I had just moved in. I had made a list. It was a shopping list for the flat. I had already got the essentials. The list was decadent. It came to me like a poem, a mixture of the ephemeral and the sublime. It came to me out of nowhere, a combination of inner and outer brain we use when daydreaming. As far as I can remember – this is it:
Lemon tree, Toaster, Grater, Chess set, Tea strainer, Colander, Cuckoo clock, Hot water bottle, Candle (fig/frankincense) with 3 wicks
I didn’t even know how to play chess, really, beyond knowing that pawns are at the bottom of the food chain and that, confusingly, some call Rooks Castles and others call Castles Rooks…And yet, ‘chess set’ had crept onto my list like a canny knight, sneaking between two smug bishops..
My boyfriend came round the next day. He gave me a package he’d wrapped in brown paper, for surprise. It wasn’t my birthday and the house-warming box had already been ticked twice with a spice rack and knife block. “What was it?” I asked as I unwrapped it under his calm silence “How did you know a chess set was on my list?”, “I didn’t” He said “Do you play?”
And so we played every Sunday, for 4 or 5 weeks, until he got bored of winning and I of losing. One Sunday we silently agreed to let the pieces rest in their box. It’s now over 2 years they’ve spent in the dark.
Neither of us really wanted a chess set but we both somehow needed it. During chess, we mapped something outside ourselves and yet part of ourselves and entwined our maps and followed the tracks the other had made, both deliberate and unintended.
Through these 4 or 5 short games I feel some foundation was constructed in my mind and his that has acted like a bridge between us ever since.
I think all mates should at some point have tried check mating each other. And I mean mate in both senses: friend and spouse. The board is a microcosm of the universe, the way you behave on it mirrors what you do off it, inside and out.
It’s not a question of who wins or loses, but how and why they won or lost and what they were willing or not willing to risk and do along the way. And how they felt afterwards, immediately and long after the event.
Off the board, without squares and pieces to orchestrate reality, truths are less visible and opportunities cannot be traced mathematically. In chess, the future is tangible and multiple, perhaps the closest we will ever get to getting reality out of maths and in front of our own eyes.
You cannot be in any other time or place but now and here if you want to stay in the game. To play chess with someone is to share the present moment with them, as you see it, to communicate a truth, in all its danger, safety and possibility, without speaking. It’s like being an animal again, back in Eden, just the problem of life to be solved, all thoughts shared through actions, not words.
Watching the film, Queen of Katwe has reminded me that, although my set is likely to gather more dust, the lessons of those first few games will stay with me forever.
I’d recommend the film as the best I’ve seen all year. Chess it seems is a teacher fit for a Queen and the film does it justice, whilst teasing your tear-ducts, right up to the final move. The crowd in the Stratford Picture house didn’t stand up, but we did feel compelled to clap, who cares if no one in Stratford, let alone Katwe, could hear us? We felt good, we felt better and we needed to show our gratitude to something, and it wasn’t the glowing fire exit or the digital projector. Was it the god of Chess we were applauding? Hallelujah!!!
I haven’t said much about the film because I can’t say it better. Everyone should see it. Everyone must. Also everyone should play chess at least once and play it with someone they need to know better, to find and expose yet unfound weaknesses and possibilities, both in their opponents and in themselves.