Life of a king

I have just been watching the film “Life of a King”. If I’m honest, it isn’t a great film but then it can’t have been too bad as I don’t often watch a film more than once. I was told about the film by someone who, like me, loves and understands chess and works among some of the lowly that live in our community. The film is centred around a man who had been in prison for 17 years. He was taught to play the game by and enjoyed playing chess with a fellow inmate, a student of the game, who was a lifer, who gave him as a parting gift a king chess piece, he had specially crafted. He saw the king as being a metaphor of life itself, in particular one’s own – for we are that king and we need to protect ourselves and not become a pawn of another king that all too easily might sacrifice us if the need arose.


On being released from prison, our hero had to face a number of challenges and setbacks, particularly the estrangement of his own children. He found himself a job as a janitor in the local school and got to teach disaffected children chess, the playing of which became strangely empowering for those involved, including one who was in danger of getting caught up in a criminal gang yet he went on to become a chess champion. What I liked about this film was the lessons brought out when one needs to learn to become a good chess player and that this has parallels with life itself, such as “think before you move”, “develop your pieces”  and “play according to the rules”. It seems to me the better players are able to size up the whole situation and respond in a way lesser players can’t.  Besides the protecting the king narrative, I liked those about picking oneself up following setbacks and working toward a position where it is about winning the end game. While our hero faced set backs, his persistence paid off and the film finishes on a note of hope.

I learned to play chess as a boy. On our council estate lived what these days would be classed as a problematic family. I befriended the two brothers, who taught me to play the game and helped to instill in me an early love for it. One of the boys had learned to play the game in borstal (a correctional institution for young offenders). Not that I got to play that much thereafter as there weren’t that many chess enthusiasts around at that time or opportunities to play the game, but I did play on and off over the years and up to now, mostly informal ad hoc games with family, friends and colleagues. I upped a gear when I started work at Plessey in Poole (then a big software engineering concern) when we used to play at lunchtime and in inter-departmental competitions. I even got to represent the company in local leagues, when games could well take three hours to play and where clocks were used.  I had a similar experience later on in my working career and was introduced to a chess club who I played for. I now play at the club it spawned after a long break.

Then for a long time I stopped playing altogether, except occasional informal games with family and friends and with my then young son, who had discovered chess at the primary school he attended and that was in spite of my influence (now in secondary school, I can reflect he doesn’t play chess regularly but he does run a poker school with fellow pupils – and I wonder if a connection). I did not expect to return to it. Just over two years ago, I got to play online chess through My nephew challenged me to play and I accepted and quickly got hooked. The format suited me, particularly that of having (typically) three days to play a move, and 20 or so games on the go at any one time, including being a member of a team and getting to know team mates. I have enjoyed the social aspects (the chess lovers alternative to Facebook) and interacting with others. I like to show and receive courtesy: I generally wish my opponent well and thank him/her for the game. I still play this form of the game and playing my moves is one of my daily rituals.

Most recently, I re-discovered over the board (OTB) chess in a semi-formal context, through joining a club that an old friend runs. I have enjoyed the three team games I have played in to date, in particular the sportsmanlike intensity, and playing with some of the youngsters who are affiliated to the club,  and in a small way encourage them to learn some of the lessons like those from the film I have just been talking about. I still get frustrated though as the steady improvement I yearn is slower than I would like as I continue to make outrageous errors. It is this desire to master this fascinating game that keeps me interested. I am grateful I can still play to a reasonable level and hope to continue while I enjoy doing so.

Regarding reading up about the game, I do admit to delving into books from time to time but only a little. I recall being impressed by one that had the title: “Think like a Grandmaster” and its advocacy of a ruthlessly systematic method of analyzing positions. I don’t study opening theory much, and take a view that the more crucial area of the endgame is less well covered. I do try to analyse games played if I can, hoping to learn from mistakes. I do have a bizarre fixation with the greats, past and present, following their stories and games. Past heroes include Capablanca and Alekhine. More recent heroes are Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov. I like them because they were both strong individuals and very much their own men: Fischer challenged the Soviet hegemony and prevailed; Kasparov, at his best, was so dominant and ruthless. I also have an admiration for Victor Korchnoi, who can still play at the highest levels, aged 83.  I have a grudging respect for the new chess world champion, Magnus Carlson, who I earlier saw as young upstart but he has grown on me because of the respect he shows to those who deserve it and the devastatingly beautiful way he can grind out a win when entering the end game with the slightest of or no advantages.

I should say something about the ladies. My earlier chess playing experiences were almost entirely playing against men, and I came across very few women, no doubt partly because of a latent sexism that saw this as a man’s game, with few women players of note, and many more men/boys took up the game than women/girls. Thanks to the likes of the Polgar sisters, the game has becomes more popular among women. We now see women competing at the highest levels and it is probably only a matter of time before we see the first female chess world champion. I have played some games against ladies on and these have mostly been competitive and enjoyable. As for lady players that I admire, it has to be headed by the Russian Woman Grandmaster, Natalia Pogonina, who is beautiful, witty, humorous, communicates well and is an excellent ambassador for the sport, as well as being a brilliant chess player.

One of my greatest pleasures is playing with some of the homeless folk that attend the night shelter I manage, as time and opportunity allows, and I am invariably struck by the quality of play and the spirit in which the game is played. I am also involved with a multi-cultural men’s group, many of which have experienced issues around mental health, addictions or have been socially excluded. My last OTB game was with one who admits to some of these struggles yet plays beautiful chess. I sometimes wonder if there is a link to being on the edge of society and being attracted to this game!?

When it comes to pursuing my interests, I hope I can continue to include chess among them for some years to come (for one thing it is something that prevents me going doolally), while encouraging the next generation to take up and play the game well and as an agreeable way of engaging with those who might not otherwise have much in common. Playing chess can be addictive, so I need to watch out. It can also be frustrating, so I need to learn, take stock and move on. It can also be exhilarating and personally satisfying, as well as being a metaphor on life itself – and for all this I am grateful.

15 Months on: I still continue to play this frustrating game they call chess. My diet of online games now is typically around ten games on the go (often as a member of a team) at any one time, and I don’t play moves quite so often. It is up and down but levels out ability wise. Times I feel like stopping altogether after a bad loss or failing to be inspired but then a brilliant (at least by my standards) win or draw when a loss seemed to be the likely outcome. I still go along to my chess club but not often as it clashes with something else I do, and I enjoy the camaraderie. I still play with my homeless friends given the opportunity. Even watched live commentary of the tournament happening right now in Norway. Last night I played a friendly against a young up and coming star, chatting while playing, managing to win from a lost position. Feeling good 🙂