Despite the fact that at 37 years of age I had never set my eyes on an actual chessboard, I managed to develop a fascination with the game by the time 2020 was drawing to an end. For no reason other than sheer ignorance I had always viewed chess as being a pursuit for lonely nerds who had nothing better to do with their time, though really, wasn’t that all of us this year? It was the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit that was responsible for me re-examining my views on chess. The series tells the story of a young girl in an orphanage who begins to play chess with the janitor in the basement, and it turns out that she has a natural gift for it. As she grows older, Beth battles with addiction to the tranquillizer pills she was given each day in the orphanage and a dependency on alcohol, as well as a string of broken relationships, all while becoming a successful chess prodigy. The show was mesmerising, both for Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance and the tense scenes portraying the game of chess. I couldn’t help but want to learn how to play, and let’s face it, it’s not like I had anything else to be doing.
Playing online seemed my best option since I wasn’t yet interested enough to spend any kind of money, and the website chess.com had everything I was looking for. There were tutorial videos for beginners which explained the basics of the game, alongside a vast library of lessons that expanded on many of the principles and theories of chess. Users could get some practice in against a variety of computer bots of different difficulties, which is where I decided to start. For absolute novices like me there was an option to play with assistance, where the app would offer a few suggested moves each turn and warn you if any of your pieces were in danger. After the opening move, the system would tell you that you had made the Réti Opening or the King’s Gambit, which sounded impressive, but really, after a couple of weeks of playing the game this way, I wasn’t any wiser at what I was doing.
Frequently once I had moved a piece a yellow “inaccuracy” notice would flash up on the screen, which presumably meant that I wasn’t following the book opening through its natural course. Sometimes the app would tell me that I had made a “mistake”, which was accompanied by an ominous sound. If I had made a really terrible move I would be reprimanded in red lettering with the word “blunder!” It seemed harsh to have my inadequacies pointed out in such blunt terms, the sort of thing I might ordinarily hear if I was being given a running commentary on my approach to attempt conversation with a woman in a bar. Every now and again I would beat the computer bot and it would feel good, but effectively it was like riding a bicycle with the stabilisers on: I knew that I was getting somewhere, but I didn’t really understand how. Whenever I would take the stabilisers off and play a game without any assistance, I would fall flat on my face. Since I preferred occasionally winning, I continued to learn how to play the game with the assistance on.
I was forced to keep my new-found interest in chess in check for a couple of days as we celebrated the Christmas festivities. Our family kept things reasonably as normal within the restrictions of the time, though dad decided that with him likely being in line to receive the vaccine within months it would be foolish to take the risk of spending five or six hours indoors with the rest of us, which made sense. Who would want to risk being in our company at the best of times? I asked myself. My sister hosted Christmas once again, but before that my brother and I visited on Christmas Eve for a trial run of sorts – or, as our sister’s partner put it, to find out to what extent we could all handle mixing our drinks. Our niece was drunk on the seasonal spirits of another sort, hyper from the imminent arrival of Santa Claus. Before bed-time, she was keen to organise a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for our jolly visitor, along with a carrot for Rudolph, which was placed on the step outside. Upstairs, in secretive tones, we considered why it was that Santa always left behind a little crumb from the offerings laid out for him. Would the whole ruse really fall apart if Santa started to eat every morsel of food left for him on plates around the world?
We drank glasses of pink gin followed later by large Jack Daniels and Cokes as we looked to prepare ourselves for the big day ahead, sort of like putting a military unit through a series of intensive drills before sending them off into battle; there’s little point in going to war if you don’t know what to expect. The four of us played the 8 years+ version of the board game Cards Against Humanity, which was more family-friendly than the regular variant, whilst a true-crime documentary about a child abducting sect in Australia played on the television in the background. Nobody could say that we didn’t know how to party. I seemed to be excelling at the 8 years+ pack of Cards Against Humanity, picking up more cards than I usually would, having perhaps finally found my level of maturity.
