Learning to Play

When my oldest son Max was five he asked me to teach him how to play chess. One of his friends at school was some kind of chess prodigy and Max thought it looked fun. Fun’s got nothing to do with it, I thought, but I was a life-long gamer, and if he wanted to learn The Game of Games, then it was my fatherly duty to teach him.

Max wasn’t quite tall enough to see the board comfortably at our dinner table, so I set it up on his plastic, purple and white kid’s table that came equipped with little red drawers for storing crayons. I had no doubt Max would be able to quickly grasp the rules to chess. What I wasn’t sure about was whether he really wanted to play it. There is nothing fun about chess other than the exercise of one’s strategic muscle. There are no cards with colorful pictures, no dice, no ringing bells. To play chess is to think your way to victory. That is all.

So I showed him how the pawns and rooks and knights and bishops and the queen and the king moved. I showed him how to capture and how to castle. I started a sample game for us, moving out our pawns and then our knights and bishops and then moving his queen to the center of the board. I was enjoying myself. Come join me in manhood, I thought, where I will teach you how to win.

“All right, Max,” I said. “Now you move a piece.”

Max thought for a minute, and then grabbed his king and hopped him four squares, right to the middle of the board beside his black queen.

Something nearly as old as I was sounded an alarm in my brain. A rule had been broken. Worse yet, he had moved his king to the worst place on the board. This is how you lose games. To lose is the worst thing in the world.

“What are you doing?”

“He wants to be with the queen,” Max replied.

Do you know I almost scolded him? That alarm was still ringing in my brain and I almost didn’t hear what he said. But I did hear it, and so I asked him, “Why does he want to be with the queen?”

“Because they’re going to be married.”

First there was disappointment. He didn’t really want to play chess, to learn how to win and not to lose, he only wanted to play make believe. All my earnest teaching was for naught. But when I said—

“Okey-dokey. The bishop can marry them and the rook will be the best man.”

—and helped Max set the pawns up in a neat procession, I discovered the bell wasn’t ringing anymore. I did not know until then what victory actually sounded like.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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The Bottom Of The Well

I write fiction for two hours every morning, a duration that yields me between 1,200 and 1,500 words. I have noticed that 1000 of these words usually come in the last 45 minutes. It took me many, many years to grow comfortable with this way of working. It was one thing to write a poem or a short story, but novels are long, and if you’re every going to finish one you will need to get a lot of words on the page. Best to get typing before the clock runs down and a day is wasted.

Then I watched Gary Kasparov play chess against a computer. It was televised on ESPN one afternoon, complete with play-by-play and color commentators. As with all standard tournaments, each player was given two hours to make 40 moves. I tuned in as Kasparov and the computer were locked in the Middle Game, often the most deliberative portion of the competition. Kasparov made a move and sat back in this chair.  Then we heard from the color guy:

“Oh, no,” he whispered. “He’s going to lose a pawn!”

A minute later, Kasparov, known as an emotional chess player, saw his mistake. He moaned and put his head in his hands. The computer made its move. Now Kasparov’s clock was running. What did he do? Got up from his chair and took a little walk around the studio, the clock still running. Then, having calmed himself, he sat back in his chair, leaned over the board, and began to think.

For fifteen minutes.  Over one move.  Remember, he only has two hours total for 40 moves.  But he had reached a critical point, and he needed to see deeper into the game. Finally, he made his move, and three or four moves later, the game was saved.

Patience, I thought. Einstein said if he had only one hour to solve a problem he would spend the first forty-five minutes trying to understand the problem and the last fifteen minutes solving it. In this way, my first hour spent not putting words on the page are perhaps more important than the last hour when I am. Here is where I learn the way back to my story, a journey I find more satisfying the older I get. Yet it is a journey that can only be taken in stillness, sinking below the surface of thought, where time has no power because it does not yet exist.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Sweep The Board

There’s a great scene in the movie Searching For Bobby Fischer in which Josh, a chess prodigy, is studying a problem created by his mentor, played by Ben Kingsley. As Josh stares and stares at the pieces, struggling to unravel the puzzle, Kingsley’s character becomes increasingly impatient until he finally sweeps all the pieces off the board. He instructs Josh to solve the problem without seeing the pieces, a technique Josh later uses to win the film’s climactic match.

I often think of Ben Kingsley sweeping the pieces off the board when I find myself tangled in a part of a story that isn’t working, particularly if I have revisited the troublesome scene over and over again. In my experience, the more I have tried and failed to write a scene to my satisfaction, the harder it becomes to do so. Just like Josh, I find myself staring the pieces, at the characters and all their possible moves. I begin to believe if I just stare hard enough the correct order of events, the perfect string of dialogue, will emerge.

This is when it is time to sweep the pieces off the board. That is forget who is in the scene and what they must supposedly do. Instead I focus on where the story is before the troublesome scene, and where I believe it will be after, and I imagine what it should feel like to get from one place to the other. The point, after all, is not really the characters or what they are doing, but what it feels like when they do what they are doing. The feeling is always the true reality; the events are just metaphors to allow that feeling through.

Inevitably, after I have swept the pieces aside, they begin to come back one by one, as what works is often not all that different than what was not working. But I can never find a scene if I begin treating it like a jigsaw puzzle. After all, a jigsaw puzzle begins as a complete picture and then is cut apart so that we can have the pleasure of reassembling it. That picture revealed in the completed jigsaw puzzle is a portal to feeling. Your unwritten scene, however, is only a feeling looking for a picture. Feeling exists before all the metaphors we use to share them; to write disconnected from the feeling of a scene is like playing chess without knowing which piece you must capture to win, the pieces moving constantly but without purpose.

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