Chess

The other day, I had a moment of grace. Well, I don't know if it was grace, exactly, but it was something like that. Enlightenment, maybe? Illumination? (Where are the Minions?) It's a hard thing to describe but here's what happened: I was looking at the little chessboard on my phone -- I was in the middle of a random three-minute game against somebody or other.

And I saw it.

What did I see? Again, it’s hard to describe. I saw more than one thing if I’m being honest. The whole chessboard opened up to me. I saw geometry and possibilities and, yes, the future. I saw exactly what my opponent’s plan was, and how I was going to deflect it. I saw how my own plan was going to lead to an inescapable checkmate for the poor shlep on the other side of the internet. You know that scene in The Matrix where Neo starts seeing everything in code? That’s how I felt for the briefest of moments, and it was beautiful, I saw three moves ahead, four moves ahead, five moves ahead, and I moved my pieces quickly and with confidence, and everything went exactly as I had foreseen. The checkmate was as gorgeous as a sunset.

When you play online games at Chess.com, you can analyze afterward to see how accurate your moves were compared to the chess engine’s recommendations. In this game, my moves were body temperature accurate, 98.6%. I had played the game just about as well as it could be played. And I thought to myself, yes, I finally understand this game.

The next game, I hung my queen.

The game after that, I hung my queen.

And the game after that … I hung my queen again.

Hanging your queen means leaving your most powerful piece unguarded for no reason.

This is not a good thing.

I hate chess.


My father taught me chess when I was very young. My father was an excellent chess player in those days, a master-level player, in fact. I didn’t think much about it then because, being brutally honest, my father was good at everything in the world that I thought mattered — he was also a terrific bowler, a shooting gallery marksman, a superior cards player and a creditable sleight-of-hand magician. But chess was his truest love, and he once won some level of the Cleveland Open. He passed along the rules of chess to his sons. I do not remember a time when I did not know how chess pieces moved.

For a little while, I showed just enough interest that he would give me small lessons. I remember a delightful afternoon when he taught me how to mate with just a rook and king. It’s a laborious process that involves slowly and deliberately forcing the opponent’s king to an edge of the board and then getting the two kings to face off before bringing in the rook for the kill. Mating with a rook and king is one of the few life skills I have — it’s hard to think of many others. I am able to smoothly step onto a moving sidewalk, if that counts.

In any case, my interest in chess lasted exactly as long as my delusions of being a chess prodigy. Once it became clear that I did not see chess pieces on the ceiling and could not visualize the board while blindfolded, I left the game behind for other things I wasn’t much better at, stuff like baseball and tennis and dating.

Every now and again, though, I would feel a little chess twinge, and I would pick up a chess book to read or play a few games with friends. People in Kansas City might remember that, for a time almost two decades ago, I played a weekly chess match against Chiefs’ star-running back Priest Holmes. For me, the chess was secondary — I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to understand the mind of a great player at the height of his game. But since he beat me week after week, I tried (and failed) to get somewhat better. My problem was one of staying power. Time after time, I would get into potentially winning positions but Priest knew, with the certainty that lives within superior athletes, that soon or later I would make the blunder that would cost me the game.

And so it went.

“How good a chess player is Joe?” someone asked Priest at an autograph session.

“He’s a good player,” Priest said seriously. “But he chokes.”

True in chess. True in life. I sometimes think that those words should be on my tombstone.

When Holmes retired from football I retired from chess again. Nobody missed me. Once in a while, a friend would say something like, “Hey, we should play some chess.” But it never really happened.

Then, a few months ago, with seemingly all other interesting pandemic possibilities strained — piano lessons thudded again, my decision to read the entire Lord of the Rings series died on page 17, tennis elbow kicked in — I decided: You know what? I should make a serious effort to get good at chess. Why not, right?

So I started watching opening videos and I started following numerous chess streamers and I started reading chess books and I even started working with a chess coach.

And let me tell you: What I have learned from the experience.

I hate chess.


OK, I want to tell you about my favorite chess streamer, an International Master named Levy Rozman who goes by the handle “Gotham Chess.” I actually like several chess people — I subscribe to the Twitch channels of Daniel Naroditsky and Eric Rosen, and I engage on Twitter with the marvelous @chessmench, and I have actually bought merch from the world-renowned Agadmator, who begins every YouTube video with a cheery “Hello Everyone!”*

*That’s what the T-shirt says.

