Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dalton Tournament Report, Part 2

When I mentioned to a friend this evening that I'd played in an Amish checkers tournament over the weekend, his first question-- well, right after "wait, there's such thing as a checkers tournament?!"-- was about the level of cultural engagement among the Amish players, particularly in terms of technology. Did the reality, he wanted to know, match up with the stereotypes of a community "as primitive as can be"? I was curious about that myself, especially since the shops in Shipshewana (the site of the 2009 Indiana tourney) tended to play up the campy Amish stereotypes for the benefit of tourists-- who were presumably never punched, even if they deserved it. Dalton had a much less flashy and more domestic feel to it, with folks were just going about their business like they do in thousands of other small towns. In fact, the back roads I took to get to the tournament site-- after, shall we say, an unplanned detour from the standard GPS route-- weren't that different from portions of my central Illinois hometown, and even closer to my sister-in-law's neighborhood in rural Maryland, notwithstanding the occasional horse-and-buggy and the roads covered with almost as much manure as your average 1/0 chatroom at Kurnik.

Well, that comparison is not entirely fair, I suppose. My beloved Illinois roads, being smack in the middle of the Great Plains, are comfortingly flat and boring, with logical 90-degree intersections and visibility to spare. Dalton, being some 400 miles closer to the Appalachian Mountains, boasts considerably hillier country and tortuously twisty roads. The twists didn't bother me so much, since I was already driving below the speed limit (no doubt annoying any local drivers who had the misfortune to follow me) in the interests of (a) keeping up with my GPS's instructions and (b) not crashing my Camry into a cornfield. But the constant hills really got to me, even in broad daylight with almost no traffic to worry about: every time I would crest one, part of my brain would start panicking, 99% sure that if I didn't brake and proceed with caution then an eighteen-wheeler would come barreling up the hill and blindside me. No, that wasn't a particularly rational response, but type-A drivers like me really really like the predictable evenness of a calm, flat road. (Conversely, my brakes-are-for-wusses little brother rather enjoys driving in the mountains. Go figure.) Remove that predictability, and even the most benign buggy may as well be a mess-making Mack truck. So, Ohio Department of Transportation, let's work on leaving the roller coasters to Cedar Point, hm?

In any case, I made it to the tournament (and back home, via the rather faster-paced curves of Interstate 71) in one piece, so back to Amish culture. To answer your first question, my dear Wormwood, yes, there was electricity. Our playing room, in fact, was both well-lit and air-conditioned, and I found an outlet within easy reach of the referee's table to charge my laptop and Blackberry-- which did in fact get reception, allowing me to post round updates on the ACF Forum (motto: "We Don't Moderate Your Posts, So Why Should You?"). For that matter, aside from the general absence of cars and personal computers, the level of technology was about what you'd expect in any American home. Many of the players carried cellphones (though presumably sans email or texting), and my host for Friday night showed off a snazzy remote control that controlled the ceiling fan and overhead light in the room where I slept. And even with the "missing" technologies, such as my laptop, my impression was that the Amish folks simply chose not to use them for one reason or another, and not that they objected to the objects' existence or to others using them. So, most of the non-locals rented a van (and hired a driver) to get to the tournament, and they left all the tournament data entry to me, but no one objected to the laptop or the van itself. Yes, these choices do isolate them from some methods of communication and some sources of information-- computer analysis of tough positions, for example-- but they've made those choices carefully and keep them in good faith, which is really all any of us can do.

Seeing as I grew up in a multilingual home (my mom is bilingual and my dad teaches various European languages) and have maintained a (very) amateur interest in linguistics, I would be remiss to finish this part of the report without talking about the distinctive linguistic environment at the tournament. As you may already know, many Amish communities speak both English and Pennsylvania Dutch, which itself draws on various German and Dutch dialects as well as some English loanwords. In fact, Wayne County (where Dalton is located) has the eighth-largest PD-speaking population in the US, and in nearby Holmes County one in five residents speak it. So, it's not surprising that all of the Amish players at this tournament (and their families) were fully bilingual, and could code-switch at will, depending on the audience and situation. Since I studied German in high school and college, and since I studied code-switching (in the context of Japan-raised American missionary kids) for a college research project, the whole process piqued my interest.

