Chess

Chess: A thinking man's game with classic European pedigree.  Hard to get more WASP'y than that.
Chess: A thinking man’s game with classic European pedigree. Hard to get more WASP’y than that.

Since this is possibly the final weekend before world politics devolve into a Third World War what better time to highlight a pursuit that, perhaps more than any other, values strategic thought, deep calculation, psychology, and prudence.  Sadly I am most definitely not talking about 21st Century diplomacy… but rather the game of Chess.

Although come to think of it, maybe Chess could be the answer to this current crisis? The howtoWASP believes that war, and especially unnecessary war, is exceedingly detrimental to Western Civilization (and therefore WASP culture) and should be avoided if at all possible.

Rather than fight things out over the cities of Europe and Asia, why not settle this dispute on the chessboard instead?   How entertaining would it be to have President Obama challenge President Putin to a winner take all (or just the Crimea) game of Chess?  The broadcast rights alone would probably be enough to pay down a significant portion of the national debt.

Then again perhaps challenging a Russian to a game of Chess isn’t the wisest thing in the world?  It would be a bit like challenging a Norwegian in skiing, or an Irishman to drinking, or like the French challenging anyone else to an actual war…  Probably not a good idea.  But enough with the politics and back to the matter at hand, Chess!

Screech Powers was in Chess Club.  Enough said.
In the 1990’s Screech Powers was the face of Chess Club. Enough said.

Chess is kind of a strange topic because it straddles the line between the worlds of WASP culture and nerd culture.  In terms of historic pedigree, Chess has a lot going for it.  It was popular among the British, it’s seen as a noble intellectual pursuit, and often evokes images of civilized competition among students at a prep school or members of a social club.

Then again, over the past half century or so, Chess has definitely struggled with a reputation of being the preferred hobby of the kid you probably didn’t want to hang out with in school.

Today, there's a whole new style of Chess whiz.
Today, there’s a whole new style of Chess whiz.

Thankfully, that has been changing of late and Chess is becoming cool again.  Want proof?  Google the name of the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, and you won’t see the stereotypical Chess nerd, but rather someone who would look perfectly at home selling Abercrombie & Fitch clothing at the mall.

So, with the social stigma disappearing, and the WASP cred as strong as ever, Chess is definitely something worth learning.

The History:

If you’re looking for historical pedigree, Chess is difficult to beat.  It is one of the oldest games on the planet, having been played in some form or another for neartly 2,000 years.  There is still debate over the earliest origins of the game, but credit is generally given to the Indians (the Asian variety) who played a game called Chaturanga as early as 300 A.D. Chaturanga was played on an 8×8 grid and featured different pieces that each had special attributes, more or less analogous to the modern Chess pieces of today.

By the 7th Century, Chaturanga had found its way to the Persian empire where it continued to gain in popularity and spread throughout the world.  Around the 9th Century the pastime began to pop up in Europe as well, most prominently among the Moors who introduced it into the Iberian Peninsula and what is modern day Spain.  It was during this time that the game, which had picked up the name “Shah” (Persian for “king”) began to be known as Chess.

How many games still around today were enjoyed by Members of the Knights Templar?  Not many, which is pretty badass.
How many games still around today were enjoyed by Members of the Knights Templar? Not many, which is pretty badass.

In the hundreds of years that followed, Chess spread quickly throughout Europe where it continued to evolve. During the 15th Century the modern rules for the game were adopted by the Spanish and Italians.  With small tweaks here and there, the game as we know it today was finalized in 1850.

It was during this European evolution that the aura of Chess as a gentleman’s sport was cemented in place.  Since the Middle Ages Chess has enjoyed a reputation as a noble pastime, where it was viewed as the game of choice for kings, knights, and other members of nobility.  It’s popularity and esteem continued to grow with the great thinkers of the Renaissance and continued into the Age of Enlightenment.  Benjamin Franklin himself went so far as to write an article praising Chess as a method of self improvement and for the virtues of strategy and thought it can instill in man.

In the Modern Age, since 1850, Chess experienced further explosions in popularity as rules for formal competition and rankings were set in place.  However, the good times would not last.  With the onset of the World Wars, and the Cold War that followed, much of the Western world lost interest in the game (it didn’t help that the Soviets dominated the wold competition during those years) and Chess settled into a new role as a niche hobby for those with more brains than braun.

