Learning Chess at Forty

Tom Vanderbilt:

My 4-year-old daughter and I were deep into a game of checkers one day about three years ago when her eye drifted to a nearby table. There, a black and white board bristled with far more interesting figures, like horses and castles. “What’s that?” she asked. “Chess,” I replied. “Can we play?” I nodded absently.

There was just one problem: I didn’t know how. I dimly remembered having learned the basic moves in elementary school, but it never stuck. This fact vaguely haunted me through my life; idle chessboards in hotel lobbies or puzzles in weekend newspaper supplements teased me like reproachful riddles.

And so I decided I would learn, if only so I could teach my daughter. The basic moves were easy enough to pick up—a few hours hunched over my smartphone at kids’ birthday parties or waiting in line at the grocery store. It soon became apparent, however, that I had no concept of the larger strategy. The chess literature was dauntingly huge, and achingly specific, with several-hundred-page tomes devoted to unpacking single openings. The endgame literature alone could drown a person.