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  • Writer's pictureBryan W. Conway

May 2023 Newsletter: Is Writing About Chess a Wise Gambit? ♟️👑

Hello readers,

When The Queens Gambit became a popular series on Netflix a few years ago, many were surprised at its mass appeal. After all, it was about a young woman mastering a methodical and often slow-moving game, chess.

Based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, the series details the journey of a young woman from a struggling orphan to a chess grandmaster. It is fiction but plays like true life. I read the book and watched the series, enjoying them both.

The Queen's Gambit sparked a newfound fascination with chess among millions of viewers, which is an amazing accomplishment in this technology obsessed age we live in. Asking a kid (and let’s be real, most adults under forty) to log off shoot’em up games like Fortnite or even look up from their phones for a sustained period of time to quietly play an abstract strategy game invented fifteen centuries ago is a tall order!

I especially enjoyed the series because chess has been an important game to me since childhood; I began playing when I was six years old. My great grandfather, an immigrant from Hungary with a legendarily high patience level, taught me how to play. He even hand carved a massive wooden chess set for me to use, which he knew would make it more interesting for me.

After a few years, I could beat the pants off most kids and hold my own against adults. My chess supremacy peaked in my elementary school’s fifth-grade chess club, where I went undefeated against all students, losing only to my instructor. In retrospect, this may have marked the peak of my intellectual firepower.

Then, for reasons I cannot recall, I stopped playing regularly. I didn’t completely quit chess; if I happened to be at a gathering with a chess set and a willing player, I played and enjoyed the experience. But after the game was over, I would forget about chess again and go on with my life.

International Play

A few notable exceptions were chess games while on vacation. I visited Europe in 2000, and while in Budapest, happened upon a park with multiple chess boards set up. I approached a young man seated in front of a board, and he explained that these were cash games. I asked how much, and I believe it was around five American dollars. I gave him the equivalent in Hungarian forints and sat down across from him.

After we made a few moves, I noticed his demeanor changed from serious to light-hearted. He quickly realized I was an easy mark for a pro who played money games all day, every day. He crushed me, I gave him my stack of coins, and I moved along. It was a great experience playing that game in a city where my great grandfather had once dwelled.

Another chess experience occurred while I was vacationing at a Caribbean resort in 2004. It was popular with European travelers, and the lobby had several chess sets located throughout.

Before dinner one night I sat before an empty table, awaiting a player. A teenage boy sat across from me and said a few words in French, which I didn’t understand. I asked if he spoke English. He frowned, stood up, and walked away! I guess he didn’t want to play an American, but who knows? I thought that was a shame, because chess was a common language we both understood.

I ended up playing a middle age Spanish speaking man. We barely communicated verbally throughout our game but enjoyed the match, having a few drinks while smiling, nodding, or wincing at the moves we made. We shook hands afterward and it felt like I had made a friend.

A Generational Game

Aside from those vacation experiences, I played very little chess for decades, until fatherhood and the smart phone converged to rekindle my interest.

Based on my own love of the game, I felt compelled to teach it to my two sons. Trust me, this was no easy task. I lacked my great grandfather’s carpentry skills to build them a set, but I did buy them a giant-size plastic set to teach them the game.

Today, they can both play, and while they never embraced it as intensely as I did as a kid, I am pleased that they know how to play. It is a connection to our past and an expression of my appreciation of the old-world culture my great grandfather grew up in.

Ironically enough, the smart phone was also integral in my rediscovery of chess, via the app. Is playing online as satisfying as playing in person? Not really, but close enough. I create open challenges for random players within my skill range, usually allowing three days per move. That seems to be optimal for busy people, allowing time to contemplate a move without the game dragging on forever.

If you are a chess player, friend me on, and let’s play!

Play me on!

Newsletter Transition to Substack

As you may have noticed, my newsletter is being distributed via Substack. This is a dynamic platform that can be used for more than just newsletters. As readers, I think you’ll find an abundance of interesting reading material on Substack without the constraints of platform censorship! My past newsletters are stored there, there is a chat feature, and it also provides a podcasting platform, which I may try at some point just for laughs! (To be clear, there is no need to create a Substack account to continue reading this newsletter via email).

Take care and see you in June!


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