But again, with the dawn of the the 21st Century, it appears those days might finally be behind us and Chess is poised to rise again.

The Game:

The standard starting position for a fresh game of Chess.
The standard starting position for a fresh game of Chess.

The best thing about Chess is that it follows the golden rule for great games:  It’s simple to learn, but nearly impossible to master.  It can be picked up quickly and played by just about anyone, yet subsequently provide a lifetime of challenge and enjoyment for those who seek to improve.  Chess is also one of the few games where chance plays no role in the outcome.  You win or lose based on your play alone and the winner is always going to be the player who commits the fewest errors.

If you’ve never played before, or if its been over a decade since your last game, then the only place to begin is with the fundamentals.

I won’t waste time reinventing the wheel here because there are plenty of great resources available where anyone can learn the basic rules of the game.  My personal recommendation would be to check out Chess.com, which offers great lessons for everyone, from the rank beginner to the Grand Master.  If you want to go the more formal route, there are plenty of books on the subject available for pennies on Amazon, or for free at your local library.

Once you know how the pieces move, you could theoretically begin playing immediately, just be prepared to lose, a LOT.  While there’s no substitute for in-game experience, I would highly recommend devoting at least some further study to the three main components of the game and the strategy and tactics behind them.  As a very brief overview, these include:

There are many different openings, but the howtoWASP prefers the English, for obvious reasons.
There are many different openings, but the howtoWASP prefers the English, for obvious reasons.
  • The Opening:  This covers the first 10 moves or so of the game.  Basically both sides are seeking to establish position and control the center of the board as quickly as possible.  Setting up a solid defense and protecting your king are also paramount.  The good news here is that since Chess has been played for centuries, most openings are set to an established script.  While there are only 18 possible opening moves (and really only about 5 that you’d ever want to use) there are hundreds of “book” openings to cover all the possible responses, re-responses, and so fourth that can follow.  Again, Chess.com provides a wonderful library of book openings.  Like anything else, all it takes is study and experience to recognize and play them.
  • The Middle Game:  This is where most of the action occurs.  The fight for position continues, but more pressing is the need to set up an effective attack, or defense to counter an opponent’s attack.  Most of the time the goal in the middle game is to force exchanges (trading pieces) that leave you with a material (having a greater number of and/or more powerful pieces left on the board) or positional advantage.  This phase requires much more thought and analysis than the opening as tactics begin to outweigh the strategic focus of the opening.   Players must calculate several moves ahead, taking into account many different pieces and possible combinations, to be successful.
  • A typical End Game scenario: short on material, long on options. A tacticians paradise.
    A typical End Game scenario: short on material, long on options. A tacticians paradise.

    The End Game:  Assuming that you didn’t blunder the game away in the middle (which is definitely possible, especially as a beginner) then things proceed to the final phase, the end game.  Here calculations become theoretically easier because there are often only a few pieces remaining (usually mostly pawns and kings), but it rarely seems that way in practice because of the sheer number of possible moves available on the open board.  Here tactics are paramount as even a slight mistake can lead to a disadvantage and eventual loss.  If you’re ahead or even at this point, you’re playing for the win.  If you’re down, then playing for a draw(tie) is probably your best bet.

Of course that’s a gross over-simplification of the game, but those are the basics.  As I said, the only way to truly learn and get better is to sit down and play as much as possible (which thankfully is much easier in the internet age). Fair warning, it will probably take about 6 months of regular play before you start to really understand and win games on a consistent basis, but once you reach that point, you will have developed a new skill for life.

So what are you waiting for?  In this crazy world, where attention spans increasingly need to be measured on a nano scale, and shows like Teen Mom and Jersey Shore makes up a disturbing proportion of the entertainment content available, wouldn’t it be nice to slow down and give your brain a bit of proper intellectual (and supremely WASP’ish) stimulation?

