Self-Isolation Day 18

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Self-Isolation Day 18

So we are in the eighteenth day of our Self-Isolation. Yesterday I added a fifth book to my group around the table: The Art of the Middle Game by Paul Keres and Alexander Kotov, translated by Harry Golombek. I have had this book since 1964 when it was first published in Penguin Books. Once upon a time, I played serious chess, was president of a chess club, and read widely about the game. But I have not played any serious, face to face chess since I came to Canada and the last games I played were in 1994, when I visited the Dominican Republic, although I did pay a couple of games in Oaxaca on my first visits there.

I dipped in and out of this book yesterday, playing sample games here and there. It was a joy to rediscover the movement of the pieces and to see how great minds viewed the chess board. Sharpe’s Riflemen are wonderful to watch on YouTube, but they cannot rival the two sixteen piece armies that wage battle on the sixty-four squares of the chess-board!

The Art of the Middle Game uses descriptional notation. This means that when the King Pawn takes two steps forwards, it moves from King two to King four. In descriptional notation, this becomes P-K4. If it is the first move of the game, by white, then it becomes 1. P-K4. If the opposition follows suit, then his move is also transcribed as P-K4. This gives us 1. P-K4   P-K4. And this is where the confusion arises: each side has a K-4, and a Q-4 and every other square is doubled up as well in a mirror image of army facing army. After such a long time away from the game, I found my concentration wavering in places and thus I had pieces on the wrong squares and had to start all over again. Very frustrating.

When I played chess in Spain, also back in the sixties, I was faced with algebraic notation, long in use on the continent of Europe. The eight ranks are lettered a-h, from left to right, and the eight files are numbered 1-8 from bottom to top, with ‘white on the right’ i.e. h-1 always white. This means that each square has a single, plotted designation and it is much easier to follow the game as there is no mirror imaging. In this fashion, 1. P-K4 would become e2 – e4 followed by e7 – e5. None of this changes the nature of the game, but it does change the speed and ease with which it is transcribed and followed.

I remember buying my first pocket chess set, in Boots the Chemist (!) when I was 9 or 10 years old. It is an old cardboard set with red and white squares and pieces. I still have it and I am using it now. The scrawl that I call my handwriting is still unmistakable, after all these years. That same day I bought Harry Golombek’s The Game of Chess, and I taught myself how to play, based on that book. I remember looking at the descriptional notation and not understanding how the system worked, even after days of memorization. Then, one morning, as Dylan Thomas, another Swansea Boy once wrote, ‘light broke where no light shone’ and as all the squares fell miraculously into place, the system of descriptional notation suddenly made sense to me. “Threshold knowledge is a term in the study of higher education used to describe core concepts — or threshold concepts — which, once understood, transform perception of a given subject, phenomenon, or experience” (Wikipedia). The discovery of the key to descriptional notation was indeed a threshold experience, as was the transition to algebraic notation. What a wonderful world we live in.