Chess article published on Story Collider

by Dana Mackenzie on December 14, 2012

Today I had an article published that was a little bit out of the ordinary, or perhaps way out of the ordinary for me. It’s called The Departed Queen, and it was posted on a website called Story Collider. It’s about the best chess game of my life, along with the unusual circumstances that made it possible. Even more than that, it’s about what makes chess beautiful and why the game survives even after we have built computers that play better than we do.

This article has a much longer back story than most pieces I write. In 2006 I won the aforementioned chess game at a tournament in Reno against a player named David Pruess, who at the time was rated #64 in the U.S. A few months later, I had the idea of writing a story about it for the general public. After all, I’m a writer; that’s what I do, right?

But this article posed some challenges. It would be a first-person story, a very personal one, and if done poorly it would just come across as bragging. The point of the article was not to say, “Hey, what a great game I played,” but to alter the profile of chess in our society. I think most people see chess as a kids’ game (or perhaps as an old men’s game). I wanted to make it possible for them to appreciate chess as an art form, using my game with Pruess as an example, and assuming no chess knowledge on the part of the reader.

After writing the article I sent it to an editor I know, who recommended a literary magazine I could submit it to. I sent it in, and it never went anywhere. I’m not sure if I even got an answer. I was disappointed, but I figured that maybe it just looked too much like a vanity project, and I put it aside for five years.

In the meantime I started a chess blog, and this year the idea suddenly popped into my head — why not post my story on the blog? At least chess players would be interested in it, even if they weren’t actually the intended audience. It was better than just letting it sit in limbo on my computer hard drive, unread by anyone. So I posted it in three installments.

Well, the chess players gave me some excellent feedback, both encouraging me but also pointing out some things that were less than perfect. This provided me the motivation to go back and rewrite the story, focusing on making it even more understandable to non-chessplayers.

In the meantime I had also found out about Story Collider, a website that features first-person stories about science, written by scientists. It seemed like a much better fit for my article and for me personally than some random literary magazine. The only problem was how to frame it as a science story. But that really wasn’t so hard. As you’ll see, one of the main themes of the piece is the interaction between chess programs and human players, and what is the best way to make use of machines that are smarter than we are. In fact, I believe it’s kind of an important subject.

In the end, I’m not sure whether my efforts to re-frame my article as a science story really made that big a difference. The editor loved the story simply for the story itself, and never made one comment about it not being science-y enough. She did make a few very helpful suggestions. On my own initiative, I added an epilogue that I think really brings it to a satisfying close and justifies the five years that I let the story gather dust (or as they say in the winemaking business, “mature”) on my hard drive.

So hopefully, what Hemingway did for fishing with The Old Man and the Sea, I did for chess with “The Departed Queen.” Oh well, a writer can dream, can’t he? Let me know what you think!  8-)

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