As we know, Benjamin Franklin believed that Chess was an excellent resource for self improvement, and with that in mind, I will close with what I believe is the number one life lesson taught by Chess:  No matter how well you prepare, or how far you’re ahead, we are all but one blunder away from complete and unmitigated disaster.   Perhaps both Obama and Putin would do well to remember that…

Next Steps:

  • Assuming you’ve learned the basics, the best thing you can do is get out and play some Chess.  While in-person games are classic and always fun, the internet has opened up a whole new range of options.  My favorite offering from Chess.com is the ability to play online, turn based games (typically up to 3 days per move) that allow you to play at your own leisure, against thousands of players of every skill level across the globe.
  • When you play, try to play against opponents who are better than you.  While it’s always enjoyable to win, if it’s against a lessor player, you’re probably not learning much in the process.  The flip side is that while losing sucks, you can actually learn a lot if you pay attention.  Remember, it takes about 6 months to really pick things up and become competitive.  Don’t get discouraged!
  • Nothing classes up the joint like a dedicated Chess table.  Although all you really need is a good board and set.
    Nothing classes up the joint like a dedicated Chess table. Although all you really need is a good board and set.

    While online Chess is great, you’ll also want a good, old fashioned Chess set in your home. Why?  First of all because it will make you look smart and sophisticated when guests come over.  Second, it will allow you to play more games in person.  And lastly it can be a valuable analysis tool to visualize and play out scenarios in your online games.

  • Keep learning.  While there’s no substitute for actual play, reading books and watching video lessons on advanced strategy and tactics can really help improve your game. This is obviously more beneficial for experienced players, but if you’re like me, once you catch the bug, it’s hard to stop.

Clay Pigeons

Hunting done WASP'y

Ask your average WASP to list his favorite activities you won’t have to wait long before the subject of hunting comes up.  Or more precisely, bird hunting.  In WASP speak you’ll sometimes hear this referred to as “upland game”, which basically means the kind of hunting where you’ll be wearing tweed instead of camo.

If you think about it, the WASP affinity for upland game hunting makes perfect sense.  Just consider all the things it has going for it:  Time spent outdoors, expensive specialized equipment, retrievers (Golden or Labrador), classic outfitting, and of course a strong English tradition.  But unless you happen to have your own country estate, actual hunting is probably not a reasonable everyday activity.

Fortunately there is an alternative: Clay Pigeons.  In many ways shooting clay pigeons (or just “clays”) is actually a lot better than shooting real pigeons.  What the clays lack in sheer WASP appeal, they more than make up for in terms of fun, economy, and for our PETA readers, the fact that you don’t actually kill anything.

A Shot of History:

Shotguns have been used for centuries to hunt fowl and put food on the table, and like many other skills of necessity, it wasn’t long before human nature turned shooting into a skill of competition as well.  By the mid 19th Century, competitive pigeon shoots were all the rage across Victorian England.  The early competitions were much like those of today, with shooters taking turns firing at targets released on command.  Of course there was one major difference; the targets were live pigeons!  Gradually, killing birds purely for public amusement fell out of favor and was banned outright by the British government in the early 1920’s.

Competitive shooting was popular in Victorian England. The events remain today, but the use of live birds has been banned.

In place of live birds, shooters eventually switched to clay discs.  Those discs, still called pigeons, were thrown from mechanical launchers at high rates of speed to simulate the flight of the actual birds.  Various games involving clay pigeon shooting caught on and quickly gained in popularity.  Trap shooting for example, one the of the oldest and well known clay pigeon games, first became an Olympic sport at the 1900 Summer Games and is still on the slate to be played this year in London.

Today shooting sports are experiencing a bit of a resurgence, and not just among the WASP set.  Many people across all walks of life are discovering the challenge and fun competitive shooting has to offer. Interestingly the trend is even expanding into the business world as well.  Where golf was always the undisputed king of games to conduct business over, more and more businessmen are trading in the 9-iron for a 12 gauge.  Aside from being a unique alternative to golf, clay shooting provides more face-time between participants, is more accessible to novice participants, and usually much more economical for sponsors.  For the same reasons, shooting events are becoming a popular option for political and even charity fundraisers as well.

Getting Started:

Fortunately due to the increased popularity of shooting sports, getting started is easier than ever and the absolute best first step is to sign up for an introductory course.

