Birds of Fortuity and the King’s Gambit

On my recent holiday I spent a few days in Sarajevo, and stopped by to watch the games of chess, which had given me the inspiration for the title of this blog. It wasn’t snowing (thankfully), but I did manage to snap some photos of the scene. It’s gotten me thinking about chess again, as well.

There’s a theme in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being about “Birds of Fortuity.” The image Kundera conjures is that of birds alighting on St. Francis of Asisi’s shoulders, and he likens that idea to the chain of events which lead to another event or a meeting between people. Kundera talks about the birds of chance that alight enabling Tomas and Tereza’s meeting. Tomas was in Tereza’s village for some reason to do a surgery, and happened to go to the cafe she worked in, when she was working her shift. He was staying in room number 6, which was, coincidentally, the time that she got off work. He sat down randomly on the park bench she normally sits down on. It’s been a while since I read it, and I think there are a few others, but you get the basic idea. She eventually winds up on his doorstep and their fates are bound.

And we all do this, we all look back on certain important events in our lives and look for the connections. There’s something very beautiful about looking back and realizing all of the little things that came together for you to arrive at a certain point. Kundera says: It is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty. But it’s not always chance that drives these encounters or events; it’s not the gods deciding our fates indiscriminately, but the ramifications of the tiniest of decisions we make snowballing through time. I believe the basic idea of Karma is related to this as well. Every action that you make sets things in motion, and Karma is not the simple immediate effect from a cause, but rather, the whole series of effects emanating from an original cause, that ever growing snowball. Actions set the wheel in motion, and samsara is that cycle, and moksha is release from the cycle.

I am getting a bit off topic. I like to think about these things. To lend my life that dimension of beauty, yes? How one thing I did led to a brief encounter which led to making some other decisions which led me down such-and-such path which made me interested in going down another path, which led, to this, etc. And it’s easy in retrospect. It’s more difficult as you’re going along, how as you’re making those tiny day to day decisions, you’re setting your course in life.

So there’s the one mental image of the blizzard, blowing snowflakes wildly about. A dancing, swirling chaos of confusion, of millions of different particles just being blown blindly every which way. we’re all being blown in different directions and none of us know where the hell we’re going, and there’s not much we can do about it. Then there’s Kundera’s birds of fortuity, when you sort of settle down, maybe the wind dies down, and you’re able to sit back and assess. Let’s see, how have I been blown about to this point? Ah yes, there’s the path. These are the random chance encounters that have all led to this present reality. And then there’s chess.

The game, and players who are good at it, fascinate me. There are thousands of possibilities for how a game can work itself out. You inevitably make mistakes, sacrifices, poor moves. But this doesn’t matter, because you don’t play against a computer, so there is no perfect way to play the game. You just come into the game better prepared, or with a better understanding of how one move affects the game, a few moves down the line. How a pawn move now can win you a queen in six moves, how sacrificing your knight wins you a rook in three moves, or how taking his pawn actually forks your rook and queen, and that’s not a good move at all, is it? No, don’t want to do that…

My chess game is improving. The Expert says that I’m no longer horrible at the game. He says that I’ve improved to the level of very bad. Soon I will be a bad player, then I might improve to be only mildly embarrassing. This is as far as I can hope for now.

He’s been teaching me the King’s Gambit when I’m white, and some defense when I’m black. I forget the name of the one that I’ve been working on. Both of what I’m working on are ways of attacking like a madman, of sacrificing pieces for good control of the board. Taking charge, even if you don’t really know what you’re doing. These are great, because they result in either spectacular victories I didn’t know I was capable of, or spectacular defeats that leave me banging my head against the wall.

The Expert tells me you can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she plays chess. Very methodically and slowly, thinking a lot, and developing pieces slowly before going into a well thought out attack. Or attacking with all your pieces out there, without realizing they’re all under attack and none of them are adequately defended.

I think the King’s Gambit and other courageous, wild attacks suit me well. Blindly charging forward without doing much groundwork for support. I don’t stick my pawns behind my rooks well enough, and only realize this after I’ve realized I really need those rooks in place, because my pawns are under attack. Delaying graduate school applications and missing deadlines. Figuring that I know enough about x, I studied it, I don’t need to prepare extensively for an interview! I’ve read lots of books! Or figuring that I don’t need to have a well written CV, because that doesn’t say much about me! Why should I put my achievements on there, those are silly! They’ll hire me because I’m a decent guy. Anyone who had coffee with me would realize that! And then I realize: hmm… maybe should have sent in a few more job/grad school applications, maybe should have prepared for that interview, maybe should have fixed my CV before sending it in… Where are those bloody rooks when I need them?! Of course this move didn’t work, not enough birds have alighted on St. Francis’s shoulders for it to make sense! It would be like Tereza going to Prague to meet Tomas if he had never gone to her bar in that village! The whole story falls apart now! Incompetent fool, put your rooks behind those bloody pawns!

The Expert berates me for making my moves too fast. Just the other day, I was about to win a game of real chess, against a real person, in our depressing khinkhali cafe across the street from the dormitory, against the dormitory IT guy. I had all sorts of good pieces in position, victory was imminent, imminent I tell you! I’ve never won a game of real chess with real pieces and a real board. But I really had to pee, so I wasn’t thinking straight. So when he made what looked like a senseless move to me, I didn’t realize that he had attacked my queen, so I did nothing about it and carried along with my valiant attack. I lost my queen. I cried out in agony over this foolish oversight. Both of my rooks were lost soon after. IT guy and the random old Georgian in the cafe guy laughed. Well, Steve, once again, your inability to think for two minutes about what’s going on on the board has lost you a game you should have won. Argh, I couldn’t believe it! I was so close! You frequently get yourself in good position, but then you never do anything with it, and forget about it, and don’t realize when your opponent has attacked it.

Despite this humiliating defeat, I am improving. I must schedule a rematch. My online record is now up to 11 and 40. This is only in 10 minute chess, though. I haven’t won any of the day long games. Partly because I don’t have the patience to think about moves for a whole day, and partly because the Great Internet Blackout of Kutaisi made me lose a few games because I couldn’t get online. But I am improving. One of these days I might be up to that less embarrassing stage…

Does this mean I’m getting better at shunting pawns behind rooks in real life, too? I’m not sure about that just yet. Probably not. It seems to me that I’m always blindly attacking forward, horribly unprepared. Wild, mad, hack attacks. But, as the Expert says, that’s what makes the game interesting. You could just play regular defend, attack, defend, attack games, but that gets a bit boring. It’s a lot more fun to attack wildly and risk a hilarious defeat, with the hope that your wild attack will fill your opponent with the fear that you really know what you’re doing, and in their panic, they make a mistake, and you succeed.

Which is hilarious when it works, because you still don’t really know what you’re doing, and then you’re amazed at how the successive moves progress. These are the joys of attacking wildly, of making mad hacks through life, and then reflecting on that hidden beauty of it all.

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