Chess

The Fifth International Chess Festival at the Devonshire Inn, Sticklepath last weekend taught me something I had never before realised. Watching the faces of the players - all of whom represented local pub sides - as they reacted to their opponents' moves, I noticed that each one had his own way of concealing any emotion that the opponent's move might create. Whether the move is strong or weak, expected or unexpected, the initial reaction of a given player will be invariable.

The first man I watched always greeted his opponents' moves with a slight turn of the head, a sigh, and a world weary look that said unmistakeably: "Yes, I feared you were going to play that. I've seen it all before, you know."

The man sitting next to him, however, had a completely different technique: he simply refused to betray any sign that he had noticed his opponent had moved at all. His eyes would stay rooted to whatever square on the board they were looking at, firmly insisting: "If you think your puny efforts are going to distract me from my winning plan, then you're very much mistaken."

On the other hand, there was another player with quite the opposite technique. Whatever his opponent did, he would turn his head slowly towards the move, then look at it with a contempt usually reserved for hazards on the pavement that one does not want to tread in.

Finally, there was the man who greeted every move with a little smile of approval as if to confirm that everything was going according to plan. Even when his opponent played a one-move mate that he had overlooked, his initial reaction was the same contented "just as I expected; now you're in trouble" look.

In chess, things inevitably get out of control and it is part of the technique of the game to cover up the feelings of panic that come over us at that moment. Few of us do it consciously, but we all concoct our own blank expressions to conceal our racing pulses.

My favourite moment in Sticklepath, however, was seeing a man who had just lost from a winning position explain to his opponent how he should have played it. After a string of "I go here" and "you go there" moves, he waved his hands above the position and concluded: "Basically I was a complete arsehole, right?"

After the deception inherent in all the non-verbal communication, it was a treat to hear such honesty.

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