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The Intellectual's Super Bowl: Knowing the Basics of Chess

02/06/2013 04:29 pm 16:29:47 | Updated Apr 08, 2013

The game of chess takes a lifetime to master and roughly fifteen minutes to kick your butt. Your sixteen pieces -- more on what they do in a minute -- move across the chessboard's sixty-four squares in a dizzying variety of ways. (If you're interested in exactly how many, take a moment and look up the "Shannon number," which is the estimated lower bound for the total number of legal chess moves. It's, uh, not small.) Chess masters think dozens of potential moves ahead, formulating strategy to not only parry your next attack, but the attack after that and the attack after that. Meanwhile you sit there and sweat, faint smoke dribbling from your ears as your brain grinds toward computational meltdown, anxious only to avoid a truly humiliating defeat.

The chessboard has long served as the intellectual's substitute for heading to war, or throwing on some pads and slamming into men the size of refrigerators for the rights to a pig-skin. Indeed, chess offers a key advantage over real-world combat: the thrill of victory, with none of the dirt, sweat, blood, pain, or ending up facedown in the mud. You can sip tea or take a break midway through the battle, should you choose.

Chess also exists as the purest form of intellectual competition this side of a university debate. Head to any major urban park on a sunny afternoon and find the chess hustlers on the benches, decimating all challengers willing to slap down a five-dollar bill. No matter what your profession or salary, a game or two will expose your true aptitude for strategy and abstract thinking. Which is why, if you move in intellectual circles, sooner or later you could find yourself on the other side of the checkered board from an opponent. Be prepared.

Putting This Theory Into Practice

By manipulating various pieces -- pawns, rooks (castles), knights, a queen and a king, each of which can move only in specified patterns -- the players try to anticipate and counter each other's strategy. (Numerous books offer a more intensive breakdown of the game's rules, including champion Bobby Fischer's Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess.)

The ultimate goal is to place your opponent's king in checkmate, preventing it from moving in any direction without running into another piece's attack radius. For most players, this means decimating their opponent's pieces until the king is left isolated.

In order to reach that point, a game usually progresses in three stages:

Opening: Central to a successful set of opening moves is controlling the center of the board, and protecting your king from any stupid mistakes.

Middle Game: The messy part, involving strategies and counter-strategies.

Endgame: The grand finale, in which the few surviving pieces jockey for position. The king is more exposed and at risk.

No matter how savvy your skills, you will face eventual defeat. Even Garry Kasparov, a chess grandmaster of such intimidating skill his mere glance could make a lesser chess player break down and weep, lost to a glorified toaster named Deep Blue. The key is to lose with grace. Or as Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1779, as part of The Morals of Chess: "If the game is not to be played rigorously ... then moderate your desire of victory over your adversary, and be pleased with one over yourself." But you still owe that chess hustler his five bucks.

And the Inevitable Footnote...

There are none. To decline a game of chess with another intellectual is tantamount to a nineteenth-century warrior-poet backing down from a battle or duel, or a football team refusing to take to the field right before kickoff. At least with chess, you can lose and survive to learn from the experience.

Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.