This is something of a tangental blog post, considering it has nothing to do with politics, but with the recent release of a video game called “Regicide”, based in Games Workshops Warhammer 40,000 Universe and developed by Hammerfall Games, (information on which can be found here http://www.warhammer40kregicide.com) I started to think about what Chess has meant to me over my life. Regicide itself gives you two game modes, classic Chess and “Regicide” in which certain pieces move the same as others but have special abilities in an additional phase of play.
I’ve been playing strategy games of some description for my entire living memory. I was introduced to Games Workshop and its wonderful fantasy world when I was four and my dad taught me how to play Chess around about the same time. I also played it on the computer in my spare time and ended up learning quite a lot about the history of the game, it’s grandmasters, politics and rankings as a hobby. I will maintain to this day that how I think about life, how I remember things, and how I play games more generally have all been influenced by my Chess playing in some way. Having both GW and Chess in the same package feels like a match that I’d be waiting to see for years.
But it also shows to me how fundamentally archaic Chess is in the modern world. I’m a big video gamer, with dabblings in almost every genre, but Grand Strategy and RTS games have always been my forte, from Dungeon Keeper and Age of Empires in my early days to Europa Universalis, Total War and the Dawn of War series in more recent years. Regicides two modes show this up in a more vivid way than I’m used to because I don’t normally think about chess at the forefront of my mind when playing video games.
It’s supposed to be the most balanced and tactical of strategy games. Luck doesn’t enter the equation, it’s your skill against your opponents and any mistake is likely to cost you a game against experienced players. It taught me never to play your opponents game, to never be constantly reactive and to look three or four moves ahead. Tactics were key, almost any chess player who has researched moves will have heard of the Sicilian Defence, which at its most basic level consists of a single move by Black. Imagine reading about players like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, who took elements this simple and slowly built on them over the years to defeat opponents with decades more experience. They were game changers for a sport that hadn’t changed in a meaningful way for centuries, and thats inspiring in its own way. I took the game straight into my heart, and in hindsight I should probably have entered tournaments or tried actually making something of it. In the end, I went to secondary school and was happy to win all the tournaments there every year bar the last one (which I lost to a Year 7, who it has to be said was a great player, even if I probably didn’t focus as much as I should have due to overconfidence, a big error on my part)
But chess isn’t a sport you can romanticise about, at least not in the same way as football for example. Matches can take hours or days (even at secondary school we had games that went on for two or three hours). They are, in reality, boring to watch even if looking at the moves afterwards is a revealing insight into the thinking of the player. Moreover, those who play the game at the highest level these days lack the charisma or rebellious nature of a Fischer, Kasparov or Petrosian; Magnus Carlson is a fabulous chess player, possibly the greatest ever to grace the sport, but he is reserved and thoughtful (a common comparison to make is with tennis player Roger Federer). The notation system looks horrible, even if it’s depth and ability to show an entire game in an incredibly concise manner is amazing. It also has an image problem, being dominated by a patriarchy of male players in a way that Golf could only dream of. This was bought to a head most recently when Nigel Short stated that “It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”. I don’t have a problem with saying that female brains are wired differently. I do have a problem with “gracefully accepting” that it makes them worse at chess when opportunities for them to take it to higher levels are far more restrictive.
So, when I was younger and less involved in politics or study, chess felt like a sport that I was proud to be good at. It showed I was clever in a way that meant more to me than grades because they weren’t a direct competition with others. Beating another person at something is a great way to get a rush of good feelings, and since I was terrible at every physical sport on the planet, chess was really the only thing I could do to get that. Even if the rewards were winning the tournaments were terrible sometimes (juggling balls being the most stupid one I can think of) sometimes I received small monetary rewards, further increasing my desire to win and the feelings of competitive joy.
But the more I look at chess now, the less inspired I feel to play it. It feels old and worn out compared to the more fast paced games of the virtual world. It feels like the stereotypes of the players still exist and are still validated by its community. It’s no longer rewarding or inspiring, and it lacks character and meaning in the fast modern world. So, while I love the game of chess for the rewards and abilities its given me, it lacks the drama and character that it used to.