My earliest self-discovered analogy for life came my way during attempts to master the game of chess. Today, this analogy follows me, and hounds me like that big brown dog that belongs to my jerky neighbor. As I stroll through life walking on old familiar ground the great chess analogy nips at my heels. It won’t go back home. It won’t scare off. When I make charging feints at it, it just growls and sits waiting for another day. The sticky analogy of chess and analogies in general, quite obviously, are just debilitating.
Being a neo-ancient mariner, I often tell stories that have some deep seated meaning for my life. And with a willingness not to disappoint, I will transition in this way to the story of the kid who represented the Chess Club at my high school, usually christened the “Chess Club guy” in most versions of the story. I have told this albatross of a tale so many times for so many different purposes that I know not whether the facts can be ascertained at all. This corrupted tale has its historical setting in the first week of high school. In it I am of course a character and am given the assignment of joining a club. The day was called “Club Day” or some innocuous sounding title that rolled off the tongue only to aim with a splat at bruising my ego. Representatives from the various high school clubs were all present. I walked around totally lost and I pondered the oddness and unfamiliarity of high school life. In reality I was not accustomed to the freedom of wandering around during school hours at all and felt rather lonely outside of a “structured” classroom setting that had been necessary previously. I didn’t know how it was done but somehow the teacher no longer needed to be present for intimidation to occur and keep us somewhat on track.
Presently, I noticed a geeky guy who looked approachable, at least to another geeky guy. He had a chess game laid out on the table in front of him and beside the game sat a game clock. It shimmered fancifully on the table with an alluring presence. I had only seen the double chess clock in movies. I approached and asked him about the Chess Club with barely an understanding of how clubs worked in general. When that effort crumbled to the gym floor, I asked him what I really wanted to know: how did the clock thing change the game? Instead of simply explaining the concept to me, he challenged me to a game where I would find out how the thing worked. Looking back I can see that the chess clock was his shiny penny. He lured in players with a James Bond prop after which he would then beat mercifully and affectionately with a pat on the head and an offer to join the club and be pals. During the course of the ensuing game each of us punched the clock after our move. I was dazzled by the clock but this guy never answered my question about the rules surrounding it. I sped up my play because of that clock but I was ever mindful of the humiliation that might occur with a bad move. And so he made his moves faster to match me. There was obviousness to his competitive nature that I knew very well.
Flashing back…up until this day, I had played chess with only one virtuoso who had taught me the basics and some strategy. I highly suspected he did not teach me much of the actual strategy he knew because his joy was in constantly winning. The only games I had ever won were as a result of his rare mistakes. My frequent mistakes were celebrated and never failed to amuse. This went on for a while with me just being incredibly bored with losing all the time. I wanted to play anything but chess. Finally, as a matter of pride, I read one magazine article about chess. What I read explained the concept of controlling the center of the board. This vague idea became pretty much my entire strategy. After this defining moment the strategy enabled me to win a game now and then, since my opponent had no idea what the strategy was. It became mathematically interesting to me if I played purely on the basis of this control factor. After all, there are so many permutations of each move to get bored with. It is dizzying and certainly a headache to actually try to win at chess by thinking two or even three moves ahead. My mind would just get lost in the logic and I would wonder why in heck anyone would play a game that was so flavorless and taxing on the brain cells. There is an entire subsection of the great chess analogy that deals with the cheap and easy narrowing of choices but that is beyond our scope for the moment.
