Friday, October 2, 2009

Chess At Work

I’ve been playing a coworker, Jim, in chess for almost a year now. It all started when I brought in a cheap chess set and put it in our Fun room at work (now called the “Ideation” room… because they took out the air hockey table and other fun stuff). I moved my piece and waited to see if someone else would move one from the other side. Jim took the bait and the game began. For the longest time we didn’t know we were playing each other, but we eventually figured it out before the end of the game.

Now Jim, you must realize, is an ornery old fart. In fact, every time he would come over to talk trash about the current game (I talked plenty of trash of my own), he would greet the rest of my team (all in our early 30s) as “hello boys, and I do mean BOYS.” He said this every time without fail. At first I wasn’t sure if he was referring to age or gender, but eventually realized he was touting his seniority.
Over the course of a few months, we played a number of games that took a few weeks each. We would usually make just a few moves per day. The “your move” marker was (and still is) a plastic knife we borrowed from the kitchen. The other side of the knife is used for “check.” The pieces would get re-arranged from time to time so we moved the board from the Fun/Ideation room over to my area (Jim was on the other side of the building). Eventually, my team moved over to his side and we kept the board at a cube between us.

After a few more months of playing, my manager (who is actually pretty cool) let me know that someone complained that they saw someone playing, gasp, a GAME at work and that it was unprofessional (even though we pretty much never have clients in our area). This was actually pretty funny because only a few moves are made each day and usually while walking to another part of the building. It was even funnier because in the Fun room you could hear the TV, air hockey, and ping pong games in progress from time to time and that could actually be considered distracting. However, that was recently resolved when it changed to the Ideation room. To eliminate the appearance of slacking, we move the board to a lower profile area and developed an elaborate system to signal the other player when it is their turn. Ok, so the “elaborate system” involves a paper Krispy Kreme Donuts hat and a thumb tack, but I digress…

A few months ago, Jim had a heart-attack and needed emergency surgery. Thankfully he pulled through and is pretty much back to normal now. The situation was pretty scary though and everyone is glad to have him back. (Another gentleman who was interviewing for a job here had suffered a heart attack not long ago and actually died in the building.) Jim was out of the office for several weeks during his recovery and as he got better he could come in a few times a week for a few hours. I really missed playing and ended up purchasing an electronic chess set so that I could still keep a game going. (Jim also had an electronic board that he had been using before we started playing, but he bought his back in the ‘80s.)

We’ve played a few games since Jim has come back full time and he won the first one. Since we began playing last year, I’ve won most of the games and his recent victory was quite devastating. I somehow managed to move a piece that was protecting my queen and he swooped in to take her. It was all downhill after that and he crushed me without mercy. He was so excited he even took a picture of me holding my fallen king and looking quite defeated. He made this picture his desktop image and printed out to display by the board. With his new confidence, he even started keeping score on a white board near the game.

I ended up winning the game after that. It became quite exciting (as exciting as chess can be) near the end because we had both lost and re-gained our queens and then I whittled him down to just a pawn and his king.

We started a new game and the opening was pretty much normal. However, once we started getting into the meat of the game, he started taking out my major pieces left and right and I couldn’t seem to do anything about it. This went on for a few rounds and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I was thinking a few moves ahead, but he kept putting me into positions where I had to decide which piece I wanted to give up. I walked over to his desk to let him know it was his turn and said “Hey Jim, it’s your turn… I’m not sure how I keep losing pieces, you are killing me man! It doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to come back from this one.” I happened to look down at the electronic board on his desk and noticed that the piece placement looked awfully familiar. I examined it more closely and realized that it was exactly the same as the game we were playing… BUSTED!

Even after he admitted cheating, Jim wanted to keep playing so I did. I assumed he meant that he would finish the game without using his electronic board, but I later found out that this was not the case. He crushed me further and then we started a new game. This time, we decided to pit both of our electronic boards against each other: his steam powered, vacuum tube, set from the ‘80s against my newer Excalibur Einstein Chess Wizard. Mine may not be the top of the line in our modern times, but I would think it can beat his relic.

We set up the board. I would be white and he would be black because his electronic set does not have a setting to allow black to go first. We cranked up our difficulty levels as high as they would go and started the game. The opening was pretty straight forward with pawns and knights fighting for the middle. Once that was done though, my set acted like it was hung. I had to pull out the instructions and ended up pressing the “move” command to get it to move. I found out that when it is thinking, it can take a while if it is set on “infinite.” For my next move I decided to let it think as long as it took. About 18 hours later I was working on something hear an obnoxious buzzer sound. This is the same sound it makes when you try to make an invalid move, but apparently it also means “ok, I’m done thinking now, here is your next move.”

Currently, the game is dead-even with both of us capturing two pawns and a knight from the other player. The game will take significantly longer than the previous ones because the delay in computer thinking is limiting us to about one move per day. My board is battery powered and retains the game information even if the power is turned off. Jim’s, however, requires an AC outlet so if the power goes out he’s toast. We are scheduled to move cubicles in the near future so hopefully we can finish the game before then or he can keep his board at the old desk. On the other hand, if he starts beating me, I could always “accidentally” shut the power off to his board. ;-)

Stay tuned for the outcome…

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