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Saturday, 26 June 2010

Chess players are divided roughly between the tacticians, such as Tal, and the strategists, like Karpov. A tactician essentially lives in the present, looking for complications in a position he arrives at fairly intuitively. A strategist manipulates the flow of the game while looking at the bigger picture, seeking often to smother his opponent. A great tactician can win when he has sacrificed his queen and rooks, whereas a great strategist can win a game through the placement of a single pawn. It is essentially brilliance versus subtlety, the possibilities of a moment versus a vision of the future.

Writers are much the same. A prose stylist like Joyce has the sharp weapons of description and epigram at his disposal, whereas the story-teller like James has both plotting and psychology. Of course in chess one must have a strategic understanding to extract the potential of a situation, just as one must have a tactical understanding in order to implement one's long-term plans. I argue that writers and chess-players may be divided along the same lines. The experience of reading a chess game or a novel by a tactician exists in the thrill of a moment, in which the whole thing threatens to fall apart: whereas with the strategist one is most impressed by the harmony, which builds to an often predictable but satisfying conclusion.

I am by nature a tactician. I have little patience for the long haul, and it is my love of problem solving that makes me look at things in microcosm - I value pure chess above the perfect game, and beautiful words above flawless novels. The vast majority of writers and chess players will always be story-tellers, because stylists like Kerouac and Nezhmetdinov are in need of constant inspiration, and it is true that one's powers fade faster. My play, like my writing, has often been criticised as "unsound", mostly by the type of person who is certain that one should never use the same adjective twice, or allow a doubled pawn.

I haven't yet found the conviction to allow my talents to blossom, instead often compromising my natural abilities to accommodate others' advice. A tactician who wastes moves shoring up his defence simply becomes a blunt instrument -- so, too, has my attempt to project a plot over my words often led me into the realms of cliche. I must be allowed to fail in experiments, in a fashion frankly more embarrassing than if I were to take the well-trodden routes of safety and common sense. I will certainly always be an amateur chess player, and probably an amateur writer too, but my complex relationship with both activities has always been supported by my conviction that both have much to teach me about life.


  1. Aha! Good point. I identify with the strategists, although as you say it costs flexibility.

    Still trying to decide if S. Africa should have learned from the West to the extent of doing liberation a la French Revolution. Good argument there, though th epost was about 'borrowing what I like' which conveniently allows me to ignore the things I don't!

  2. This post was over-long, and less than inspired. My apologies for that. Yes, I seem to have dragged you off-topic into a rant about things that annoy me. You'll see I have a talent for that.