My first encounter with chess came when my mother bought my father a replica of an old chess set from the Isle of Skye—or some Scottish island where the Vikings once raped and pillaged and drank fresh milk by burning huts. The chessmen looked like they were made from ivory, but, really, though it was not a cheap set, I suspect they were made from wood. The pawns, the white pawns, looked like little gravestones with Celtic markings on the front in place of an epitaph. The black set—which, strangely, was actually brown—had pawns like little bullets or pepper shakers. The noblemen had very circular eyes that made them look extremely surprised or, perhaps, horrified at what they were confronting. It must be hard to be a chess piece, since the war never ends; then again, after a certain age, we all learn that the war never ends.
I played chess with my father. My mother would try to play chess with me, but she never understood the rules. This is a game for men. It is a game of strategy. The word strategy comes from the Ancient Greek for “general”; so it is all pretty self-explanatory, women do not become generals—except, perhaps, as nurses. Women do not need to look before they leap, a key virtue of chess and, for that matter, war. So I played with those heavy chessmen on a deep brown board and everything felt very Nordic. My mind was being trained in how to think five or six steps ahead; and all men need to think like that. We also need to consider deceptions and feints. In chess, however, there is no scope for escape. There is no retreat in chess, except in theory, since, as I soon discovered, the constraints of the game do not allow you to dally about the board with a bishop or a queen. Life is more forgiving in that respect; we are usually allowed an exit.
When I was young the war was the Gulf War and the chess set sat next to the television where I watched daily updates about the war before going to school. My mother worried over the papers from the government, the papers that said she, a former nurse, might soon be needed to deal with the hundreds of thousands of men mauled by Iraq’s chemical weapons. A woman’s true place in war is and always was in removing the cotton pads from sightless eyes and swabbing the yellow ooze of wounds, a gift given up by the scorched earth of a man’s skin.
So, in fact, my real chess set, since my father did not play so often, was on the computer. The real war was on the screen and my real chess set was on my father’s computer, a redundant model on permanent loan from the office. It was here I played, courtesy shareware, a game of chess where the pawns were real little men and the castles enchanted creatures, brutes made of bricks, who hulked across the screen. It was here I saw a suggestion of sex; each animated piece killed the other—nothing was “taken” on the computer—in its own little animated dance. When the queen took a piece—the king, in particular—she showed a little electronic leg, in crude red, burnt as if under an Iraqi sun, and then she stabbed the man to death. I suppose this was an early warning about women, but I did not take it.
No, instead, with childish credulity, I would type into the computer a short request: “Please, don’t take my knight. Please, don’t mate me.” The computer, knowing only logic, the logic of strategy, paid my blind typing no mind. So, I suppose, when I played against the computer, never, I am afraid, beating it, for my intelligence is not so quick, I learned something of the world I was to inhabit: not a nordic world, but a world of logic.