Saturday, April 10, 2010


She hung up and I set out the chessboard. I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen and inspected them for French shaves and loose buttons, and played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency. - from Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.

My brother-in-law suggested that I might like Mad Men, an AMC TV series about advertising executives of Madison Avenue, New York during the early 1960s. So I watched the series premiere. I liked the period style and the dramatic tension of ambitious people trying to out-create their co-workers and other advertising agencies. And I liked the debonair main character until it was revealed that he wasn't a very honorable person. Then I remembered that my brother-in-law told me Mad Men is noir genre.

Noir means black in French. But in English, it's used to refer to a black-hearted style or mood of film art. So nobody would say "I've got the noir pieces in the next round." Instead, it's more like the mood in Pearl Jam's "Black" when Eddie Vedder sings, "All the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed everything. All the love gone bad turned my world to black. Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I'll be."

The visual style of noir incorporates both black and white in high contrasts. One quote from Wikipedia's article on film noir uses one of my favorite SAT words: "The low-key lighting schemes of many classic film noirs are associated with stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning—a style known as chiaroscuro (a term adopted from Renaissance painting)." Chiaroscuro, light/dark interplay, is not unlike chess.

Film noir incorporates common themes of social desolation and existential survivalhood in a cruel, corrupt, crushing, and arbitrarily calamitous world. Not really being an authority on film noir, I'm going to resort to many more quotes. One blogger defines "Film Noir is that film genre in which a morally ambiguous and complex hero struggles against — and almost fails in — a corrupt world before he encounters a seductive and dangerous femme fatale who simultaneously challenges and saves him."

The heroes of noir are of a certain mold. Classically, they are private detectives such as Philip Marlowe of the above-quoted The Long Goodbye or Bogart's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Encyclopedia Britannica Online says "The heroes of noir generally share certain qualities, such as moral ambiguity, a fatalistic outlook, and alienation from society. They also exhibit an existential acceptance of random, arbitrary occurrences as being the determining factors in life." Comic book writer Frank Miller said, "The noir hero is a knight in blood caked armor. He's dirty and he does his best to deny the fact that he's a hero the whole time."

I prefer to respect my hero for his adherence to honor. Because I have a pessimistic view and am usually a little south of balanced mood, I prefer my endings storybook happy and trite or at the very least redemptive so that they lift me up. Watching characters who are alienated from society gives me a feeling of alienation from them. However, I much prefer the flawed darkness of Batman to a perceived untouchable perfection of Superman. Show me a little human frailty and I'll relate to the character better. But the main character in Mad Men proves to be a philanderer, a liar, a flake, and an identity thief who smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish despite the fact that he has a high-paying job, the respect of his peers, the house in the suburbs, a gorgeous wife, and beautiful kids. He has everything, but seems determined to be unhappy.

I was going to devote a post to my comeback from chess after a six month hiatus, and speak of the renewal of my desire to get lost in calculation, lost in the moment solving pretty chess problems at Chess Tempo and in my games. But I think I already described the beauty of the moment two years ago in this post. In my comeback, I had a great tournament where my chess seemed to flow. That six-rounder dovetailed into the 11-round championship qualifier which with some luck continued my good results, but even before my streak came to an end, I lost the taste of sharpening my tactics at Chess Tempo. I recovered some ganas after rediscovering my cruel side, but over Easter I discovered "How quick the sun can drop away, and now my bitter hands cradle broken glass." I'm not alone in this feeling, but Caissa has left me again.


Russ Bastable said...

Very well written article, and not only was the Pearl Jam tune implanted in my head early on, but you embedded it at the end. Nicely done.

Sorry the goddess has abandoned you, I have recently returned from a 5yr hiatus that was consumed with all things poker, I would have never believed it if somebody told me I was going to stop playing for 5 years!

Now that I think about about it, has she left you? Or has she released you?

Chess is an enticing beauty that captivates our imagination and consumes our thoughts... and (to join the 90's rock theme) lately she's been knocking, she won't leave me alone! :: ::

ChargingKing said...

The frustrating thing to me is not being able to quantify why I lose. It's hard to accept that after looking at puzzles, looking over high-level games, playing over end-game positions, learning opening systems, etc. that I should be losing some of these games.

if I lose to you Ernie I'm not upset because I see it as merely an opportunity to play a high level game. But when I lose to people that are less skilled then it really upsets me. Or when I can't seem to move to the next level.

