Chess with Sweat


I wrote this up a little while ago, but I felt it didn’t really go anywhere. I was talking to Tom the other day and he made me think about it again and maybe some clairty was acheived. Maybe.


On Fencing

When I was little I played a lot of chess. I enjoyed the problem solving and the feeling of mastery that comes with any hobby over time, though I didn’t know it yet.

In high school, I did a lot of foil fencing. I remember my first day well. The old French fencing master who came to the school on Wednesdays had a car which reeked of cigarettes when you unloaded the gear. He seemed rude, aloof and almost brutish at first but over the years you began to see the smiles behind his facade whenever a student did well.

One day he gathered all of his students around and told us to stoptrying to sword fight and realise what this really was, “Chess with sweat!” The joy of fencing was the decision making, the strategy, analysing an opponent and replying with sword.

Over time the joy waned for me. Probably I didn’t dedicate myself to competition enough. The school circuit started to bore me as I realised I could win 90 percent of matches in my class on speed and a few staple moves. There are only so many times you can extend your arm and win with an “attack on the preparation” before it gets old.

The fencing master on the other hand was far too fine an opponent. Any time spent against him led to a bruised chest and ego, and a feeling of wasting his time.

If I wanted to progress in a problem solving sport, I needed one where I could beat my head against the problem until I found the easiest way. The path of least resistance. In rock climbing, I found this. It helps as well that climbing was the first time I ever felt strong and powerful. Or that it takes place outside, blending problem solving and my love of wilderness.

Mostly though no one could tell me how I had to do it, and the measuring stick was always in front of you. I was only wasting my own time if I did it wrong. Well, and my belayer’s.

After a while, my own motivation became cloudy. Rules set in and I realised more and more that any sport as pointless and beautiful as rock climbing can only exist through carefully formed style and ethics.

If climbing was also chess with sweat, in alpinism I found something more. Alpine climbing to me is chess with blood, sweat and tears. Against the clock.

In alpinism I found myself vomiting up breakfast at 4:00 am on the moraine, 30 kg pack on my back still. I found myself turning back on a summit several hundred metres from the top because I knew that wasting more time would endanger my friends. I find myself navigating loose rock and melted snow to get down from summits so thin you can only straddle them.

You can’t beat your head against the wall in alpine climbing. If you do it gets very dangerous very fast. You have to watch your opponent, move quickly when you can and realise when you’re beat. And finally I’ve learnt you learn a lot more when you’re beat down, despite the bruises.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alex reaches the belay on an Ice Climb out of Pioneer Hut. You can see he's getting some reward out of it!
Alex reaches the belay on an Alpine Ice Climb out of Pioneer Hut.


The other day from the bouldering mezzanine of the ledge climbing centre, Tom and I watched some people fencing in the adjacent gym. It was interesting to see how much I could still see in the sport where nothing appeared to Tom who didn’t know anything about fencing. I watched people make huge feints and laughed a little inside. I watched fencers train complex drills to get better at masking the moves they were trying to learn.

He remarked to me that it looked like a simple and dull sport. I found myself defending it and explaining that much like rock climbing, the simplest twist of a single finger is often the difference between success and failure.

Tom commented that both he and I seem to have come from competitive individual sport backgrounds which we have completely rejected in favour of sport where you just attempt to better yourself. Sports where the measuring stick is greater than an opponent.  This ran pretty true with my feelings, but as we bouldered and trained throughout the evening, the concerted effort of the fencers as they fought reminded me again of what climbing and training is like.

I remembered when I used to fence; it seemed like the most logical of any sport I had ever tried. The simple martial nature of the thing and the opponent right in front of you was what made sense. Maybe I was angry or something?  Maybe I’m more Zen now? I’d like to think I don’t need to compare myself to other people.

Maybe I’m just as enthralled as I was or before and don’t realise how futile or silly what I’m into really is.  The stakes are higher than before, but so are the rewards. The real question isn’t whether or not climbing is richer for the lack of an opponent, it’s has my motivation really changed?


2 thoughts on “Chess with Sweat

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