Oct 7, 2020

Chess Becomes Must-See Viewing During the Pandemic

A game of strategy and patience is hot again (okay: lukewarm)

By Ed Goldman

There’s a game picking up steam both in the U.S. and abroad that doesn’t require you to wear protective headgear, shin guards, goggles or thousand-dollar sports shoes. It’s called chess.

Chess may be a slow-moving game to play (just behind Monopoly, especially on an inclement day) or to watch (barely ahead of being at a stadium for a baseball no-hitter on a 100-degree day).

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If you find the rather straight-forward rules of rugby confusing—”No player is allowed to throw the ball forward to a teammate…(P)asses have to be thrown sideways or backwards to a teammate while the other ways to move the ball towards the opposition’s goal line to score points is by kicking or running with the ball,” according to a helpful YouTube tutorial—the strategies of chess will absolutely befog you.

Baseball, like rugby, is pretty easy to figure out. It’s simply a four-hour version of “The Odyssey.” Even its most desirable event during the game is named for Homer, the guy who wrote it, though that might have been unintentional. The point is that the game pits two armies vying to get home from a journey that involves the squeezing of a resin bag, chewing of a tobacco plug and scratching of a crotch. 

Odysseus, who has the title role in the epic poem, had more than just ground-rule doubles and crew members with Carpel Tunnel Syndrome and torn ACLs to contend with. He encounters a sorceress who turns his men into pigs—not what we’d call a stretch, once we’ve met them—as well as seductive sirens and even a Cyclops who snacks on Odysseus’s crew. Odysseus would probably have enjoyed having a relief captain brought in at some point.  

By the way, you may know Odysseus as Ulysses, if you‘re a fan of the 1954 Kirk Douglas Italian film adaptation, whose haphazard dubbing even had the snacking Cyclops make yummy sounds in English. But I digress.

I’m not sure that football, soccer or basketball have such illustrious sources as baseball and chess. I guess they can seem equivalent to Holy Grail quests, maybe with a net and goals subbing for that silver chalice—but this may be a little lofty for games that require their participants to play in, respectively, bun-hugging pants, cunning shorts with knee socks, and their underwear.

When enough people played it generations ago, chess was a convenient metaphor in politics, especially during the Cold War, when a precipitous move by either side could be its last, so patience was imperative. At its heart, of course, chess has always been a metaphor for medieval war. A king from one side of the board is hell-bound to trap the king on the other side and, one presumes, take up with the suddenly available queen. It may be a slow game but at least it involves the suggestion of sex.

I wonder if that last part is what’s twerking the interest of Twitch subscribers, who are flocking to the international, online, live-streaming gamers platform. According to the New York Times, “Since the pandemic began, viewership of live chess games has soared. From March through August, people watched 41.2 million hours of chess on Twitch, four times as many hours in the previous six months, according to the website SullyGnome”—which I’m assuming was named for the famed airline pilot’s height-challenged brother.

When I was a teenager, coming in late and being confronted by my parents, I’d sometimes tell them I’d been out playing chess. I used this excuse for two reasons: (a) My dad loved playing chess (and even made his own chess board), and (b) they knew if I said I’d been at the library studying that the place wasn’t open until 2:30 a.m. 

In truth, it didn’t fool my dad. When he and I played chess, he could take me down in about three moves, which is almost the fewest you can use to beat someone. Some can actually do it in two moves, but I suspect this involves overturning the board and showing your opponent you’re armed. Or have a famished Cyclops in the next room.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).