I know people say to just enjoy the game, but I want to enjoy the game at a decent skill level and not in the midst of mediocrity.

You might see it in a similar mode. You feel like you're as high as you can get, and that's hard to accept. People that are used to always pushing towards a goal like us have hard times just enjoying where we are at, it's always looking forward or back...never in the moment.

Anonymous said...

@Russ. Your word "released" reminded me of Wilson Phillips "Release Me". Had to look up Jackson Five's "Walk Right Now".

@Chris. When I read your "End of the Road" post, I restrained myself from slipping into sensei mode (BTW I saw a promo for the remake of Karate Kid - There was a cameo of the song "You're the Best Around" by Joe Esposito.) because I didn't think you were interested any more. What I was going to say is that chess strength is a function of how often you make mistakes. If chess is 99% tactics (Teichmann) or calculation (Soltis) and without error there can be no brilliancy (Lasker), then chess strength is inversely proportional to our frequency of errors. Our job as students of chess is stamping out our mistakes and making it longer and longer between mistakes. We also need to capitalize on our opponents' mistakes without returning the favor.

If we're brutally honest about what goes wrong in our games, it is mainly in two categories: I didn't SEE my mistake OR I didn't even LOOK for one. The former is usually a question of ability while the latter is a question of will versus laziness. One of my readers who liked my Pinocchio post about an emerging recognition of intuition suggested that I read Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" which is interesting in that it promotes the idea that there is a subconscious part of our brain that helps us appraise things almost instantly. I suspect this is a third category of ability or inability determining how well your intuition is tuned or trained. Intuition subconsciously needles your conscious mind "Psst, look closer." When it stays silent, then we have to fall back on looking and seeing.

The quest for improvement in chess is mainly training the will to look hard on every single move, training the eye or calculating ability to see what there is to see, and training the mysterious intuition to get better at whatever it does to help us. But without the love or ganas or mojo or whatever it is that drives that quest to improve, we're left with stagnation or even decline. Is chess still fun without improvement? Some say that absence of growth is dying. Some say you should stop to smell the roses.

ChargingKing said...

I guess I just have to do like you say: Be brutally honest with myself about what type of mistakes I can fix and the ones I can't then just don't let them bother me.

Hope to play as well as possible I guess. On a good day I can beat A-players on a good day you can beat Masters and draw IMs. I guess it's just a perspectives issue.

frenez said...

my unsolicited 2 cents worth (i wonder with inflation, i should give 2 dollars?): the theme i'm sensing is our motivation to 'work' at chess is related to how we perform that is measured by our rating.

i think there's a limit at how well we can do that no amount of training can increase. i think we can find that limit much quicker than in other disciplines. for example, fitness. i don't know anyone who is into fitness that has even remotely touching the edge of, 'i can't get any stronger, faster etc.' we can plateau for periods but they can be overcome.

the upper limits with chess, on the other hand, with a few principles in hand, can be reached rather quickly. then we get frustrated that we're not getting better and we wonder why we put all this energy into something that is no more than a past time. then, we start studying openings like crazy, thinking we'll catch someone in our preparation or at least get late into the game with chances. knowing the dragon to move 20 sometimes snags a better player, after all.

if you've ever sat with a master or above and just analyzed, within seconds, you'll realize they see more and more deeply and can evaluate the position with ease in nano seconds. if you've ever watched a gm analyze his game (on the internet) when they are just rattling off variations and you can't even begin to keep up or understand. these people are playing a different game than the rest of us which no amount of training will allow us to approach unless we have the ability to get there in the first place.

there's a moment when we realize that and it really sinks in ... now i'm just a fan, like to analyze and watch the big boys play and marvel at their depth ... kind of like watching any sport, (you pick) where you're good enough to appreciate their talent but not good enough to compete with them.

Anonymous said...

@ChargingKing: It sounds almost as if you hope to play chess again someday. We try to swear her off, but Caissa is an extremely hard habit to break.

@frenez: Thanks for coming back and donating your pennies. For what it's worth, I always find your comments thoughtful and appropriate. Plateaus and brick walls are sometimes devastating to the career chess enthusiast. I agree with what you say about masters. NM Heisman's reading of De Groot promotes a pleasant fiction that Grandmasters do not think deeper than Experts. But like you, I have been in the presence of skilled, deep analysis and thought "I definitely don't have what he has and I don't think any amount of training will give that to me."