Saturday, 12 March 2011

The benefits of chess

How can you play chess if you're blind? I asked Ray Charles when I interviewed him in Paris in 2000, knowing his reputation not only as a musician and singer but also as a chess player of great skill.

"Aw, well, honey," he replied in that wonderful voice like wood smoke over maple syrup. "I ain't no Spassky or Fischer - but being blind has nothing to do with playing chess. It has nothing to do with sight. It has to do with memory and strategy and where the pieces are on the board. I can just touch the board and see where the horse is, where the bishop is, or the pawns. There's no luck in the game. None. That's why I like it. And that's the great thing about chess: everyone starts with the same amount of pieces. You either out think your opponent or he out thinks you."

They surely do, but some are better able to manipulate those carved wooden pieces than others. And like many skills, chess can be learnt and practiced and improved, yielding unexpected benefits in concentration, logical thinking, spatial awareness and socialisation, as research has shown.

There is something rather romantic about a game that features kings and queens, bishops, knights, castles and pawns. Sixteen pieces in all, two players, specific moves and 64 spaces in which to execute them. The rules are there, the limitations are set, but within these a combination of logic, memory and imagination create possibilities and outcomes that are infinite although the ultimate aim is the same: to checkmate the king.

Personally it's a game I struggle with. I am neither as ruthless or strategic as I need to be. I can only plan about three moves ahead and my ability to anticipate my opponent is poor. Both my children learnt to play before they were five, and before preconceived ideas about chess being anything other than fun got in the way of their ability to plan whole games and play with lethal efficiency. They were soon able to run rings around me, and pronounced me an unfit opponent, preferring to try to outwit each other.

It is also a game that provides intellectual challenge and development in surprising places - prisons, refugee camps, schools for the excluded. You can play this game as an equal even if the odds of life have been stacked against you. You can develop skills in chess and apply them elsewhere. You can compete, and win, even if you're blind, as Ray Charles discovered. He learnt in hospital when he took himself off heroin, cold turkey, and he played for the rest of his life.

And even if I play poorly I love it for its opportunity and challenge. I love chess purely for the idea of it, for the possibilities it evokes, and its ubiquity as it turns up time and time again in fiction and in fact as a metaphor for life.

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