It was sometime around midnight, while we were talking about the vivid dreams we had had and my brother’s experiences with sleepwalking that the door creaked open and my niece shuffled into the room, bleary-eyed, and announced that she had been downstairs and seen that there were presents underneath the Christmas tree. Santa had been. I didn’t have a clue what a parent would do in that moment when even as a bystander I was filled with panic. It was down to my sister to talk her excited girl down from her hype, and I think she eventually had to get into bed with her to make sure that she would go back to sleep and stay in bed so that she could save Santa’s spoils for the morning. I had never seen a bank robber go to all the trouble of planning the perfect heist, studying the schematics of the property and making sure that they knew the exact time when the guards would be drunk and deeply involved in their card game, only to go and turn himself in when all that is left to do is open the vault and help himself, but somehow I think it wouldn’t look all that different to the scene on Christmas Eve. I thought back to my games on chess.com and imagined that my niece had gotten into a position where she had the opposition king in check, only to decide to go and capture a rook instead. Blunder!
Each year since I had moved into my single occupancy flat I bought myself a block of Stilton cheese with my Christmas shopping, and I had done the same this year. I never really knew why this became a tradition of mine since I hardly bought any type of cheese during the other eleven months of the year, and it was difficult to know what to do with the rest of the block after it was opened for the first serving, much like the 1KG bag of carrots I had bought because they were only fourteen pence and I needed one for the beef goulash I was preparing. Still though, I came to recognise the pungent waft of blue cheese each time I opened my fridge in the days which followed as being the true essence of Christmas.
I needn’t have bothered trying to think of a dish to use up some more of my Stilton on Christmas morning since my sister and her partner put on their usual incredible banquet of food later in the day. I think I had lost count of the number of courses somewhere after the fourth. It was immense, and there was booze of every description to go with it. It was impossible to tell who had the most excitement: my niece for the Elsa doll she had been waiting to open from Santa since midnight, or my sister for the bottle of Tequila Rose in the fridge. My own excitement threatened to reach a similar level when I opened the gift from my sister and her partner, which was so large that I had to enlist my niece to help me with it. They had got me a vintage globe drinks cabinet, which was something I had coveted for years. It was the first piece of furniture I wanted to buy when I moved into my flat in 2018, but I procrastinated over whether I had the space for such an elaborate display and eventually forgot all about it. Ever since, my bottles of Jack Daniels and Jameson, along with glasses and some other spirits that prospective guests might enjoy, have shared the same cupboard as my books, which made for quite a display itself, though it was becoming cramped as I bought more books or was gifted with bottles. Occasionally I considered moving my own handwritten notebooks out of the cupboard to make some room, but I was reluctant since it is the only time I will be able to see my work alongside that of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Sedaris, so I just found different ways of piling them on top of one another.
It wasn’t just the prospect of having more space on the shelves in my cupboard which excited me about the globe drinks trolley. I liked to think about the first time I would be able to have people in my flat for post-pub drinks after all of the restrictions had been lifted. They would admire the vintage globe in the corner of the living room and ask which year the map was drawn. Obviously I would have no idea, so I would quickly move to distract from the question by lifting up the top of the globe to reveal the bottles contained within. It was thrilling to imagine that there would be a talking point for my guests other than for them to ask “have you ever thought about watering your plant?” or “is it always this dark in here?”
Not every present exchanged came with such immediately obvious benefits. Dad gave each of us an inflatable camping pillow which through the day became a source of bemused joy. My niece was the first to unwrap hers, and the look on her face surely matched those on ours when we were four-years-old and would receive a pair of socks. It was a look somewhere between confusion and frustration, the sort reserved for when you see someone in the supermarket who isn’t wearing a mask. I recognised the look well, but also understood that if it was anything like me, who after thirty years came to appreciate the value of a pair of socks – especially if they were with a tie of the same colour – then, in time, an inflatable pillow might not seem all that bad.
One-by-one we each dipped into the carrier bag of goodies dad had prepared for us and opened our inflatable camping pillows. He later explained to us over video chat that he often struggles to know what to get for everyone and he didn’t want to just “buy any old crap” such as a Lynx deodorant gift set. We didn’t know what this meant, though by the evening, and after a couple of shots of Tequila Rose, some of us were beginning to find some uses for the pillows. My sister’s partner was already thinking of another summer camping trip like the one they had enjoyed this year, while in my mind I could see the inflatable pillow as being handy for those Friday nights when I had a habit of falling asleep on the couch. My niece found that it was a comfortable headrest for when she was laying back playing her favourite new Paw Patrol game, discovering that sometimes, if you are patient, you can still find your checkmate.