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Check it out: Just a pawn trying not to get rooked

December 20, 2007|Liam Gowing

I felt no shame as I walked into the L.A. Chess Club's beginner class, a small gathering dominated by kids less than half my age, because it had been a long while since I'd played the game. In fact, the last time I'd played -- back in late 2001's winter of discontent -- had been the first time I'd played, and my teacher had been an unsettlingly odd fellow.

He was my good friend and then-roommate Josh, an enthusiastic and experienced player, who, feeling particularly gloomy one day, shot himself in the head. Fatally. In addition to acute heartache, I got a motorcycle, a Spacehog CD and a chessboard out of the incident, but I'd only gotten around to using the first two.

So it was nice that I got to start from scratch with L.A. Chess Club founder Mick Bighamian, a U.S. Chess Federation-rated senior master and a great instructor, on this Saturday in West L.A. Thoughtful enough to elucidate the historical origins of chess as he recounted its rules, Bighamian explained the composition of the board, the values and movements of the pieces, strategies for avoiding check and attacking an opponent, and even the names and configurations of classic moves and countermoves.

As I listened, I was subtly amazed at the implications and applications of the game in real life: the rigid right-angle movements of the militaristic rook; the spiritual diagonals of the bishop; the steeplechase-like zigzag of the equestrian knight. I was reminded of the wealth of metaphors culled from beginning, middle and endgame. And I was humbled by the game's most elemental restriction: One can never even unwittingly put one's king into check. In chess, at least, suicide is illegal.

Armed with such knowledge at the end of Bighamian's one-hour lesson, I found and paired off with an opponent -- a cocky 12-year-old tournament player named Dylan Reich. Jumping unapologetically behind the unfairly advantaged white army, Reich made the first move, the classic "e4." Already feeling outmaneuvered, I countered with the equally classic "what-the-heck-do-I-do-now?" opening.

I played defense most of the time, devoting little thought to an offensive strategy until quite late in the game. Unsurprisingly, the preteen Kasparov across the table soon had my king mortally pinned between his rook and his queen. But in the end, I felt pretty good about capturing his other rook, both bishops and knights, and a pair of pawns along the way.

Sometimes, you see, it's not whether you win or lose, or even how you play the game -- it's just that you play it.

-- Liam.Gowing@latimes.com

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BEGINNER/NOVICE CLASS @ L.A. CHESS CLUB

WHERE: 11514 Santa Monica Blvd., 2nd floor, West L.A.

WHEN: 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturdays

PRICE: First visit free, $5 per subsequent visit, $100 to $120 annual membership

INFO: www.lachessclub.com

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