Global Village Idiot: Why Queen’s gambit pawns victory for steady (forever) learning curve
At the moment, I have 659 wins against 612 losses and 58 draws in online competition play in the Blitz format. A win percentage of just about 50%.
But that’s not why I play chess.
I started playing at 16 (terribly old to have any prospects of making any waves) and lost close to 25 games before I won my first. It was in junior college (Grade 11-12) that I got to play chess regularly with my childhood friends Abbas, Satyan and Jitendra Singh Tomar (Jitu), Saju Sebastian and JP Shukla. Most days we played in the college gymkhana after badminton and then at Saju’s place or at JP’s, since they lived nearby. Matches were intense and heated arguments and tantrums were common.
It wasn’t until the first year of professional college that I made a wave in any chess playing circles. I was 19 and in the intra-college tournament, I somehow made it to the quarter finals where I defeated one of our college professors, who happened to be the defending champion, 2-1 (a draw, a draw and a win over three games in that order, which gave me the match).
I think it was the shock of the first-game draw that threw the professor since it was rare for him to be beaten or held. It made me an instant celebrity, but my 15 minutes of fame lasted only till the semi-finals where I lost 3-0.
The real story for me was Kim Loon Lee’s quarterfinal loss. Kim was a chess whiz among us first-year students, apart from being a mischievous and polite teenager. He was one of my first friends in hotel management college. He and Sandy (Sandeep Nadkar) were chess buddies and could be found playing chess whenever they had any spare time in that first year.
Kim lived in Khar with his father and elder brother, Henri. I remember my visits to Kim’s house and his father preparing garlic noodles and soup and chicken stir-fry. His father was a treasure trove of philosophy and life-stories and I enjoyed conversations with him. He also had a fantastic collection of vinyl records, all of which I got when they shifted to a new music system and CDs a couple of years later. I still have the collection of vinyls, as much for the eclectic music as for the kind gesture.
A creative, diligent and multifaceted person, Kim taught me many things, many, many, things. We used to spend time working, studying, discussing life, philosophy, strategy, cooking styles, evolution of culinary styles in different regions, palmistry, graphology, numerology among other matters. And we discussed all this while hanging out, while working at a food stall in between serving customers, while cooking and tending bar at a party that Kim was catering for, while waiting tables after college, or while studying for exams.
In chess, he introduced me to the Sicilian Defence, which I practiced for many years after. He was also the person who introduced me to anti-chess, for which as it turned I had a natural gift given its destructive, army-devouring purpose! I had finally found my calling in chess: playing the opposite of chess on a chess board.
I played little chess thereafter and then eventually forgot all about it. Till a few years ago when our kids wanted to learn to play chess. So we got ourselves chess.com accounts and all of us are attacking, defending, moving forward and diagonally and backward at least for half-an-hour every day. We have a hand-crafted chess board with brass pieces, but we avoid that since most days one or the other of the kids smashes the board after a loss with the opponent rubbing it in. The online chess account is good because you get to play people from all over the world.
There are a lot of puzzles and computer bot practice buddies and theory and study material, but the biggest advantage is the opportunity to improve by playing rather than by studying games played by others. The kids watch some of my games and they seem to understand that even when I lose game after game, what is important is that I am aware of my mistakes and eliminating the weaknesses in the game and that speed comes from knowing what you are going to do for every move your opponent plays and not to get fazed if there’s a surprise.
They are learning that it is important to forget victories and defeats since both are a distraction and to focus only on performance and improvement and to enjoy the playing of the game. They are learning to vent their anger when they lose, throw a tantrum when they are on a losing streak, enjoy their wins and to improve their behaviour along with their play.
I don’t invest much time analysing my games. I play. The same opening and the same subsequents again and again. I have been with the Queen Pawn opening for more than three years now. As a result, my first 20-odd moves for any set of black or white opponent moves are now automatic. It’s a work in progress and whether they will lead to victory is not my concern. The focus is to reduce uncertainty.
A classic test of this is to play the 3-minute Blitz. Or the 1-minute Bullet or the 30-second Hyper formats. 20 moves run out pretty fast in a short format. I lose games regularly and no shame in it. Chess was always about improving my real-life decision making response time.
As a thumb rule, I never resign even when the position seems hopeless. This is because I take play as seriously as life, and live life as care-freely as I play. I have learned that just as I make mistakes, so do others. So I keep playing to my game plan and two out of five times, opponents give me an opportunity to get back into the match. Life, on average, can be fair if you stay the course.
It was Jitu who reminded me of our childhood underlying philosophy of play a few years ago. As of the last decade, he’s taken up badminton and Iron Man preparations seriously to keep himself active and healthy. “It’s all in self-belief and desire to keep pushing your limits. Winning is a byproduct. Learning about myself is the most important part of the journey.”
If I can improve my understanding of myself and of my real-time performance in life, then a win percentage of just about 50% seems a fair outcome in life.