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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reality bites 3: playing chess with Mr Cheat

As a battle of minds between two opponents, there is no game in my experience of the world quite like chess. If you have never played chess, or don't like it, or constantly get your tail whupped no matter who you play, don't worry – this isn't a chess lesson. I've been beaten by too many players of indifferent quality to attempt that – not that you want one anyway.

What occurs to me is that a chess game has its parallels to the way cancer plays its game, but with one huge difference. Cancer cheats at every opportunity. Mr C sneaks pawns back on the board when you're distracted, or with sleight of hand substitutes a lost bishop for one of his pawns.

It's like this.  When you set up a game of chess, you have a King that needs protecting at all costs. He can't even be captured and removed from the board till the game's over.

You'd expect him to be the most powerful, hardest-hitting piece on the board, but he's not. He's a lousy fighter and can usually go only one square at any one move. 

He's pretty useless really, but the game's all about keeping him alive. The game ends when he's so boxed in that he's trapped. Check turns into checkmate. Game over.

That's me, you see. The whole game centres on me. Playing against Mr Cancer, I am King, which, as you can see, isn't saying much really. The King's a wimp.

There's my army. Eight pawns forming a defensive line at the front to begin with; they are my infantry, totally expendable. They usually move just one square at a time, forward only. There's no retreat for them and they'll have to go over the top soon in hand to hand combat or face the lances of enemy knights. But used well, they can win a game for me. A normal game, that is.

I've got two bishops. They're true to form in that they stick to their colour, by which I mean that if a bishop starts on a white square, he can only move diagonally in clear space on white squares. If starting on black, he never leaves black squares.

Working together, they can control the game in my favour. Church leaders everywhere know the value of sticking together no matter what. If I lose one, I lose more than half the power of either, as together their power is greater than the sum of their parts.

I've got two knights – formidable fighters because they can hurdle obstacles, like pawns and pieces. They never jump straight, so my warriors are constantly in danger from sneak attack. They have no morals and work well with bishops, and can threaten several pieces at once.

So much for chivalry. It's not nice to be forked by a knight.

On each end-square are my castles. I don't know whether it's cooler to call them rooks, but as kids we called them castles so I'll stick with that. They move only straight ahead or to the side. They're the big guns that are best used nearer the end, as they need lots of space to move, and the board is too cluttered for that at the start.

Who could I have forgotten? There's one more. Oh, the Queen!

I'm joking, of course – who could forget her? She's the one I build most strategies around. She moves in any direction, given space, and has the combined power of bishops and castles. She protects the lame old King as no other piece of assurance can. These days, it all revolves around her.

I could sacrifice my Queen to win a real game if I'm up against a careless player, but not the game against Mr C. Lose my Queen against him? I'd die first. Or very quickly afterwards.

There's not much chance that I can win the game we two play, but Queenie and I, we can use all our men and our combined wits to string the game out as long as possible.

Where's this heading? Well, when you first get diagnosed with cancer, the game starts. It's a life and death game, so not quite like playing against your sibling, or fooling round with some computer game. Your life is on the line – so it's worth thinking about how you'll play it.

When the game begins, you are probably at the strongest you'll be from here on. Other parts of your body remain sound, functioning well. You have your armoury intact - for the moment at least.

What makes the difference now is most likely your strategy.  There are three phases of the battle against Mr C, just like in chess – the opening, the middle, and the end game. 

If there is such a thing as chance in chess, it's probably only in who goes first, because that first move will dictate to an extent the direction of the game.

But against Mr C, no. He always gets first go. The moment you get your diagnosis, he's already made his first move – probably long before you knew you were in the game. You don't get to toss a coin. You're in. It tends to concentrate your mind, as the old saying about the prospect of hanging goes.

Of course, there are other variables in chess as well as in the cancer game. In chess, it may be whether you've had a bad [or too good!] night before the game, the quality and style of your opponent compared with yours, and audience participation. In cancer, it's the type of cancer, your age and sex, your attitude and your support team, both personal and medical.

In chess, after that first move, the weak player will be on the defensive, staying close to their end of the board. In cancer, it's the doubt that creates weakness. The options are on the table – and there always are options – and you have to choose which way to go.

Opening gambits
The good chess player will use the opening moves to get the right pieces out into strategic places on the no-man's-land in the middle. The cancer players better get theirs sorted out and ready for action, and not waste too much time mucking about. The more time you sit doing nothing, the stronger your cancer gets. Research it, listen to those you reckon you can trust, and then make your move decisively. Have no regrets. No matter what the outcome, you did what you thought was best based on the evidence and advice available.

Then, you're into the middle game. That's the game of attrition. You willingly sacrifice pawns and pieces to take something off the board belonging to your opponent that you feel has higher value than what you surrendered. You play a forcing game when you can; i.e., you make the move that forces your opponent to dance to your tune. You flummox them by taking their knight in exchange for yours. The knights may be of equal value in theory, but you've upset their strategy, or so you hope.

