30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.


The men at the giant chess board in Sydney's Hyde Park

I play chess.

I learnt chess in year 6, from my teacher Mr Creek. He was very good, and could play 6 of us kids at the same time. Sure we were amateurs, but that’s still pretty cool.

After that, I found some books from the library and read further. I picked up some strategies and learnt to read notation. For a while, I was hooked. Yes, I was that Chinese kid who played chess at lunch times. I blame school for encouraging this. And Nirvana were still a year away from kicking everyone’s ass.

I don’t really play anymore – only the occasional game with a friend. In my early 20s I flirted with online chess. Macs come with chess so sometimes I play chess as I’m watching some movie that I’m forcing myself to sit through.

I’m also nowhere near as good as I used to be. It’s that thinking-5-steps-ahead thing. It’s hard to think about one thing over and over in this era of information overload.

You see, here’s the thing I like about chess.

1) There are rules. Pieces can only move a certain way. There is a finite number of possibilities of what the next move can be. There may be many possibilities, but they are finite.

2) Next, each move leads to MORE possibilities.

3) For me, good chess is about limiting your opponents possibilities. Create places they can’t move. Pin pieces down. My moves should limit your moves.

So it’s almost like a video game. This wave of possibilities coming at you, and getting rid of them, almost like some first person shooter. That’s how I visualise it anyway.

Maybe that’s why I find chess so much more exciting than most people. It’s like a shoot-em-up video game in my mind.

I have a style. I have certain moves and a certain way I like to play.

A find this akin to playing guitar. I can hear some guitar players and think – hey, they play like me. Not that I watch many chess games, but I have a style and I could spot another player’s style as being different to mine.

For example – I will always go for a Queen’s sacrifice. I will take your Queen if it means losing my Queen. Because, I hate the Queen. Too many possibilities – it’s too powerful.

The rest you will find out when you play me.

I love the big chess set in Sydney’s Hyde Park. If you’ve never been, it’s a big public chess board near the fountain in the north end of the park. The pieces are maybe a metre high, and it’s always old men challenging eachother. (There are smaller chess boards nearby)

It’s so close to everything, and you could just sit there with some takeaway after a day of wandering around town. I’ve been to other public chess places – Union Square in NY is one of the more famous. Another cool one in Amsterdam near the start of Vondelpark. I like the vibe of these places. There is something old fashioned about it.

(Who goes to Amsterdam and finds the chess? I do. Loser.)

Nigel used to work for the city council, and was responsible for bringing the giant pieces to the Sydney chessboard every morning, and picking them up at 4:30 in the afternoon. I imagine this dude, with a ute full of chess pieces, driving around the busiest part of Sydney. What happens when the pieces get damaged or stolen? I need ask Nigel that one day.

I wonder if these places are dying out. You don’t see many young people in these places. Mostly old men. And, quite cool, mostly strangers. All they have in common in the game.

Like in most places I guess, Sydney had a bunch of regulars. And they were hilarious. There is one guy – a tall, Dutch looking guy – who was obviously the Cartman of the group. The Regulars would heckle him, and laugh at his bad moves. In a joking way – it was friendly heckling. But taking the piss out of your mates in public – that will never die out.

I tend to think of chess as a thing done in cold countries. I guess most of them, back when I was learning, were Russian with names like Karpov and Kasparov. I guess that’s why Bobby Fischer caused such a storm, being American and becoming world champion.

I played in a band that even had a song about Bobby Fischer. It was one of the most successful songs we had. I read a book about him once – he was a crazy bitter racist.

But chess is everywhere, right? Just in the last couple of years, I’ve seen it played in Lost, West Wing, Frasier, Flashforward etc. There’s Seventh Seal – where the Knight plays chess with Death. And then Bill and Ted ripped it off. There’s that scene in Charlie Wilson’s War where the weapon’s expert plays chess against several people. Or History of the World Part 1, where the King uses real people.

There are many famous chess players as well. Stanley Kubrick. Woody Allen. Bob Dylan. Schwarzenegger. It’s not just dorky young kids with thick glasses. Madonna does it too.

It’s everywhere. Catcher In the Rye. Harry Potter. I see one of those Twilight books has a chess piece on the cover. I know a lot of people who don’t play chess. I wonder why they never learnt? It’s fun – more fun than I’m making it out to be.

I don’t have any desire to see the musical Chess though. That looks shit.

The large Dymocks book store on George St has a basement full of games. Amongst them were chess boards. Some really nice, really expensive ones. I’ve always wanted to buy a proper one. I would walk past them all the time, see the price, then move on!

I have a little magnetic travel chess set. It does the job. Also, most computers come with chess these days, and I’ve even bought a decent chess game for my phone.

I’d like to get a proper one though. One day. And keep it out, all set up. Always in the middle of a game with someone from the other side of the world. Like I’m some sort of James Bond villain.

I just need someone to play with. I guess it’s something to bank when I’m old. I have many good friends who play. Maybe I’ll be writing about chess again when I’m 60.