Learn to shoot classes are offered at most outdoor shooting centers where, for modest fee (typically between $20-$40), they’ll provide you with everything you need for a day on the range including a rental gun, ammunition, ear, and eye protection.  During the actual course you’ll (hopefully) be taught the basics of gun safety, etiquette, and technique.  And of course, you’ll also get to spend time out on the range, breaking clay targets under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

A good instructor will teach you the fundamentals of shooting and give you the confidence to develop your talents in the future.

I took one of these classes a few years back, and again last year as a refresher, and found it to be both enjoyable and educational each time.  As an introductory student, it’s assumed that you’re coming in as a blank slate and as such there’s no pressure or worrying about doing something wrong.  If you have a question, just ask.  That’s what the instructor is there for and you can generally assume you’re getting the right answer.

Clay shooting is a fairly easy sport to pick up (mastering it is another story) and accessible to almost anyone.  In the last class I took, the students ranged from teenage girls to retired men.  By the end of the day, everyone was successfully hitting targets.  Try it for yourself and I guarantee that now matter who you are, you’ll experience a sort of primal satisfaction the first time you shatter a clay disc moving at 60  mph in mid-air.

Gearing Up:

Assuming that you’ve taken the introductory course and enjoyed it enough try shooting on your own, you’ll want to invest in a couple basic items:

  • A good choice. Note the padded shoulder and the large front pockets.

    Shooting Jacket or Vest – There are a variety of style to chose from, but your main concern is getting something with a nicely padded shoulder and large side pockets.  Your shoulder takes the brunt of the gun’s recoil when shooting and depending on the gun, it can leave you pretty miserable by the end of the day.  Getting something with good shoulder padding helps alleviate that problem.  The pockets you’ll use to hold ammunition or shells.  Most games require you to fire 25 shots, so you’ll want something that has pocket space for at least… 25 shells.

  • Eye Protection – Basically you’ll just need something to shield your eyes while shooting.  If you wear eyeglasses, then you’re already covered.  You could also just wear your sunglasses if conditions allow for it.  For more specialized applications, you could get a pair of dedicated shooting glasses which are made with sturdy polycarbonate lenses that are less prone to breaking.  It’s up to you.
  • Ear Protection – There are two choices here.  You can go with the ear muff style protection, or disposable ear plugs.  The ear muffs will provide better protection, but can be cumbersome when shooting a shotgun.  I prefer the ear plugs which are much less obtrusive and provide more than adequate protection in an outdoor setting.  Note: You can often purchase these at the range, but typically at an added premium.
  • Ammunition – Shotgun ammunition comes in a wide variety of choices. Most of the options will depend on the type of gun you’re using, but in general you’ll want to get “target load” shells loaded with 1 oz of bird shot.  Bird shot comes in many sizes, but most ranges will limit you to #7 – #9.  The higher the number, the smaller the individual pellets, the more pellets you can fit in each shell.  A 1 oz shell of #9 bird shot for example has well over 500 individual pellets!  The advantage is obvious, the more pellets you put in the air, the higher the probability of a hit (it only takes 4 to break a clay pigeon).  The disadvantage is that the smaller mass of each pellet means that they won’t fly as well or as far as their larger counterparts.  #8 seems to be a good compromise.  If you’re unsure what to get, you can always buy ammunition at the range, but be aware that it will be more expensive and usually poor quality.
  • The pinnacle of WASP armament: The English side-by-side shotgun. This matched pair made by Purdy costs more than the average house in the US.

    Shotgun – You probably won’t want to run out and buy a shotgun right away.  The better option for the beginner is to simply rent one from the range each time you go.  The advantage of renting, besides cost, is that it allows you to try out a variety of guns to determine what you’re most comfortable with.  The most likely options you’ll have to choose from are different gauges (12 vs 20) and firing actions (double barrel vs. auto-loader).  The double barrel 12 gauge is the WASP standard, but the recoil can be uncomfortable for smaller individuals.  At the other end of the spectrum is the auto-loading 20 gauge, which is nearly as effective, but with much less felt recoil.  When you get to the point where you’re ready to make a shotgun purchase for yourself, the how to WASP will be here to help!

Let the Games Begin:

When I took my introductory course, it was a great learning experience, but they neglected one major aspect:  What to do next.  I had learned all the basics  for breaking clay targets, but I still had no idea what the process was for showing up at the range on my own and going shooting.

