Beginnings

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Here’s a thing I’d like to remember:

Back when I was twelve I got some of my best advice yet from a guy down the street named Carl. This was in seventh grade, but let’s flash back to sixth grade. My school had a legitimate homeroom–twenty-five minutes at the beginning of the day to do administrative tasks or, usually, bullshit. We played a lot of chess in my homeroom, and I was the king. I could beat the pants off those kids and still have time to brag about it before the bell rang for first period.

But between sixth and seventh grade my family moved across town. Carl lived down the street with his new wife, Shazia, and their two little dogs, Oscar and Felix. Carl was downright smarter than me. When we played chess, he said almost nothing except maybe to ask if I’d like more water. He was silent, pondering, and brutal. We played dozens of times; I never came close to checkmating him.

Then one day we’re playing, and the game, maybe six moves in, is looking like every other game Carl and I had played. I was trying to mount some clumsy offense, but there was nowhere to attack. Carl would get the better of any exchange. I could spend a few moves shuffling my advance to a different diagonal, but Carl had a way of seeing these things ahead of time; he’d shift accordingly and have his knights threatening my queen before I could begin the attack from the new line. And already I was feeling the heat of his own advance–he had an uncanny knack for getting knights and bishops into controlling spots on the board. I was stumped.

I’m about to make my move. It wasn’t a fantastic move, but it wasn’t an awful move either. I wasn’t sure how Carl was planning to attack, so I figured I’d at least move forward with my own plans. Once my bishops crashed into his second row, I’d have him pinned. I move my piece, but keeping my fingers on it. No move is official until you let go of the piece completely. Just as I’m about to take my hand off, Carl says, “Wait.”

I’m not sure why he chose that moment to say something. I can’t remember the date; maybe it was Cinco de Mayo and he was drunk on tequila. Maybe his wife had yelled at him to let me win once, as a confidence-boosting measure. Or maybe he’d just had enough of winning without having to try that much. For whatever reason, he said, “Dan, you probably thought that was a good move. Now ask yourself: Is there a better move?”

I thought, Hell, I don’t know.

I thought some more, then took my hand off the piece. Carl’s next move came quickly after and left me in even more dire straits than before. How the hell did he pick his move so assertively? It’s like he knew what I was going to do before I did it. We played the game out, and he beat me without much trouble. Some advice, old man.

The weeks passed. We played more games, Carl always winning. I kept thinking about his advice. How was I supposed to pick a better move when I didn’t know what Carl was going to do? I knew I had to do something different, because Carl had no trouble predicting my game, but how did he know my moves before I did?

Sometimes answers takes a little time to ripen, like a tomato. All day I kept my chess questions in my paper bag of a brain, letting the summer sun warm them, until one day the answer hit me like a produce truck: Carl knows my moves because I play a predictable game. From the first move of the game, he’d see my move, consider how best I could continue that strategy, and adjust his to counter it. I never responded to his adjustments until it was too late, and I lost every game.

It took a while, but eventually the games got closer. It took me a long time to realize the best move against Carl was often the one that lead to the greatest uncertainty. My strategies changed slowly to adopt this principle. Before his advice, I’d often try to send enough pieces against one side of his defense to eventually take more of his pieces than I lost, hoping this would give me an upper hand in the later game. But now I realized Carl would see this kind of attack coming turns in advance, and simply swing around the open portions of the board to a quick checkmate. My new attacks became devious. Rather than pick one attack, I’d push the early stages of the game as long as possible, setting up as many attacks as I could, keeping Carl guessing about which route I might eventually take.

Forcing Carl to retreat was one of my proudest achievements in middle school. I don’t remember the details of the game, but I remember, at last, thinking I had the game under control. I wasn’t sure what would happen in the next few moves, but finally neither did Carl; he had to abandon his own strategy now to deal with my weasel-like moves. Before I made good moves. Now I sought the better move.

A year or two after high school, I’d learn the proper word for Carl’s advice. The Japanese have a game we Americans know as Go. It’s a game of territory, with stones marking yours and your opponent’s. There’s an area on the edge of your territory, always shifting but forever important. It’s not truly your territory until you fully connect stones to it, but it’s where the game changes. It’s known as “moyo“, which is Japanese for framework. The expert Go players know that it doesn’t matter if their territory shrinks or expands; it’s their moyo that truly matters. The present is important, yes, but it’s the future, the soon-to-be-arriving future, that dictates how the game will develop. Carl might not have known it by name, but in asking about the better move, he was teaching me to develop the best moyo, the best framework from which to effect a plan.

The guy who taught me about Go told me I had good moyo. But then he also thought my name was Marty.

Now looking for the best means–maintaining good moyo–just seems like good policy. I’m 27, with a law degree and a boatload of adventure under my belt, and it’s never served me wrong. But perhaps not everyone learned the same lessons I did growing up. I think of my classmates in law school who spent so much time outlining, which on that planet meant retyping half the words in your textbooks. I don’t deny that it worked for them, but I wonder if those classmates of mine ever asked, “Is there a better way to do this?” I don’t think many did.

I skipped the outlines and did just fine. Thanks to excellent moyo, no doubt. And for that, I owe a great thanks to Carl.

This is the first post on this WordPress blog. I write because, like the first line here says, there are some things I’d rather not forget. I’m going to keep adding ideas here until I’m satisfied.

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