At the clinic against Mr C, you take the initiative as well. This is probably the part of that game where you hit him with radiotherapy, chemotherapy – all that nasty stuff. This is your personal war of attrition. You're damaging the healthy parts of your body deliberately in exchange for what you hope is net gain.

If it's a tumour like mine, you're buying time, or trying to. In other cancer cases, the prize may be far richer. So do what you must. The alternative is to do nothing, in which case it will be a short game.

Mr C, as I said, plays a mean chess game. He loves the sneakier moves; en passant, where his pawn suddenly changes lane and knifes one of yours in the chest; or castling, where vital pieces are allowed to switch positions. 

That's how it can be with cancer. Mr C stretches the rules or breaks them when you don't expect it. He kicks your shins under the table and takes two goes at one time. There's no umpire to appeal to. You just play on.

Approaching end game
So by the end of the middle game, the trench warfare is over and the battlefield is strewn with victims now lined up beside the board. You count your losses.

In my case, it's a bit grim. I played fair, dammit, but he has cheated all along. I've gone to the bathroom and come back to find half my pawns are missing. My knights are skewered and my bishops have done a deal with him and have gone into hiding in the Vatican. A castle that never entered the fray is now sitting beside the board, the shock victim of his knight fork.

He hasn't escaped injury, but he's strong. He has nearly all his pawns now as well.... What? Cheating mongrel! He just grins and says they were lying low. They're jostling for position. I know what they're up to, but can I stop them? He has some very powerful pieces to defend them as they march towards me. I, wimpy old King.

I'm staring down the barrel but it's not over yet. The most elegant part of the game of chess has arrived – the end game, which is a different game altogether from the smash and grab raids we've just been through.

I have a castle and a few pawns. Most importantly, I have my queen.  

Now give me a little time, and I'll tell you a bit about the end game.

Continued to final part.


  1. There's nothing wimpy about you, Denis - please let it be that your opponent has met his match

    1. Maybe it's that I feel wimpy. It's a part of the process of reaction to losing independence – and authority – in so many ways. After a lifetime of these, dependence doesn't sit well.

      Kings in many cases are rather weak creatures, if history is any guide. They may have heads chopped off, but it's others who do it – and often it's others who make the suggestions the king accepts.

      I look at the Tudor monarchs [except Liz], or the Mughal or Ming emperors – or the US President. They were all weakened in some ways by becoming the apparent top dog.

      They might be at the top of the mountain, but when it gets foggy they only see those in a ten foot radius.

  2. When I still had time for such luxuries, I downloaded a computer chess game on to my PC. I started at level 10, with an opponent who was called something like 'Aunt Agatha's Cat' and, when I had finally had a couple of wins, I moved up to level 9, where my opponent was 'Beginner Fred'.

    It took a long time, but finally I played a game where I forced Fred into a corner. I had him in check twice but he wriggled out of it. Then I had him beaten; nowhere to go. "Check Mate" I told the computer in triumph.

    Guess what? ... Fred castled.

    "You can't do that," I said. "It's against the rules".

    But like old Briar Rabbit, Fred just lay there and said nuthin".

    It was like dealing with bureaucracy.

    1. Maybe 'Beginner Fred' was really Brian learning his tricks. Programmer fail!

      Good old Brer Rabbit. "An' the tar baby, he lay low...."

      That was one of the funnier stories in our reading book, along with Tom Sawyer getting all the other kids to whitewash the fence.

      You must remember this.... :)

  3. The lack of independence is one main reason that I questioned a while ago whether it is harder on the 'carer'. One of my mother's main upsets is that she can no longer make ME a cup of tea. Even such a simple thing. That distresses her. I'm the strong one, who can do anything, though I try to 'allow' her do whatever she can. No matter how tired or upset I may be, I see that I am capable and independent. I tell her that she is still giving me a lot by just being there with all her love. And it's true.It's the biggest 'doing' of all, the being the special person that you are.

    Julie xx

    1. That part is hard on both. What's hard for me to do is so easy for Tracey or Christian or the girls, but it's so hard to let that go. I feel like your Mum, sitting here like a useless log while being made cups of tea or coffee, and Tracey may be tired but she prefers to do it for obvious enough reasons.

      When I do make a cup and she's in the lounge and sees me wobbling painfully slowly towards her with the cup in none-too-stable hand, it's all she can do not to jump up and take it from me – potentially for the sake of the carpet and the cleanup if nothing else!

      Yet I feel as pleased when I manage it as the kids who've made a terrible breakfast for their mother on Mother's Day that she is now condemned to eat in bed whether she likes it or not.

      My poor old Mum was the same. Towards the end she'd hobble round her kitchen with her gammy arm and leg, and insist on making the tea, and it was painful all round.