But Gotham Chess is my favorite for a couple of reasons, the main one being a series that he calls “Guess the ELO.” But before I get into that, I should tell you that chess streaming is WAY bigger than I ever thought. This, admittedly, is because until a few months ago, I didn’t even know that the chess streaming business even existed. I was vaguely aware that an American chess grandmaster and superstar named Hikaru Nakamura was trying to expand the popularity of chess, but I only knew this because, through a complete coincidence, I met Hikaru about 10 years ago when I was working on a story about, yes, Stan Musial.

You will ask: What the heck does Stan Musial have to do with Hikaru Nakamura and chess? Well, it’s not as weird as you would think: St. Louis, it seems, has become the chess capital of the country and one of the chess capitals of the world. It’s a thriving and bustling chess community that stars, among others, the delightful Eric Rosen who I mentioned earlier, one of the legends of American chess Ben Finegold, another legend of American chess Yasser Seirawan (who my father played many years ago), and various others. I guess the World Chess Hall of Fame is in St. Louis now too, though I have not yet formed any opinions on who should or should not be in there.

In any case, I was in a restaurant to interview Bob Gibson when I was introduced to Hikaru, who was super fun to talk with and explained some of his plans about making chess more popular. I think we exchanged numbers as I had this idea of doing a story on him, but that never happened, which I regret.

In any case, I was aware of Hikaru but I was unaware that he had made significant inroads in building chess. He has more than one million YouTube subscribers now and some of his videos will get several million hits. Incredibly, he is not alone. Agadmator has even more YouTube subscribers. Gotham Chess passes a million subscribers recently. And then there are any number of big-time chess streamers and content creators like Anna Rudolph and the Botez sisters and Qiyu Zhou and the Ginger GM and Magnus Carlsen himself and … I can’t get into all of them. This apparently was a pretty thriving community before the “Queen’s Gambit” was such a TV sensation, but it has definitively blown up in the months since then.

So what do these people do in their chess streams and videos? Well, you wouldn’t think it, but there are a lot of ways to make chess content fun for people who play. They can break down games between the greatest players, they can do instructional videos, they can play games live online. But it goes deeper. Take Eric Rosen. I began watching him mainly because he began teaching a remarkable strategy called the “Stafford Gambit.” Without getting too chessy on you, most people start their chess games by pushing the pawn in front of their king two spaces —e2 to e4 in chess notation. The opponent usually follows by pushing the king’s pawn two spaces as well.

Then white — in chess white always goes first — usually moves out its kingside knight to attack black’s pawn. Throughout history, I would say there have been billions of games that have begun with these three moves.

Well, what the Stafford Gambit does is allow white to take that pawn — that’s what a gambit is, it is all about sacrificing material in order to get an advantage elsewhere. The Stafford Gambit is particularly devastating if the player with the white pieces doesn’t know how to deal with it, and Eric Rosen has created numerous funny, charmingly goofy and thrillingly instructive videos on how to play the Stafford Gambit and utterly destroy an unprepared opponent. I have used the Stafford Gambit myself a few times online, and the feeling of crushing an unsuspecting player is — well, being honest I feel guilty how good it feels.

Point is that these chess streamers keep finding all sorts of new ways to make chess interesting, hilarious, joyful. These people are taking this ancient game with its archaic reputation and turning it upside down. I cannot begin to tell you how many hours I have spent watching chess content since I began my quest to become good at the game.

I also cannot begin to tell you how bad I still am at the game.

I hate chess.


OK, I want to tell you about my favorite guy, Levy Rozman, but first I should probably explain the chess coach thing. Several weeks ago, I saw a series of videos by chess grandmaster Eugene Perelshtyn called “Every Gambit Refuted.” It was really good — I mentioned the uncomfortable joy I felt when demolishing an opponent with the Stafford Gambit. Well, now imagine the other side, imagine what it feels like to GET demolished by some tricky gambit. So I watched Eugene’s videos to help prevent that from happening to me (with mixed success — I hate chess) and then I wrote to Eugene to ask if he would be willing to help me with my game.

Unfortunately, he was too busy to do that … but he offered me something even better. He told me that his father, Mikhail Perelshtyn, still teaches chess, and he would be available.

So I began having weekly video calls with Mikhail. It was wonderful. Mikhail has this joyful way of expressing his disapproval. We would go over the games I played, and after I make a terrible move that seemingly has no purpose whatsoever, he will give this little frown and say something like, “Why not knight like this?” and then he will show me the move I should have made … as if I was not a brain-dead sportswriter who had moved out of mental desperation but an international master who had simply been going back and forth between two sensible moves and chose the wrong one.

“Yes,” I would say. “The knight would have been better.”

