Nautilus

Learning Chess at 40

My 4-year-old daughter and I were deep into a game of checkers one day about three years ago when her eye drifted to a nearby table. There, a black and white board bristled with far more interesting figures, like horses and castles. “What’s that?” she asked. “Chess,” I replied. “Can we play?” I nodded absently.


There was just one problem: I didn’t know how. I dimly remembered having learned the basic moves in elementary school, but it never stuck. This fact vaguely haunted me through my life; idle chessboards in hotel lobbies or puzzles in weekend newspaper supplements teased me like reproachful riddles.

And so I decided I would learn, if only so I could teach my daughter. The basic moves were easy enough to pick up—a few hours hunched over my smartphone at kids’ birthday parties or waiting in line at the grocery store. It soon became apparent, however, that I had no concept of the larger strategy. The chess literature was dauntingly huge, and achingly specific, with several-hundred-page tomes devoted to unpacking single openings. The endgame literature alone could drown a person.

unfair advantage?: My daughter en route to another victory.Francesco Izzo

So, time-starved and not wanting to curse my daughter with my ill-formed knowledge, I hired a coach to teach us both. We soon sat down to weekly sessions with Simon Rudowski, a Brooklyn-based Polish émigré whose Old World formality—and hint of sternness—lent what I thought was an appropriate gravity to the task.

It wasn’t long before it struck me that chess seemed to be a game for the young. When my daughter began doing scholastic tournaments, I would chat up other parents and ask whether they played—usually the reply was Reading about an international tournament, I was struck by a suggestion that a grandmaster had passed his peak. He was in his 30s. We are used to athletes being talked about in this way. But a mind game like chess?

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