My secret weapon morphed into a fairly unique strategy that made it difficult for my opponent to think ahead. It simply involved looking at moves and figuring out the number of spaces I could control (or keep my opponent from moving onto) for each of the possible moves I could take. I rarely plotted to capture a piece or anything conventional. I just mathematically tried to figure out how to accomplish control. Before I began using this strategy, I lost pretty much all the time. After I began to surreptitiously use this strategy (and throw in a few random moves just to hide the really non-random pattern) I began to win, or at least make this guy perturbed. It took him so much longer to win and I seemed to have learned nothing of what he had taught me. I do not think he could guess my next move as I was using very little of the strategy he had taught me. Flashing forward…
I was playing faster than the Chess Club guy, because, what did it matter to me? I assumed he was obviously going to win. The odds were on his side. I was just doing my thing. I became ever more interested in the clock because as the game progressed it was taking him so much longer to make his moves. I remember saying “Do I get any points for being faster or how does that work?” I was pretty much tired of playing without the rules of the clock which was why I was playing. Then… he made a mistake. It was a huge-tsunami-with-nuclear-fuel-rods-exposed-to-pigeon-droppings-and-salty-sea-air mistake. I think I took his queen or something which allowed me to take claim of vast amounts of squared territory. He was doomed to play so much longer than he had surely imagined, and then somehow I actually checkmated him. While I don’t remember the specifics, I certainly remember winning. I also do not remember how I extracted myself from the table in a nice way. I had decided then and there to join the History Club, which had a table nearby the Chess Club table. I really hated chess.
In fact, the great and all powerful chess analogy portrays the ultimate loneliness of our existence. I found that with chess there were usually two scenarios. The first possibility was that you were playing someone who was wildly less experienced than you were, in which case you won all or most of the time. The second scenario was of course that you were the wildly inexperienced one in comparison to the master you were playing. Both are lonely outlooks. If you really play chess, it isn’t like a friendly unimportant Parker Brothers board game. Life’s analogy to chess is that we are either the victor (we were better) or the loser (we were worse). This is true in more competitive situations than I care to count in our present society. I never saw them all when I was younger. I am relatively certain I still don’t see a fraction of them. An evil competition is lurking beneath the surface of things all around us. It’s very non-social and it’s incredibly boring.
Sometimes everyone seems dumber than toast. Sometimes everyone seems smarter than you. It is a lonely existence.
But the great chess analogy goes much further into the ills of society. Let’s transition ever so smoothly to a trip to the store to purchase meat for your meatloaf. This doesn’t seem like a competitive game of chess but how else can you illustrated the efficiency of analogies? It is just a grocery store, which is honestly one of the places I find most comforting when I am stressed out. A walk in a supermarket is like a journey in a peaceful museum of human achievement at times.
The annoying chess-like nature of your journey reveals itself a little in the fact that you have acquired the money you will be using at the checkout purely as a result of a competition with others. However this cuthroatery is past history as you walk down the aisles and is only a small lurking presence, easily ignored. You might realize that the store itself is in a competitive multidimensional Star Trek type chess game with other stores. However in our model society, competition that exists between the grocery stores theoretically only serves to provide the shopper with the best product for the best price. You may resume walking and noting items that have not been properly brought to the front of the shelves but, watch it! Look around the corner of the snack aisle carefully for a fast moving white rook. Your ideas are nowhere near the chess game strategy that is actually going on. That package of hamburger meat you picked up in the meat section a few minutes ago really contains what we are now calling “pink slime.” Packages like this have possibly contained this substance for at least ten years. Before that time only your dog was allowed to eat it. Your cat is too picky, I’ll bet. Now how did this happen?
The competition between the stores should have protected you and did no such thing for at least a decade of your share of time here on Earth. The strategies you were given about how to play the chess game, supermarket edition, just did not work this time and someone else won. For ten years you thought you were buying actual beef. What is pink slime? It is “low-quality protein of connective tissue, spinal, rectal, and digestive lining of beef treated with ammonia to kill foodborne illness causing bacteria. This matter closely resembles disinfected beef gristle puree.” The USDA in a recent chess move states the product is entirely safe. I’m guessing nose piercings are also fairly safe but I have not unexpectedly had one in the last ten years. The man who exposed the existence of pink slime is widely described as “disgruntled,” a term used for assassins and sort of describes me after my own sudden discovery of this invasion of my stomach with the rectal tissue of a four legged animal. I’m part of the great disgruntled masses.
I could have had better strategy, I could have checked and read books on the subject, and investigated hamburger meat. The permutations are endless about what I could have done to keep parts of a treated cow’s rectum from anywhere near my stomach. I could have waded through vegetarian treatises and weighed conspiracy theories. But that is such a boring game. I hate chess.