Keeping Score

 

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Keeping Score

(‘… we blossom and flourish
like leaves on a tree
and wither and perish …’)

In the beginning was the number,
and that number was one:
number one.

Place it on the chessboard,
square A1,
bottom left corner,
black.

Next door,
on square B1,
white,
place number 2.
Next door,
C1,
place number 4.

The D1 square
claims number 8.
The players are abandoned
to their fate.
16 perch
on square E1.

32
land next door,
what fun,
and crowd into
square F1.

Square G1
sees 64
and H1
numbers
128,
each number a person,
forsaken of late,
and left to perish
in a perilous state.

Black on the left,
white on the right,
the numbers will soon rise
out of sight.

That’s just the start,
the first rank done.
Now we can really
have some fun.
A bean counter’s work
is never done.

H2 = 2-5-6.
Now we’re really
in a fix.

G2 = 5-1-2.
Whatever are we
going to do.

F2 = 1-0-2-4.
Now we’re rattling
up the score.

E2 = 2-0-4-8:
why did we procrastinate,
enjoying ourselves,
rich, young and wealthy,
thinking everyone
hale and healthy,
encouraging them
to drink and party.

D2 = 4-0-9-6.
‘What’s this?’
They cried.
‘It’s just the dead ones,’
we replied.
“Surely there can’t be
many more?”
We said we really
couldn’t be too sure,
though we all wished
it was somewhat fewer.

Body bags are not too pleasant,
laid out in rows,
or curved in a crescent.

“C2?”
We were asked
by a man in a surgical mask.
“8-1-9-2,”
came the reply,
“and there’s lots more
yet to die.”

“B2?”
“I’ll have to tell you later,
when I’ve checked
my calculator.”

We punch the numbers,
one by one.
Keeping score is so much fun.
“8192
multiplied by 2
gives us
1-6-3-8-4.”
“My God,” he said.
“How many more?”

A2
multiplies by two
the numbers laid out
on B2.
“We’re sorry,” we said,
“the news ain’t great:
now we’ve climbed to
32 thousand,
seven hundred
and sixty-eight.”

Don’t bother to give us any thanks.
We’ve got to calculate six more ranks.

Maybe when we get to square H8,
the dying will decelerate.
Then maybe we can celebrate.

Until then we’ll just keep score
and hope there aren’t too many more.

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.