Sunday, November 17, 2013

Day 189 - Playing Chess

I have never learned how to play chess. Although I had previous exposure to the game periodically during the earlier years of my life, the complex series of movements and relatively slow pace of the game didn’t appeal to my tastes as I grew from a child to an adult. As a result, I never sat down to learn the rules, the strategy, and the draw of the game of chess. Realizing every person should probably know how to play such enduring game, I decided I would take time to learn and play my first game of chess during my “I have never...” year. Ultimately, this led to me making plans to join a local chess group at the quaint Crossroads Coffeehouse in Cross Plains, Wisconsin this weekend. As a result, I hopped in my car on this cool, gloomy late autumn afternoon and drove just west of Madison to gain my first experience with the game of chess.

When I arrived at the Crossroads Coffeehouse I found the warm interior of the business just what I needed after my half of an hour trip driving through a cold, lazy rain. Before sitting down, I grabbed a cup of green tea to warm my hands and give me something to sip on during the forthcoming experience. Cup in hand, I turned from the counter toward the center of the café, where a man sifting through a few bags of chess pieces immediately caught my eye. Without hesitation, I walked up to the man and introduced myself. Responding in kind, he told his name was Tom and that he was responsible for setting up the weekly chess event at the coffeehouse. I was quick to explain I had no previous experience with the game, to which Tom responded with a statement of enthusiasm at the prospect of helping me learn and try the game for the first time. With such a warm welcome to the idea of an unknown beginner sitting in on the event, it was clear I was in the right place to learn the game.

After our introductions, Tom guided me out to a space near the coffeehouse counter and walked me through some of the fundamental rules of chess as he quickly set up a table and placed out a few chessboards for other attendees to use as they arrived. Within minutes, Tom had me seated before a chessboard and a pile of pieces as he walked me through the basics of starting a chess game. Explaining the purpose behind each aspect of the game, we walked through the setup of the board, the basic moves of each piece, the concept of strategy, and some more unique moves that help “develop” pieces as the game progresses. Tom’s passion for the game was obvious as he spoke, and his metered, common sense approach to the rules of chess made it easy for me to grasp the game very quickly. As a few more adults and several children began streaming into the room and setting up boards, I found myself building confidence regarding my ability to play chess  at a much faster pace than I expected. Thanks to Tom’s effective crash course on the game, I knew then I would tackle my first game of chess before the evening was through.

My first game begins...
That stated, I knew it would be best for me to observe a few games and see the concepts Tom discussed in action before I dove headlong into the game. As a result, I told Tom I would sit by as he played with some of the other attendees now ready to participate in the event. For the next hour I watched as Tom took on multiple games at once with some of the children and adults in attendance. His knowledge of the game left him making swift decisions from one game to the next that took me a few minutes to fully comprehend, but the unfolding of the games before me made it obvious why he was making the moves he was making. Without much labor in thought, Tom was making moves three turns in advance of the changing structure of the board, predicting the moves of his opponents as he refined his positions. Suddenly, the concept of “developing” chess pieces made perfect sense; even though the intricacies of the strategy still left me in wonder.

With time, the number of players around the table slowly began to dwindle as the afternoon pressed into evening. With few participants left at the table, I decided it was time for me to give the game a try. Happy to serve as my opponent in my first ever game of chess, Tom accepted my challenge as I took position across the table from one of the boards before him. For the next hour we worked through a game, discussing strategy as each of the plays unfolded. Although he knew it weakened his advantage, Tom routinely gave me a play by play of his thought process as he looked over the board, which helped me develop an approach that considered the offensive and defensive positioning of all of my pieces as the game developed.

Tom and I midgame
As our game progressed, I made my share of rookie mistakes, leaving holes in my defenses and some critical pieces exposed. In his unending effort to give me the best experience possible, Tom would advise me to think about such moves as he saw me making them. Giving me the opportunity identify the weakness in my decision, Tom would sit silent after such remarks to let me work through the process and alter my course of action. His approached helped me gain insight and perspective on the game of chess much faster than I ever would have expected, which ultimately left the two of us facing a tit-for-tat form of stalemate as the night progressed. Eventually, we found the coffeehouse around us empty and preparing for closure as we continued in our game.

One hour in... and out of time.
Realizing it would be wise to wrap things up under the circumstances, Tom and I ultimately decided to call our game a draw and call it a night. The decision was one of grace on Tom’s behalf, but it made me happy to know I could walk away saying I didn’t lose my first ever game of chess. As we picked up our pieces and our board, Tom and I talked briefly about the game and about my “I have never...” journey. Our task drawing to an end, I thanked Tom for taking the time to help me experience the game for the first time, doing my best to express how grateful I was to have such an easy and fun experience. With that, I threw on my coat and headed for the cold evening air waiting just outside the coffeehouse. As I made my way back to Madison, I thought about the day’s event and the takeaways I was able to gain from my first experience with chess. Although it was something simple, I felt accomplished in the budding knowledge and skill I was able to gain from my time working with Tom at the Crossroads Coffeehouse. I was able to learn a very interesting and highly strategic game and meet some cool people. On a day I would have otherwise stayed bundled up in the comfort of my own home, it’s easy to say that was time well spent.

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