I learned how to play chess as a kid and got pretty good at it, soon able to beat most of my friends. A sprained right knee in eighth grade and a dislocated left knee as a high school freshman put me smack dab into the school chess team. No injuries here except maybe a headache from thinking too hard. I remember focusing on the game intensely, spending hours studying the Ruy Lopez opening, The Sicilian Defense, The King’s Gambit. Such were the tasks learned to improve one’s game.
I studied the mid-game, and the end game and then the games of the masters. But it’s a curious thing to study grandmaster level chess. It is played at such a high level. The lines of play are well known, studied and analyzed twenty moves deep. Positions are scrutinized for any possible advantage. And so, as you study a chess game played on this level, you witness a curious thing. On move 37 white wins a pawn…black resigns. What? I remember being dumbfounded. Why would a player resign after a bobble such as this? What a coward! But no, the decision was praised by fellow players. One can almost see them hovering over the board.
“Clearly a wise decision by black because in five moves white will win another pawn and then the game becomes unwinnable for black.”
I remember being a little discouraged by the game at that point. Optimistic determination lost out to intelligent pessimism.
And now, consider another game – basketball.
On March 26, 2011, the Portland Trailblazers were playing the San Antonio Spurs. With 1:21 left in the game, the Spurs were ahead 96 to 90. Clearly a bad place to be even for an optimist from Portland. Though Portland didn’t give up, it still didn’t look good. After a quick rally, Portland added four more to their score. Now, down two points, Nicholai Batum of the Blazers was fouled and made both free throws, tying the score – Ball to the Spurs. Give up, right? No. The spurs threw it out of bounds leaving 0.9 seconds on the clock. The score was 96-96. Nice, but what can you do, except possibly send the game into overtime. There is simply no time for the win. Wrong again. Andre Miller throws an Alley Oop inbound pass into Batum. He catches at the basket, dropping it in before the clock expires. The Spurs are stunned, the crowd goes wild. It was a feel good ending too good to make it into the final cut of a movie because it was simply too improbable. But the attitude was a slam dunk. Never give up, even when things look dire. Maybe it looks like a good idea to cut your losses and move on, but the difference between wining and losing is so very small. Chess or basketball – you choose. I pick basketball.