David Foster Wallace (1962 - 2008) and chess

by Johannes Fischer
9/12/2016 – David Foster Wallace, author, essayist, short story writer, and professor of English and creative writing, is considered to be one of the most influential and innovative modern American writers. Eight years ago, on 12th September 2008, Wallace, who throughout his life had been suffering from depression, committed suicide at the age of 46. In his career he wrote about a large variety of subjects and one of his major essays contains a short revealing passage about chess.

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David Foster Wallace (Photo: Wikipedia)

In 1995 Harper’s Magazine asked Wallace if he would not like to go on a cruise, expenses paid, to write an essay for the magazine. Wallace agreed and “from 11 to 18 March 1995 ... voluntarily and for pay underwent a 7-Night Caribbean (7NC) Cruise on board the m.v. Zenith, a 47,255-ton ship owned by Celebrity Cruises Inc., one of the over twenty cruise lines that currently operate out of south Florida.” (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, p. 259).

With characteristic irony Wallace explained in one of the many footnotes he is so fond of that “no wag could possibly resist mentally rechristening the ship m.v. Nadir the instant he saw the Zenith’s silly name in the Celebrity brochure, so indulge me on this, but the rechristening’s nothing particular against the ship itself.”

The essay appeared 1996 in Harper’s Magazine as “Shipping Out“ but for the longer version Wallace chose the title “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” which is also the title of a collection of essays by Wallace, published 1997 by Little, Brown and Company.


During the cruise, which he describes in detail, Wallace one day played a game of chess against a nine-year girl. Here is his account of the game.

“The Nadir’s Library got cheapo Parker Brothers chess sets with hollow plastic pieces, which any good chess player has got to like. … I’m not nearly as good at chess as I am at Ping-Pong, but I’m pretty good. Most of the time on the Nadir I play chess with myself (not as dull as it may sound), for I have determined that – no offense – the sorts of people who go on 7NC Megacruises tend not be very good chess players.

Today, however, is the day I am mated in 23 moves by a nine-year old girl. Let’s not spend a lot of time on this. The girl’s name is Deirdre. Deidre’s mom … never leaves her side, and has the lipless and flinty-eyed look of a parent whose kid is preternaturally good at something.

I probably should have seen this and other certain signs of impending humiliation as the kid first comes over as I’m sitting there trying a scenario where both sides of the board deploy a Queen’s Indian and tugs on my sleeve and asks if I’d maybe like to play. She really does tug on my sleeve, and calls me Mister, and her eyes are roughly the size of sandwich plates. In retrospect it occurs to me that this girl was a little tall for nine, and worn-looking, slump-shouldered, the way usually only much older girls get – a kind of poor psychic posture. However good she may be at chess, this is not a happy little girl. I don’t suppose that’s germane.

Deirdre pulls up a chair and says she usually likes to be black and informs that in lots of cultures black isn’t thanatotic or morbid but is the spiritual equivalent of what white is in the U.S. and that in these other cultures it’s white that is morbid. I tell her I already know all that. We start. I push some pawns and Deirdre develops a knight. Deirdre’s mom watches the whole game from a standing position behind the kid’s seat … motionless except for her eyes. I know within seconds that I despise this mom. She’s like some kind of stage-mother of chess. Deirdre seems like an OK type though – I’ve played precocious kids before, and at least Deidre doesn’t hoot or smirk. If anything, she seems a little sad that I don’t turn out to be more of a stretch for her.

My first inkling of trouble is on the fourth move, when I fianchetto and Deirdre knows what I’m doing is fianchettoing and uses the term correctly, again calling me Mister. The second ominous clue is the way her little hand keeps flailing out to the side of the board after she moves, a sign that she’s used to a speed clock. She swoops in with her developed QK and forks my queen on the twelfth move and after that it’s only a matter of time. It doesn’t really matter. I didn’t even start playing chess until my late twenties. On move 17 three desperately old and related-looking people at the jigsaw puzzle table kind of totter over and watch as I hang my rook and the serious carnage starts. It doesn’t really matter. Neither Deidre nor the hideous mom smiles when it’s over; I smile enough for everybody. None of us says anything about maybe playing again tomorrow.” (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, pp. 325-326.)

This short chess scene echoes central topics of the long essay. One is death, evoked by the word “thanatonic”.

Statue of Thanatos, the personification of death, at the
Temple of Artemis, Ephesos, c. 325-300 BC (Picture: Wikipedia)

The whole scene has an air of sadness and disappointment, the promise of an interesting chess game or at least a pleasant chat with a young girl not fulfilled. Instead, the little girl is described as unhappy, controlled by her “hideous” mother, and the game does not bring much pleasure to either of the opponents. Not to the author who loses and not to the nine-year old girl who cannot enjoy the game because her opponent is too weak.

The feeling of unfulfilled promises, a longing for rewarding relationships, and the search for something meaningful in life pervades the whole essay. In fact, Wallace speculates that most people go on such cruises to ban a fear of death, and he describes the whole cruise as an example of the futility to pursue happiness with endless entertainment.

“There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir – especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased – I felt despair. … A weird yearning for death, combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents a fear of death. … Here’s the thing. A vacation is a respite from unpleasantness, and since consciousness of death and decay are unpleasant, it may seem weird that American’s ultimate fantasy vacation involves being plunked down in an enormous primordial engine of death and decay. But on a 7NC Luxury Cruise, we are skillfully enabled in the construction of various fantasies of triumph over just this death and decay. One way to ‘triumph’ is via the rigors of self-improvement; and the crew’s amphetaminic upkeep of the Nadir is an unsubtle analogue to personal tiviation: diet, exercise, megavitamin supplements, cosmetic surgery, Franklin Quest time-management seminars, etc.

There’s another way out, too, w/r/t (Editor’s note: the abbreviation ‘w/r/t’ that Wallace often uses, stands for ‘with regard to’) death. Not titivation, but titillation. Not hard work but hard play. The 7NC’s constant activities, parties, festivities, gaiety and song; the adrenaline the excitement, the stimulation. It makes you feel vibrant, alive. It makes your existence seem noncontingent.” (A Supposedly Fun Thing, pp. 261-264)

Well, if you take chess at least a little bit seriously, losing is never fun. But not everyone would consider the prospect of a week full of parties or being pampered from dawn to dusk on a week-long luxury cruise as dreadful as Wallace makes it sound in his essay. However, whether you tend to share Wallace’s view on the sense and nonsense of cruises or not, it is remarkable how he uses a game of chess to illustrate and confirm the profound topics he talks about in his essay and that are central to his work.

Cover of Infinite Jest, Wallace's most influential and important book,
a massive novel of 1104 pages, first published 1996 by Little, Brown and Company.

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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