And frankly, that can be an intimidating experience.  Visit any shooting center and you’ll see a lot of serious looking guys with guns, all whom appear to know what they’re doing and are deeply intent on doing it.  Walking into a situation like that and trying to learn on the fly is usually a recipe for some serious humble pie.  Fortunately for you, I’ve already embarrassed myself, so now you don’t have to!

With that being said, here’s a quick cheat sheet for two of the most popular games for beginners:  Single Trap and Wobble Trap.  They won’t help you break any more targets, but they teach you the basic procedures and hopefully give you the confidence to get out and give it a go for yourself.

The basic layout of a Trap range.

Single Trap:  There many versions on this game out there, but the most common is simply called Single Trap.  Each round consists of shooting 5 targets from 5 different stations for a total of 25 total targets.  The stations are laid out in a semi-circle and the targets are thrown from a hidden bunker (or “trap”) in front of the stations.  The thrower oscillates back and forth so you never known which direction the clay pigeon will fly. You get one shot per target.  The procedure for a round goes like this:

  • You either pick or will be assigned to one of the 5 stations.  Set up there and get ready, but make sure your gun’s breech is open, unloaded, and not ready to fire.
  • Once everyone is set up (1 person per station) firing commences from left to right.
  • If you’re on the first station, load your gun with a single shell, bring it to your shoulder, and prepare to fire.  Once you’re ready call “PULL” and the target will be released.
  • Take your shot.  If any visible piece of the target breaks off, even if it’s just a sliver, it counts as a hit.  If the clay pigeon remains intact, it’s a miss.
  • Open the breech and wait patiently for the other shooters.
  • If you’re not on the first station, wait until the person to your left completes their shot and then take your turn as described above.
  • That process continues until each person has taken 5 shots from their station.
  • When the last shooter has fired their 5th shot, everyone moves clockwise to the next station down the line and the process repeats until all 25 shots have been taken.

That’s all there is to it.  Your score is the total number of clays hit out of the 25.  One key thing to remember is that your gun should never be loaded or ready to fire until it is your turn to do so!

Typical set up for Wobble Trap. Note the launcher in the middle of the stand.

Wobble Trap:  This game is actually better for beginners since the clays are released closer to shooters.  You’ll also see a wider variety of targets (the thrower moves up and down as well as left and right), which can make it more fun.

Wobble trap is similar to Trap in that it consists of 25 shots taken from 5 different stations, but there are some obvious differences.  Foremost is that the stations are set up on a pyramid shaped stand instead of a semicircle.  Second is that instead of getting one throw and one shot per turn, you’ll sometimes be shooting at two targets.  The procedure is as follows:

  • As in Single Trap, you’ll pick a station to begin at.  Let’s assume that it’s the second station.
  • Once the shooter at station 1 completes their shot, load you gun with a single shell, get ready and call “PULL”.  The target will be released and you’ll take your shot.  Open the gun and wait for your next turn.
  • For your second turn, you’ll load two shells, get ready, and call “PULL”.  The first target will be release and you’ll take your shot.  Whether or not you hit the target, the next target will be released moments after your first shot.  Take the second shot, open your gun, and wait.
  • Your third turn is identical to your second.  Load two shells, call “PULL”, and take your shots.
  • Once everyone has fired at their fifth target (i.e. completed their third turn), move to the station to your right.  If you’re at the end station, return to the first, leftmost station.
  • The process repeats in the same order (1-2-2) at each station until all 25 shots have been fired.

That’s it!  As in Single Trap, your total score is the number of clays hit out of the 25.  No need to keep  score yourself as the range employee controlling the thrower should keep track for you.

Next Steps:

  • First thing is to find an outdoor range that offers a learn to shoot class for shotguns.  The range must be outdoors since most, if not all, indoor ranges won’t allow the use of bird shot.  Most people will have a range within an hour of their home, even if you live in an urban area.  Google Maps is an invaluable resource here.
  • Sign up for a class.  It’s seriously the best thing you can do.  You’ll learn a lot and have fun at the same time.  Do it!
  • Check out YouTube for more instructional or demonstration videos.  If you’re a visual learner like me, they can help make things clearer.
  • If you really get into shooting, check out the USA Shooting Team.  You never know, you could find yourself in Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games!