While I don't think they did so in any attempt to be exclusionary, or even necessarily as a conscious act, many of the players switched to PD when they faced a tricky situation on the board, or (often) to make quick comments on a game or position. And like most checker players, the more animated they got about a given position, the faster they chattered and the more they laughed. At times, I could pick out dialectal versions of German vocab I knew, like when they used "schoen" (though their pronunciation is closer to Wayne Newton's than to the Hochdeutsch version), meaning "nice" or "sweet," to describe a move or technique. And, of course, I picked up some intermixed English words (some adapted to PD dialect and structure, and some representing code switches) like "two-shot" for "double-jump," at least when I knew to listen for them from the context of the conversation. (All of these snippets, I should add, were overheard: everyone switched to English when addressing me or when I was directly involved in the conversation.) But even when the underlying gist of the conversation was clear enough from context, or when I could translate enough of it from PD to German to English to decipher a certain phrase, I couldn't quite get everything quickly and fully enough to participate.

I bring this up because it struck me as a great analogy for jumping among the various levels of competitive checkers, particularly in my current transition from a strong major to weak master player. To be sure, we do plenty of code switching in the checkers world to start with: even if we just switch vocabulary (for instance, when we move from talking about openings in general to debating the relative virtues of the Alma and the Old Fourteenth) and not dialects, there's still a mental and linguistic adjustment. But on a deeper level, every game-- even the published ones-- are multi-layered and combine lots of different elements in ways that are more or less clear to a given player at a given stage of his or her development. After the tournament, one of the players remarked that you have to watch the entire board to play well, and can't just focus on one section of it. He was right, of course, and I would argue that the same thing holds true for the mental processes and strategic ideas involved.

A couple years back, for instance, I played one of my first tournament games against Alex Moiseyev. I lost, of course, but in this particular case we got to the late midgame/early endgame before the weakness in my position became indefensible and I resigned. During the subsequent post-mortem, Alex paused at one position, and I pointed out that I'd avoided a particular move because it led to a shot. He saw the same shot, naturally, but quick as a wink played ten or fifteen moves beyond it into the endgame, showing how I could have recovered the lost piece but ultimately would have been forced into a losing ending. Suddenly, my seeing the initial shot didn't really matter: it was more important, I saw, to know how to play the continuation properly, all the way down to the last move. To draw a linguistic analogy, the shot, like any of the tactical elements or strategic principles comprising our game, is like a word or a sentence in the language of checkers. You or I might make a move because it's published play, because it sets a trap, because it follows a general principle, because it looks interesting, or simply because it seemed like a good idea at the time. But the more I play masters and study their games, the more I realize that the vocabulary and the set phrases-- or even the entire memorized conversations (pet lines) on a precious few openings-- are not nearly as important as grasping the multiple ideas bubbling beneath the surface. What I need, and perhaps what we all need, is not so much a checkers phrasebook (though such an invention might help more than one "checkers widow" cope with tournament chatter!) but rather checkers fluency: knowing how and why to manipulate every aspect of the game, from the opening to the final move. I don't know how far I'll get in that process, and so far Rosetta Stone hasn't come out with a Checkers Immersion Program yet. But in spite of the crybabies, proggers, sophomores, and would-be book thieves that occasionally show up in checkerdom, I have a feeling that I won't be able to quit trying to pick out one more phrase. Schoene games, everyone, and I'll see you back here later to look at some of this weekend's matches.

1 comment:

  1. Gut gespielt und schoen geschreiben, Soehnchen mein! Really, an enjoyable read and an interesting comparison between verbal dialects and non-verbal but equally communicative ones.