“Right?” he would ask. “Knight move is better, yes?”

“Yes,” I would say again. “Moving the knight would have been better than blundering my queen there.”

“Good,” he would say, and we moved on to the next thing.

Mikhail has unquestionably made me a better player. He has helped me see the board more vividly (allowing moments of grace as I mentioned at the start). But what he didn’t tell me about chess — what I didn’t know at the start — is that the better you get in chess, the worse you get. This is because the more you understand chess the more ridiculous you feel when you screw up. When I began on this journey, I was only aware of roughly 5% of the mistakes I was making, so while the game made me feel stupid, it was only a surface kind of stupid.

I put rook where it taken.

I leave King where it heckmated.

I miss win by focusing on dumb thing.

But now, I’m aware of, maybe, 40% of my mistakes. Now, I can see that if I move this piece now, I will regret it in two or three moves. But then I move the piece anyway because I got distracted by some shiny opportunity. I’m better, no doubt, but I don’t feel better. I feel worse. Much worse.

I hate chess.


OK, so I don’t know Levy Rozman’s story beyond what I’ve seen on the internet. I do know he’s an International Master or IM — this is not quite a grandmaster, which is the highest FIDE* title, or super grandmaster, which is not an official title but is still used regularly for the very best players on earth. I know he grew up in New York — Gotham Chess is his handle, after all — and that he was something of a prodigy having become a National Master when he was 15 years old.

*FIDE is the International Chess Federation — the acronym is for the French Fédération Internationale des Échecs.

He does a lot of different kinds of chess content. He offers commentary on the top-level tournaments. He teaches different openings and strategies — I’ve bought a couple of his courses. He mixes chess and pop culture, like when he broke down the game Sherlock Holmes played against Professor Moriarity at the end of the Robert Downey Jr. movie. He exposes chess cheaters — those people who use computers to always play the best moves.

But my favorite thing, as mentioned, is this series called Guess the Elo. When you play on Chess.com — or, I suppose, other chess online places like lichess — you will after a while get an Elo rating. The rating was named after the physics professor Arpad Elo, who created the system for calculating such ratings.*

*For a while, Baseball-Reference used an Elo system to rank baseball players; that was a lot of fun. And soon — not to give anything away — I might be breaking out my own Elo system for a new project. More details to come.

In any case, here’s what Gotham does. He will ask his subscribers to submit games that they played. And then he will go through those games on video and, in the end, guess the Elo of the subscriber. So, he will guess if the player is rated 700 or 800 (which is more or less a beginner), rated 1100 or 1200 so (intermediate-range) maybe 1700 or 1800 (a truly excellent player) or above 2000 (really, really good).

But it is not the guessing — it is the way he goes through the games that has me absolutely hooked. Because the outrage he displays when he sees one of his subscribers make a mistake, well, it’s all-consuming.

“Boss!” he’ll shout. “Boss! What are you doing? Did you forget how pawns move?”

“Bro! Bro! What is that? I thought the whole point of you moving your bishop there was to take the rook. Why did you move your bishop there if you weren’t going to take the rook?”

“OK, I don’t know what that was but maybe chess isn’t for you. Checkers is better. The pieces all move the same. Maybe checkers is your game. Or maybe you should forget games altogether.”

I’ve been trying to think about why I love the guy so much. On the one hand, it’s easy — Gotham is very funny and his videos are filled with instructional nuggets that stick with me. But there might be something else, something that I suspect goes beyond chess. I think the reason I hate chess so much is that it never lets me forget just how limited I am, how dumb I am, how forgetful I am, how mistake-prone I am. In real life, you and I can pretend this stuff away. OK, I messed that up, I didn’t follow through on that, I forgot to do the other thing … so what? Life goes on.

But in chess, that mistake, well, that leads to checkmate. And there’s no looking away.

So Gotham’s faux rage when he sees mistakes on a chessboard — it is exactly the rage I feel when I screw up. I hear Gotham’s voice in my head. Boss, do you know how rooks move? Bro, did you think that was a good idea to trap your own king? My friend, maybe chess isn’t for you. Maybe Candyland is more your speed.

Every now and again — and it’s a rare, rare thing — the whole chessboard really does open up for me. It’s an amazing feeling. But the feeling ripens and goes bad faster than raspberries. Between paragraphs, here, I played an online game. I was playing pretty well too, I took an early advantage, I could see exactly the way I would win.

But then I hung my knight, which led to me hanging my rook, which led to me hanging checkmate.

“Boss,” I heard in my head, “did you forget that they are allowed to move their pieces too?”

I hate chess.