Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Chess and Tetris

I was obsessed about Tetris. I still am, but I got better self-control on. I used to play it non-stop, borrowing a friend’s Nintendo and on our home computer, on a floppy my dad got us.
I would embark into marathons. I hit bottom rock in Beijing: no class scheduled because of the Sars-induced shut down, personal life in shatters, I started a game of Tetris. I played for about 20 hours: safe for some loo break, it was a non-stop brick after brick frenzy.

I told myself “Just one more game”.
But then I made a stupid mistake. Or beat my record.
So I told myself “Just one more game” once more and started again. I drank hot water and ate that weird supermarket bread that felt and tasted like rubber, because I had nothing left in the room.

When I finally turned the computer off and went to bed I wasn’t feeling completely myself: I could feel my heartbeat in the throat, thumping like crazy and I couldn’t breath properly. Every time I closed my eyes, colored bricks kept on appearing behind my eyelids and I had to rotate and move them to clear enough lines to keep them falling. I didn’t fall asleep easily and, when I did, I dreamt of Tetris.
When I woke up I was still very tired, still with a crazy heartbeat. Tetris brick were now everywhere: in the washroom’s mirror, in the chopsticks holder in the canteen, in the paths and ponds around Tsinghua garden.

Because of the lockdown, foreign student were extremely bored and this brought a surge in consumption of booze and pot. People all over the dorm looked quite stoned and in a perennial state of hangover (with the exceptions of the North Koreans, of course). Having just overdosed on Tetris, I fit in with the rest of the crowd so perfectly, I think I never fit with the crowd so well before, nor I ever did after.

Obsessed and high as I was, I also knew I had reached a limit with Tetris I couldn’t allow myself to go over again. The fascination with the game was (and still is) strong, but so were the alarms ringing in my head. Obsessions find a welcoming habitat in my head, my brain seems to always be waiting for the next one to come along. But right then I had a very physical reminder of the consequences: the nausea blocked my body and thought process. It took me more than two days to go back to normal; I knew I couldn’t let this obsession take over, so after that episode I didn’t play Tetris for about 3 years.

I still play Tetris nowadays, but I got strict rules: there’s no game after 10 in the evening. The Tetris app gets periodically deleted from my iPhone and it’s got to go before I’m about to go on a long trip (which reminds I need to delete it before Saturday: 18 hours of plane travel are waiting for me, I simply can’t afford to leave room to temptation).

Last month, while in London, I bought a book by Stefan Zweig.
I didn’t plan to buy (more) books and the way I justified it to Francesco sounds a bit pathetic.

“It’s only 3£. And it’s a novella, not a novel. And it’s so tiny it fits into my coat’s pocket. So it doesn’t really count as a book, does it?”
No, you’re right. It doesn’t count as a book”, said Francesco, with the kind the kind of tone a nurse of a mental word would use with one of her patients before trying to make her wear a straitjacket.
I didn’t say that I bought it because of a sign:


A small communal garden, a giant-size chess set, a match in progress. Five days later, I was at Foyles holding a small book, aptly named “Chess”: could I have left it behind it? I could have, but it'd be not very in character and I wasn't in the mood of disappointment.

It took me 2 commuting travels to finish it, but the story stayed with me for much longer. It was a discovery from many point of view.

First of all the author: how is it possible I’ve lived until today without having basically no knowledge of his work? For such great and famous writer, I couldn’t remember his name ever be mentioned during literature or German culture classes.
Secondly: how could I have watched "Grand Hotel Budapest" without ever feeling the curiosity to find out a bit more about Wes Anderson's inspiration? Zweig's life and work, everything is tragic and fascinating. Reading “Chess” made me curious about his other books.

The story takes place on a ship headed to Buenos Aires: on board a world champion of chess accepts to play for money against a group of passengers. It looks they're set to be defeated when they're helped by another passenger. The narrator then listen to this man, Dr B, recanters his story: originally from Austria, like the author, Dr B used a stolen book on chess to learn to play the game and used it as mental relief during his imprisonment by the Gestapo. But then chess, turned into an obsession: the game moved from his improvised board to an imagined one and then into his mind only. He started playing both black and white, battling his now self to a game that claimed his physical and mental health.

It’s a fascinating read, no matter the fact I can barely tell a pawn from a knight. What gripped at my soul the most is the description of how something can quickly turn from saving grace to obsession, pushing you to the brink of insanity and perhaps beyond. One could argue that Tetris, a video game, is not the same thing as chess, the Royal Game: true but, as the title of a brilliant documentary suggests, it's the ecstasy of the order. And much more than that.

The sentences Zweig used to describe how the chess matches claim the whole intellect of Dr B rang true to my eyes and ears, as I felt the same for Tetris when in Beijing. I was not in a prison, even though Beijing during the Sars was not (and still isn’t, after it) exactly the poster image of freedom. Yet I felt trapped. Tetris provided me a getaway from a physical prison, but triggered the bars that could and still can shut my brain down.

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