Too Many Steps Ahead

Thinking about the next move could cost you

Imagine you are a chess player and you’re given a gift, where you can put any one of your pieces anywhere on the board. The possibilities would be boundless! There’s actually a chess strategy called the Christmas Present Game that’s a version of that gift. Once you have the piece and square in mind, you move your pieces to make it happen.

Not so very long ago, in a match at the National Scholastic Championship, I had that piece and that perfect square in mind. I wanted to put one of my awkwardly placed knights on an aggressive central square to constrict my opponent’s pieces and suffocate the space around his king. I meticulously orchestrated my pieces around the board until my knight finally came to a dominating position in my opponent’s territory. As I maneuvered my pieces around to make my plan come to fruition, my opponent was making seemingly senseless moves.

I remember imagining the plethora of annihilating attacking possibilities that came from having my knight in that position. From a devastating pawn storm, to a smooth smothered mate, I could barely keep count of the different winning scenarios I would possess once I put my pieces in place. With my dream scenario just over the horizon, I quickly developed each of my pieces so that they were poised for an assault. As I fit the final jigsaw piece into place by moving my knight to its outpost, I pressed the clock and smiled at the fact that all the pieces had finally come together to make the perfect setup for an attack.

“Rxh2+!!” My heart skipped a beat as I watched my opponent drag his dormant rook all the way across the board and check my king. Not once did I consider this move: a blatant sacrifice of one of his most valuable defending pieces. Dumbstruck by this huge sacrifice, my brain scrambled for a response to his surprise attack on my king. I tried my best to fend off the onslaught of checks. After a few moves, I stepped back and analyzed the position one more time. I realized that my supposedly dominating knight was but a piece of coal in a Christmas stocking compared to my opponent’s position, which was a mountain of presents under the Christmas tree.

The bombardment began, as my king attempted to scurry away to safety. Check after check, capture after capture, clock slam after clock slam, my opponent sent a volley of pieces directly at my king. It wasn’t long before the position looked like a flashback to the Alamo, with my king all alone in the center. With defeat in my heart, I finally surrendered and let my king fall just as my spirits had. That dream scenario I kept looking forward to suddenly became my worst nightmare.

Looking back at the game, I realize that all of those “purposeless” moves that my opponent made while I constructed my master plan weren’t so meaningless after all. I was so fixated on materializing that perfect position that I completely dismissed my opponent and didn’t see that he was already well prepared for my assault. My illusion of being a clairvoyant chess player was shattered by my lack of awareness at my bested position.

Though chess is largely about thinking one step ahead of your opponent, looking so many steps ahead just had me lost. I was enamored with the thought of outwitting my opponent, the thought of calculating just one move more than him, the thought of seeing more than he could. My opponent’s counterattack showed me just how dangerous the perils of strategy could be, that hidden within such enticing tactics are just as many traps that can undermine your whole plan.

I realized, after the fact, that maybe the strategy needs a slight name adjustment: It shouldn’t be the Christmas Present Game but the Christmas present game. In other words, if you spend all your energy dreaming of that future position—without focusing on the actual present moment—you’ll never have a gift to open.

Chu, a rising senior from Charlotte, is majoring in economics and psychology. A previous national scholastic chess champion, he is the former president of Duke’s Chess Club. He also enjoys playing music and soccer, and gaming with his three younger siblings.

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