Jonathan Rowson in aeon:
Arriving at the chess board is like entering an eagerly anticipated party. All my old friends are there: the royal couple, their associates, the reassuringly straight lines of noble infantry. I adjust them, ensuring that they are optimally located in the centre of their starting squares, an anxious fidgeting and tactile caress. I know these pieces, and care about them. They are my responsibility. And I’m grateful to my opponent for obliging me to treat them well on pain of death.
In many ways, I owe chess everything. Since the age of five, the game has been a source of friendship, refuge and growth, and I have been a grandmaster for 20 years. The lifelong title is the highest awarded to chess players, and it is based on achieving three qualifying norms in international events that are often peak performances, combined with an international rating reflecting a consistently high level of play – all validated by FIDE, the world chess federation. There are about 1,500 grandmasters in the world. At my peak, I was just outside the world top 100, and I feel some gentle regret at not climbing even higher, but I knew there were limits. Even in the absence of a plan A for my life, chess always felt like plan B, mostly because I couldn’t imagine surrendering myself to competitive ambition. I have not trained or played with serious professional intent for more than a decade, and while my mind remains charmed by the game, my soul feels free of it.
In recent years, I have worked in academic and public policy contexts, attempting to integrate our understanding of complex societal challenges with our inner lives, while also looking after my two sons. I miss many things about not being an active player. I miss the feeling of strength, power and dignity that comes with making good decisions under pressure. I miss the clarity of purpose experienced at each moment of each game, the lucky escapes from defeat, and the thrill of the chase towards victory. But, most of all, I miss the experience of concentration.