Football is nothing like chess
A note. This is a piece about something that happens rarely, and is of vanishingly small importance when it does. I’m only writing about it because it gets right on mine; it’s something you may never have encountered. And I might not even have much of a point anyway. To keep things interesting, therefore, I’ve decided to attempt to quantify the futility of the piece. We’ll tot it up as we go along.
Could people, particularly commentators, please stop comparing games of football to games of chess?
It doesn’t happen all the time (futility points: +5); indeed, it’s quite rare (+5). Traditionally, it’s wheeled out at half-time (+1) for those games that haven’t had any goals, or chances, or even shots; those games where teams have “probed” and “kept things tight”, and the fans have had to either make their own entertainment, and mock somebody’s haircut, or have just gone to sleep, perchance to dream of other, lighter games, played by other, sweeter players.
There are some minor parallels, perhaps, if you look hard for them (+10). At a strategic level, chess is about controlling space, and the same problem (albeit differently constituted) underlies football tactics. (Somebody managed to get a book out of that. I haven’t read it: +5.) But the reason the comparison breaks down — and what I think it is that annoys me so — is the (probably accidental: +5) implications it has for the players.
Scott Oliver, also of this parish, described the relationship between tactics and players as “a schematic ideal of the coach’s, haphazardly and extemporaneously carried out by inherently creative, problem-solving players”, a description I fully endorse and wish I’d thought of (+3). It’s the problem solving that’s relevant here: I vaguely remember (+1), many years ago, watching some analysis on Match of the Day. It showed four attempts by Paul Ince to deal with some tricky midfielder or other (+1): in the first instance, right at the beginning of the game, he got skinned; the second and third, he got progressively closer to making the tackle; the fourth, he absolutely nailed him. Problem? Solved.
But no pawn ever learned his opponent’s moves, and countered. No rook tried to mix things up by introducing a jump; no knight ever got off his horse. They can’t. Chess pieces are dumb extensions of their controlling über-lord; footballers are sentient and independent agents given instructions by a supervisory demi-lord. I’m sure they try and follow them as far and as often as possible, but the ever-changing dynamics of the game require them to solve problems for themselves, one after the other: to learn, to think, and to improvise. I’ll let you do your own Alan Hutton joke to end this paragraph.
And as well as the difference in their natures, footballers are also prey to all manner of other factors that chess pieces can blankly avoid. For a start, you can legitimately berate half the pieces for being black without needing a t-shirt campaign afterwards. Bishops don’t have to cope with forty thousand comdians singing “You’ve got a shit hat/ You’ve got a shit hat/ Diagonal bastard/ You’ve got a shit hat.” And no pawn ever found his mind wandering from a carefully constructed fork because the newspapers were reporting that his ex had been playing hide the royal sceptre with his king.
That’s not what commentators are trying to say, of course (+15); they’re simply trying to excuse a boring game in the hope you stick around for the adverts. Yet the implication frustrates me (+1). And there’s another level of implication that grates yet further.
Chess is part of the English Lexicon of Lazy Cultural Shorthand. Like classical music, it is invoked to arouse a sense of distant elitism, a difficult but significant pastime reserved for certain people. When used to establish a character in a piece of fiction, it frequently betokens a diffident and often cold intellectual otherness. Serial killers enjoy the game, as do lonely detectives, solitary philosophers, arrogant scientists and Spock.
(I have been unable to determine if the musical Chess, written by Tim Rice and the testicled half of ABBA, supports or contradicts this assertion, chiefly because I would tear out my eyes and stuff them into my ears should I ever come close to experiencing the musical Chess, written by Tim Rice and the testicled half of ABBA.)
As a rule, it’s as stupid as it is sinister and servile. Chess is not difficult to play and it’s not hard to enjoy, if you’re so inclined. Six different pieces, simple rules of movement, castling, check, an opponent who plays roughly as well as you: jobzagudun. Yes, you could play it your whole life and not come close to playing it the way Kasparov does, but then you play five-a-side and sweetheart, you ain’t no Cruyff. Classical music is a decent parallel here, too: you don’t need to hear this the same way Mozart did to know it’s shiveringly beautiful.
But it’s a rule nonetheless, and when it’s invoked after a boring half of football it’s used as a kind of warning: this ain’t dull, son, this is chess. You may not be enjoying it, but you should definitely be respecting it. Because only an uncouth, uneducated moron could dismiss chess as boring; an attitude of deferential respect must be maintained to this signifier of arcane superiority. The cultural implications of “chess” means the analogy isn’t just inaccurate but snobbish. It pre-emptively sneers at anybody that disagrees.
Of course chess can be boring, if you don’t care about it, or if you do but it’s being played badly, or limply, or without any joy or wit or penetration, or just in a way you don’t like. The same holds for football, which is not like a chess game for obvious reasons (+4), and not like “a chess game” because that shouldn’t be a cipher for “something that you might not enjoy but should nevertheless acknowledge as worthy”. Chess doesn’t mean “tactics”. It doesn’t mean “one for the purists”. It doesn’t mean “dull”, nor does it mean “fascinating”. It means, in this context, almost nothing at all.
Final futility score: 56.
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