      It's a terrible irony that I am now doing so many of the same things; even more so that in her 80s she could do them better than I can now.

      It's Mother's Day. Bless them all in reality and memory.

      And bless others who are doing mothers' tasks, like so many whether they have children or not [or who may not even be women.]

    2. Who cares about the carpet. It's a thing. When your brain is still brilliant, as yours and my mum's are, the person is all that matters. I'm saying that you are giving and sustaining in ways you may forget to appreciate.


  4. I've heard that the advice to carers is always to allow the disabled person to do as much as they can regardless of how painful it is to watch them take 3 hours to tie their shoelaces. I have a friend with a blind husband, and she is the one who told me what this is like for both of them. Scary and frustrating for her; empowering for him.

    While recently in Canberra at a ceramics workshop, I had beside me a full cup of coffee in one of those tiny thermos-like cups with a lid. One of the other students was giving her presentation, and I responded enthusiastically to something she said with a sweep of my hand which knocked the cup clear across the table. The lid did not come off. By some miracle of design, I did not jettison the speaker's flight by disgracing myself in front of the class. Perhaps someting like this is a solution to the treachery of cups of tea.

    1. That advice to carers is good. My b-i-l John passed it on to me by way of a friend of his and truly, it is nice to emerge from the bedroom having showered and dressed myself. All by myself. It could take >3/4hr all up. Less if the shoelace bow goes right first time.

      I toyed with the idea of writing about it but – we'll see. People might be shocked if I invite them into my shower. It's not a pretty sight but they'd see how I have to do stuff like manoeuvre to wash under my arms. Quite a challenge!

      So far, I haven't actually sprayed tea or coffee all over the room or table. I'll look on it as a challenge. You'll just have to keep those talking arms down!

  5. I think my friend with the blind husband might be tempted to draw the line while watching him wash the best china and crystal after a well-lubricated dinner party, but 3/4 of an hour for a shower and dress up, well Denis, you're definitely in training to be a woman in your next life, where it will take you 3-4 hours to do that to your satisfaction.

    I'm delighted to hear you haven't yet sprayed tea or coffee all over the room. More excitements await you :). I'm also delighted that I haven't done that either, and in future intend to keep my arms more under control.

    1. Heh! I knew I should have written three-quarters of an hour or 45 mins. instead of 3/4....

  6. Joan!!!!!! I do NOT spend 3-4 hours in the bathroom and I bet you don't either, LOL! In fact there is a bath hog in our house and it's not female.(yes..then it'd be a 'bath sow' oh dear, where is this going?)
    A friend who is a counsellor had to do a course to understand ability 'from the other side'. She had to be in a wheelchair and request help for every little thing. A bit like those exercises where students have to mind an egg as if it is a baby:) She was suitably humbled.

    Julie xx

    1. I think the best exercise in that department is when some politicians agreed to use nothing but a wheelchair to get about for an entire day. They found it was a whole new and frustrating mode of transport, as you can imagine. [I know someone who reads this blog is permanently wheel-chair bound, and could say much more about that.]

      I've also said that when people get elected to parliament they and their families should have to forgo their private health fund for the duration and rely on the public system. I suspect that might result in an improvement in both the quality of health care and of politicians.

      But then I'm both naive and cynical, which is a very bad combination.

  7. The world is a lot more wheelchair-friendly than it used to be. The new university building in Saskatchwan (1975) had one of the first disabled toilets. Problem was, you had to go up three steps to get to it. Duh. If "disabled" people were employed to work with architects on buildings, etc., or be architects themselves, then the concept of "disabled access" would be redundant.

    Didn't Paul Keating refuse to take out private health insurance for himself and his family? And wasn't he criticised for taking public health services away from the public?

    On bath-hogs. Actually, Denis, I was impressed that you take only 3/4 of an hour to shower and dress in your predicament. Well done. I've known fully able people who hog the bathroom for far longer periods of time, putting on their face. At one point my poor brother would stand outside the bathroom door, in a hurry to dress for work, complaining that I must have the cleanest teeth in Canada.

    1. I wrote a reply to this and then lost it for a dumb reason I won't go into - so, back to the drawing board.

      I was saying how costly it must be to add on Disabled Access after buildings have been completed or are old. A few at the UNE must have cost a fortune to add and are as ugly as sin. And you're right - Access was never designed by someone who has to use it, so it seems.

      I didn't know the PK story but I applaud it - of course politicians of all sorts are on a hiding to nothing no matter what they do.

      I also gave a link about a terrible make-up exercise that has a creepy fascination to it. It came via a friend, Jan Whittaker, but you really need faster access than your satellite to view it. For others, here's the link:

      No further comment! It was checking that link that made me lose the browser last time - but that was for a problem unique to my setup.


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