constricted. I am a far better chess player than I deserve to be, I suppose, because I have read too many books but done far too little work on being a good one. I learned last night that my nephew is taking lessons soon from an International Master, and I was thrilled for him, and a bit envious. What would I have been if instead of being a 17 year old in Camden, Arkansas, taking chess lessons from a book, I'd had a real International Master teaching me how to attack?
It's an acquisitiveness, this "what if". What if I'd gone to a school other than the University of Arkansas. At my college, the biggest event on campus was calling the hogs (Woooooo!!! Pig Soooiieeee!!) and our physics department was a cinderblock HVAC building with pastel painted walls. What if, after law school, when I was on the top of my game resume-wise, I'd clerked for a federal judge? What if I'd gone to the east coast or the west coast and gotten that oft-thought-over LLM and become some sort of academic?
I read Anne Lamott's "Blue Shoe" on the plane the other night. I must admit that Ms. Lamott is someone whose writing I always thought I should like, but never quite actually did. One of her non-fiction books had left me cold as wit and what I considered "look at me" mugging seemed to me to overwhelm her writing gifts. But "Blue Shoe", a novel, addresses something that interests me. She really breaks through the closed formations into a rich combination here. Her theme is expressed in a rambling but readable format. She hits topics I think about lately. What defenses does a family erect to avoid looking at dysfunction? What happens when the defenses wear away, and there is nothing for it but to look at the invading army of truth coming through the bulwarks? What if ugly things stay ugly, even if they are buried?
I long for complex but satisfying defenses. I do not wish to leave my king open to attacks through the snow-blindness a system can cause. I want to breathe easily, in a tight space, and then, after the storm is over, administer checkmate. But sometimes after the hurricane the phones are out, and I'm trying to work as best as I can.
I have this wonderful life, which I intend to live. But just writing that is one more defense. The challenge is not in words, but in actions. The challenge is to play the next move.
Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, perhaps the two finest chess players of my lifetime, were both relatively less skilled against the French Defense than against other major systems. They were still stunning and breathtaking players, even against the French, but their footing was not as sure as in, say, the Sicilian or the Nimzo-Indian. Maybe this is the way of attackers and savants. They do not live to grind down defenses, but instead to fly at the wings of an open board, filled with combinations.
There's more to it all, though, that trite sayings about devils and details. I am not a detail person, and yet I am myself a sort of detail, a footnote in so many ways. But perhaps I can be well-researched.
In my seventh rated chess game, I played the French against a fellow who played the Exchange variation, in which the white player gives up all the advantages of space, and merely trades off everything, hoping to be a tempo ahead. My opponent and I mirrored moves for dozens of moves. Ultimately, though, he misplayed, lost his tempo, and I squeezed him in an endgame. I asked him why he played such a passive strategy. He said that he had tried complexity, and been beaten badly, and now simplicity was all that was left to him. I understood him in depth in an instant. I wonder what he does now for living. Accountant? I always like those navy blue outfits that large firm accountants wear.
I only really know how the pieces move. I'm not a profound enough player to know the strategies. But I'll keep playing, and maybe I'll learn something. I do know that it will take more than walls and more than glib assurances. But I don't know all that it will take, just yet.