Last night I played numerous games of 2 minute a side chess against Charles, a "personality" pre-set by the ChessMaster 9000 computer program. With sixty seconds to make all one's moves, one lacks the time to make good moves a great deal of the time. I think there's a metaphor for "rushed moves" in there someplace. I meet a lot of folks who rush into relationships, for example, with poor to indifferent results.
In chess, there's even a recognized phenomenon of a form of chess blindness in which a move "intuitively feels right", but is in fact completely wrong and a horrible blunder. Indeed, such moves often "seize one", as if by magic, when one has been contemplating a completely different move, as if a glorious move "suddenly appeared". I have seen real-life analogs to this idea in a lot of settings, although I value intuition in its proper sphere.
I liked that Charles, a mere 1400something, kept playing hard even in games when Charles made a horrible blunder early on. This reinforced a lesson I know well that in amateur chess, one can frequently win games simply by not giving up when one is behind. A corollary is that when one has reached a certain strength against living players, one often wins a game merely by securing a slight but material edge, as many people get hypnotized by a higher-rated opponent and a pawn disadvantage into believing that they can't win.
Of course, things are never completely simple. The "feel" of the game in chess is very important. When I am playing at a higher level than my current rusty-bolt-mind, I can "feel" the quality or lack of quality in certain positions, rather than having to do any quick mental calculations about whether a position is good or bad. In chess, the ability to control space and mobilize one's pieces often decides the game. Squares of a particular color begin to "feel" strong or weak, depending on the pieces remaining to mobilize through them. Even the youngest schoolkid player senses this about, for example, the spaces around one's king, because the experience of being repeatedly checkmated due to an exposed king is an indelible phenomenon. But when one's chess is "on", it extends past the obvious into the subtle.
I like the idea that some people are tacticians about art or music that way. Some people see or feel things that others don't see or feel, but must instead work to see. Unfortunately, unlike chess, checkmate does not await the person whose imagined intuitive feel is actually abject snowblind folly.
In this respect the fine arts are less satisfying arts than the art of chess. Although one can imagine that one is creating chess beauty, the opponent sometimes shows one that a line of flow is entirely a dead end.
In poetry, in particular, but also in writing in general, one sometimes reads of folks who imagine they have tapped into a higher consciousness, but in fact they plumb ditches often traveled before, and are simply oblivious to their own oblivious obviousness. I don't mind a pedestrian poetry, and, indeed, when I write poetry, I often strive hard to reach merely the non-wincing pedestrian. But I'm amused by folks of a particular form of pedestrian pedantry, who write poems which would not have been considered sufficiently off the beaten track to be experimental in Gertrude Stein's day, and then bewail that their tremendous gift is misunderstood by folks who should know. That's not to say that I don't read and enjoy such poetry from time to time, as my own view of poetry is a rather broad banquet rather than a price fixe Parisian presentation of strict chef productions. But I do find that a lack of humility is a dangerous absinthe.
I imagine, with some humour, that each artist or writer or poet or theologian or musician is in fact playing chess. He or she is in getting checkmated, but not quite in the Seventh Seal way we all are checkmated. Instead, a particular work of art is in fact a great combination or a horrible blunder, but only God knows the difference. No matter how many galleries a losing move is played in, it does not become a winning move, other than that it may take in the gullible, and induce chess blindness.
I have enough edge in me that I can wish for voices who say "you've bragged so much about this work of art, but your queen is taken off the board, and even your bishops are askew". But things don't work quite that way.
Marcel Duchamp, a chess player nearly at master strength, gave up art for chess, because he found chess the more satisfying pursuit, because it has endless answers and yet endless beauty. I think that in chess, too, one can understand one's own strengths and limitations in a rational, straightforward way. One can play over a game, and see where one went wrong. It's so much tricker to write a song that way, or to write a poem. Of course, one can see with practice strengths versus weaknesses. But absolute precisions are difficult to find. I like about science that it provides not only poetry, but verifiability.
I like, too, that most top chess players do not spend time saying "you must all understand that I see the board and the pieces better than any of you. I have a way of seeing and of living which is superior to yours. I have a consciousness of the chess board which renders all your efforts futile". They instead merely play the game, and beat their competitors. There is virtually no money in chess, although it requires decades of study plus a nearly unattainable natural gift to master. It is an addiction, which players often have to kick. Some grandmasters who reach their full potential put away the game and go into business rather than spending their lives so brilliant as to be a top grandmaster, but that tiny bit short of the mark so that they will never be anywhere near world champion class.
But I live in a different world than all that. I live in the world of the three round Saturday swiss system, in which I play in one to four tournaments a year. I play blitz chess on-line at five minutes a game, losing games I ought to win, winning a game or two I ought to lose. I read chess books for fun, not profit, and I find as time goes on that I commit the same blunders I did at 24.
I am making 2005 resolutions this year. One of mine is to become the kind of chess player I was in my 20s--strong, virile if you will, cautious, and brilliant. I had a tournament during law school in which I played very well against much stronger players, and won a little prize. At that moment, I could see that I was but inches from becoming a pleasingly strong player. I actually became slightly stronger years later, in Los Angeles, before receding to my current state of high mediocrity. But my Los Angeles trip to the higher rating was a pedestrian slog based on some nice solidity, while my earlier brilliant tournament was true, high art. I want to experience that sense of high art again.
When one is not naturally gifted with great skill, then one attains the heights through study and work.
One learns how to play the first 20 moves of the game (the opening) so that one is always in a comfortable position no matter which opening the other side plays. One learns over time that the "best" position is not the most important, but the one that is most comfortable for one's own set of skills.
In my case, I have a good sense of the positions and possibilities of the game, coupled with a near-complete lack of attacking skills and a hopeless lack of endgame skills. Although I am a subtle chess thinker, I do better in relatively simple positions, grasping at obvious little advantages,and then simplifying into a won game. I can adjust my thinking for cramped positions, but I am uncomfortable on the open field, when the pieces fly at one another like wild stallions.
I think that when I write poetry, I also do my best by trying to consolidate simple poems about small little observational advantages. Revision, for me, is just reduction of the trite, and perhaps clarification of the images I want shimmering above the page. One of my other 2005 resolutions is to submit more poetry for publication. If poetry publication is a lottery, I'm one of the people who wins 3 dollars playing the "scratchers". If I play often enough--by submitting regularly--I get things published in little places. So the key is not "am I a poet?" but "am I submitting?" in terms of seeing my poetry in print. I just have to accept that for that one publishing credit, 29 or so rejection slips must arrive. I am sure I am not alone when I say that the rejection slips do not bother me, but instead what bothers me is when poetry lodges in some publication, and no word ever leaves the publication in question.
I think that this upcoming 2005 is a year in which I want to do things that are concrete--win more chess games, get more poems published, de-clutter, work harder and smarter, lose weight. I've had enough of the intangible feelings, and want a bit more tangible progress. But the way to do it is not to talk about it, but instead to set up the chess board, and get about the business of playing.