Prior to January, I had never played, nor had I really ever watched anyone else play chess. Most of what I knew about the game came from TV and movies, which meant that I knew you used a board that looked like a checkers board, you won by getting to something called “checkmate,” and, if you were good at the game, you were probably pretty smart. Chess’s reputation for being this complex, intellectually rigorous game made it intimidating to me, but it also made it pretty intriguing. I’ve been curious about the game for a long time, so when I decided to embark on my Great Hobby Quest, I knew that I wanted to make chess a part of it.
When I told my husband back in January about my plan to take up chess, he was very excited to help. He, too, had an interest in chess that he had long-neglected. His dad taught him how to play when he was five years old, but he hadn’t kept up with it since his childhood, due to lack of an adversary. He immediately pulled his “Chess for Dummies” book off of our bookshelf and ordered us a chess set. The weekend after the set arrived, he tried to teach me how to play. Our first game consisted of me trying to make lots of illegal and/or misguided moves. My husband had me in checkmate before I even had an understanding of what checkmate was.
After the game, I moved our chess set into one of our closets and there it sat for four months. In May, I decided it was finally time to give chess a real shot. I opened the “Dummies” book and started reading. After two hours of studying how to set up the board and move the pieces, I was falling asleep, so I turned to YouTube for some more dynamic chess instruction. It turns out that watching videos about playing chess is not much more exciting than reading books about playing chess.
I played a lot of games of computer chess after that. The first few matches were particularly sad and frustrating. I initially had a hard time remembering how each of the pieces moved and was often surprised when one of them darted all the way across the board. I think I kept expecting the game to be more like checkers. I also found myself winding up in check a lot and being unable to see what was causing the danger or figure out how to get out of it.
The games with my husband were much more fun, although I had to humble myself quite a bit before I could really start enjoying them. I am pretty competitive, so I was not pleased, to say the least, when my husband told me I was in checkmate about 10 minutes into our first May game. During our second game, I found myself becoming frustrated and annoyed as he captured my pieces one by one and thwarted my plans with ease. The only reason that game didn’t end as quickly as the first was because my husband stopped me a few times before I was able to make some very unwise moves. I quickly realized that if I wanted to get better, I needed to accept that I was no chess prodigy and start to view each game as a learning experience, rather than as pure competition. Of course, I still wanted to win, but I became much more receptive to help and much less irritated by my defeats.
Despite going into this being well aware of chess’s reputation for being challenging, I still found myself surprised by how steep the learning curve is. Getting all of the rules down has been an effort in and of itself, one in which I’m still very much engaged. Gameplay is a separate frontier. I have tons to learn about strategy, tactics, defense, and offense, not to mention how to actually deliver checkmate. Every time I play a game, I think of something new that I need to study.
I feel like I’ve only really dipped my toes into the waters of chess. I think it’s a really interesting game and I would like to learn more and (hopefully) get better. I have always loved brainteasers and logic games, and, to me, chess feels like a big, fun, complicated, constantly evolving puzzle. This hobby definitely takes much more focus and mental energy than a lot of other pastimes, though. While I’m planning on playing more, it will never be my go-to activity to help me unwind after a long day. For that, I think I’ll stick to doing crochet or watching “The Bachelorette.”
Cheryl Espinoza is an attorney and aspiring puppy-owner. She is a lover of coffee, Christmas, and all things Disney, and is in constant search of the best food and fancy cocktails in Manhattan. You can generally find her struggling to figure out how to decorate her apartment, watching bad reality TV, or playing board games far too competitively. She was born and raised in the Bronx, and currently lives with her husband in midtown Manhattan.