Chess is a strange game. Unlike other games you don’t win by having the most points at the end of a predetermined time, winning a race to a predetermined end, or removing all the other players pieces. You don’t even capture the most important piece from your opponent. The game ends by simply trapping that piece, allowing it no more possible moves.
At that moment, the pieces are locked in place, forever, until someone resets the board.
The other night walking through Yerevan as Halloween revellers applied their makeup and donned their scariest masks, my partner and I noticed a young couple taking the time to rearrange the pieces of one of the many life-sized chess sets in downtown Yerevan. Many Armenians love chess and it seems to permeate the people here in their quiet, keep to yourself, demeanor. We each said hello in two languages, smiled, laughed and used hand signals as we helped them put each piece into its proper place, dislodging them from their previously irreversible positions. Together we arranged them each facing forward, on their appropriate square, all ready for a new match to begin. We didn’t know if the couple had intended to play then or to get the board ready for whoever happened upon it in the morning, but as it sat there ready for an entirely new scenario to play out, I thought about the resetting I had done.
We all have chess games in our life. Not one but many, all being played simultaneously, in each facet of our life. Each relationship we encounter, each value we hold, each teaching we have received, each disaster we are faced with, each moment our heart jumps into our throat, is its own separate game. Each miniscule decision we make is a new move. Some games are over in moments, speaking to a stranger on the street or a taxi driver at the end of a ride, while others last for years. With each move we get to choose, how we react, how we engage, how we decide, how we change, how we fight for justice, or don’t. How we approach new people, new situations, new ideas. How we think about something which has defined us. How we are defined. We are always playing, making moves, deciding what is best, what makes us happy, what helps us to love and be loved.
We don't win or lose, we are playing against ourselves. There is no set amount of games or score, no specific amount of victories to be achieved. We decide when we are victorious, or not, and when we begin each game anew.
Juggling hundreds of thousands of chess games seems like it would crush our brains into oblivion in an instant, but all of us do it, every single day. We are not just juggling the big games, like our source of income, our partnerships, or our families, which most of us spend exorbitant amounts of brain power on. Each different topic we decide to think or learn about, each person we know, each of our beliefs or values, all have a game of their own. If we knew we only got one chance at each game the pressure would surely be too much for us. But, while we are always aware of the chaos, we somehow find ways to mitigate it and, if we are lucky enough, we have the opportunity to reset each of these games whenever we desire.
Lucky is the crucial word. A nice neat chess analogy for life assumes that life is anything like chess. It is not. Chess is ordered, life is not. Sometimes when we are thinking about one game, life kicks over the table of another, or lights it on fire, or drops a boulder right in the middle of it on a Tuesday night. Sometimes we don’t have the extreme privilege of thinking about our games. Sometimes there is only one we can focus on, survival or hunger or other traumas, which does not allow us to give attention to any others. Only one, and the moves matter a hell of a lot more. Sometimes, someone or something steals all the pieces from one of our games, and we lose it forever.
In these moments, I hope it makes me stop.
And see the rest of my games in a new light.
Sometimes we restart out games from exhaustion, being beat down, defeated, changing ourselves or seeing someone changing around us. Maybe from wanting to play the same moves in a different way. Maybe from admiring the way someone else is playing some of theirs.
Resetting is not starting over from scratch. Far from it. Each game we play, each move we make, has an impact on the rest. They allow us to obtain better strategies. Learn new ways. Have people to help us try a different move or, if need be, help us to reset a certain game again.
Sometimes we get stuck and we leave the games as they are. Scared to make the wrong move, scared that if we start again, we may ruin everything. It doesn’t matter if we won or lost the game, or if there is another way we could play that would help us feel more like a full human, the fact that the pieces are locked in checkmate works for us. It is finalized, we know how to react or think or feel, and it feels easier to leave it how it is than think about starting a new game. Sometimes we leave them for so long the board gets coated in dust until we can barely see it, or we forget about it altogether. Some of them we think we have won and long forgotten about, are the most in need of a reset.
But holy fuck is it difficult. Just when you think you have your eyes on all your games life smokes you in the face, or shows you a game we really want to leave finished must be reset for our own good. When that dawns on us, it is absolutely terrifying. It gets harder and scarier as we get older or the more others are relying on us. We know what we know, who we are, how we feel we should react, and we think trying to change any of those is not an option.
Perhaps these games are the easiest to reset though. For many of them we have the pieces and moves memorized from restarting many times over. We know exactly what we will say or do when a certain situation arises, we have done it for as long as we remember. If we start these ones again, we can either get back to the same place much more quickly and have lost nothing, or decide to make a few different moves along the way and see if it feels better than the game before. Even when we feel we are stuck in checkmate, we can always reset. Especially for the ones that we know something doesn’t feel quite right, if we are lucky enough to start them again, we almost always feel better when we do. It may take the 2nd, 3rd, or 45th, time for us to make the moves we truly want, and sometimes for the very difficult games, the ones that are sitting in the corner, we need help. This is something I have been immensely lucky to receive from those that have guided me in my life, from my partner, and from a professional. Someone who knows how to find the games we forgot we ever started playing.
Resetting our boards is quite a forgiving way to think about life. To try a new way, do the opposite of what everyone expects, to discover that no one has it figured out, to allow ourselves to have the freedom to be different from the way we once were. Resetting how we approach each aspect allows us to shape and change and breath and grow. We can do it anytime, at 19 years old or 91. Hopefully when we do, we have others in mind and try to improve how we move through the world, increasing our empathy for how much each of our moves affects those around us. Our games are not ours alone.
Walking through Republic Square and past the Russian theatre in Yerevan I couldn’t help but think that the city itself has reset a few times. Fireworks over the Cascade steps a few weeks ago marked its 2,801st birthday. It has been part of the Persian empire, fought over by the Greeks, Turks, and Russians, part of the Armenian Kingdom, declared the capital in the first Republic, served as a refuge for victims of the Armenian Genocide, became part of the Soviet Union until its collapse, formed a new identity after, and most recently was the centre of the country’s Velvet Revolution.
As I set in place a pawn that came up to my waist, I pondered the resetting I have done. I have reset things a few times and it is frightening, exhilarating, confusing, and destabilising. Not just moving locations, or areas of study, or ending relationships but challenging myself to restart games about my thinking, my masculinity, my being, my work, my country, my priorities, about myself. Hopefully I am getting better at it. As I get older, I find solace in the fact that the games I thought had ended a long time ago were never really finalized. I just have to decide to reset them.
Checkmate is not the end.
As we strolled away from the newly set board I worried about my games. I thought how lucky I was to have baby laughs, funny dances, video messages, mistranslations, and sharing lava cake in a warm pub on a chilly autumn afternoon, to help me worry less. To help me see each new move I am making through new eyes. I thought about those games that have gathered dust and those that I have not looked at in a long time. I have been trying to brush that dust off in the last little while, and I certainly have a few that need to be reset.
My hope is that I never feel I have finished them all.