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A love letter to... Chess

It's been around for thousands of years, and is played by millions of people around the world – including historical figures such as Napoleon, Lenin and John Wayne. Thanks to the internet, chess has never been more accessible. Here's why you should take it up... 

Why you should play chess

Let’s start off this article by blowing your mind.

There are more possible move variations in a game of chess than there are atoms in the known universe.

American mathematician Claude Shannon calculated the number of potential chess games to be somewhere between 10^111 and 10^123; by comparison, the universe’s observable atom count stands at a paltry 10^81.

OK, so these are fairly abstract numbers. Try this one. After ten moves of a chess game - still very much in the ‘opening’ phase - there are 69,352,859,712,417 possible games that could have been played. A chessboard is more than just a flat surface; those 64 black-and-white squares are the gateway to infinity.

However, you can also nobble a novice in four moves, and totally get a kick out of it – at least for the first few games. (Black can theoretically win a game in two moves, but that requires a mightily weird opening from White. Still, it happens. Infinity offers no shortage of variation.)

As legendary player Gary Kasparov says in his MasterClass trailer, "Chess is a game of unlimited beauty – but it's not just checks and attacks. You have to be creative."  

The most famous move in chess history was played by a 13-year-old. Facing the formidable American master Donald Byrne in what would be dubbed The Game Of The Century, the prodigious Bobby Fischer sacrificed his queen to trigger a dizzying sequence of moves, as suffused with grace as they were devoid of mercy, that ended with the inevitable skewering of Byrne’s king.

After the match, Fischer claimed, “I just got lucky.” Nonsense, as he well knew. Chess may be the purest form of competition in existence. You cannot benefit from favourable conditions, a fortunate bounce, an officiating blunder; there is no such thing as the rub of the board or playing the moves you are dealt. There are 32 pieces on 64 squares, and you, and your opponent. The variations are all but incalculable, but the intangibles number zero.

An adult Fischer would defeat the Soviet world champion Boris Spassky in the Match of the Century: a 21-game struggle that served as a surrogate battlefield of the Cold War, capturing the public imagination as much as any sporting contest before or since. Don’t believe me? Check out the brilliant documentary Bobby Fischer Against The World, which spectacularly conveys both the scale and the drama of this epic event. (One example of many: after losing the first game, Fischer literally didn’t show up for the second, and looked set to forfeit the entire match.)

Fischer may be the greatest chess player of all-time – Kasparov and current world champion Magnus Carlsen are his two obvious rivals – but he is far from the most famous player of chess. Both Lenin and Napoleon were keen amateurs. So was Stanley Kubrick, Humphrey Bogart, Leon Tolstoy and John Wayne. If there’s an afterlife, the chess club has one hell of a members’ list.

And with good reason. After all: “Chess teaches foresight, by having to plan ahead; vigilance, by having to keep watch over the whole chess board; caution, by having to restrain ourselves from making hasty moves; and finally, we learn from chess the greatest maxim in life - that even when everything seems to be going badly for us we should not lose heart, but always hoping for a change for the better, steadfastly continue searching for the solutions to our problems.”

That would be Mr Benjamin Franklin, a vocal believer in the mental and spiritual benefits of chess – as is former heavyweight world champion Lennox Lewis, who exercises his mind with daily games. There is evidence that chess stimulates brain growth, improves IQ and memory, and helps prevent Alzheimer's. Plus, as our attention spans are whittled down and our minds become more fractured, any activity that requires sustained concentration on a physical object should be pursued as much as possible.

I say physical… There’s no doubt that chess is best played with an opponent across the table and a board between you, but the internet has opened up the game to millions of people across the globe. Websites such as the peerless chess.com offer a vast array of features to help budding chess enthusiasts, including tutorials, puzzles, and, most valuable of all, the chance to hone your skills against players of a similar ability - all completely free.

Don’t have several hours to spare? Not a problem. Most games are timed, with players having, say, ten minutes to complete all their moves before they automatically forfeit. Don’t matter if you’re one move away from mate: if your time’s up, the only thing you’re taking is the L. While you ideally want to triumph through skill alone, there is a visceral thrill in desperately fending off enemy attacks as the seconds tick down to their doom. Serves them right for dawdling over their (admittedly effective) opening.

Chess.com has more than 30 million members worldwide, and unsurprisingly its traffic has soared over the past few weeks. (These people should get out more. Oh wait...) Sign up and wage war against a fellow human in lockdown on the other side of the planet - or possibly just across the road. Once this is all over, you can go to New York and lose to the hustlers in Washington Square. For now, sit down with a few beers and your housemate / partner / imaginary friend, and commit atrocities to their queen flank. The possibilities really are endless.

Play the game at Chess.com