Nkosi Nkululeko

Isolated Pawns
“…we no longer consider it necessary to render an enemy [isolated pawn] absolutely immobile; on the contrary, we like to give him the illusion of freedom, rather than shut him up in a cage.”
                    –– Aron Nimzovich, “My System

An introductory element to Chess is Pawn Structures. Collectively, a player’s 8 pawns forward themselves into war, establishing unique formations likened to pastoral landscapes each piece navigates; grenades in a garden. In the modern classic “How to Reassess Your Chess” International Master Jeremy Silman briefly describes the Isolated Pawn as “…potentially weak because no other pawn can defend it.” So, what are the effects of a pawn’s loneliness?

During the global quarantine, resulting from the pandemic, COVID-19, I’ve even more hours to confine myself to the board. Clocks wind as does my mind through baffling variations of the pawns’ deceptive simplicity. When teaching, I often begin with “pawn games,” removing knights, bishops, rooks, and queens from play, only to find an equally difficult battle. After a few captures the infinitesimal warriors are scarce, abandoned of familial pawns on neighboring files, thus creating Isolated Pawns, Pawn Islands, Isolani, etc. “Since no pawns can stand by its side, the square directly in front of it also tends to be vulnerable” Silman continues. When a player settles a minor (knights, bishops) or major (rooks, queens) piece in front of an isolani, this is known as a “blockade.”

Exploiting detachment is an effective strategy to prevent your opponent’s development without being attacked yourself. In these scenarios, the pawn island demands the player to question the dollar bill’s identification of e pluribus unum, one of many. But how does one decipher this at the chessboard? Does it ask of us our dedication for conformity or a tolerance of our expendability?

My grandmother, Saint Missionary Mary, is a member of the United House of Prayer for All People, a protestant church she’s faithfully supported during the mid to late 20th century. The church provided the spiritual needs for its members and Mary passed on her views of vocation and allegiance to her children, my mother among them, the oldest of 4. However, the church demanded a kind of dangerous devotion many our unwilling to talk about to this day. What my mother’s family practiced required some unethical rationalizations of their internal hierarchies, restricting her personal forms of expression. My grandmother is not fully protected by the church she herself protects, mirrored by the fact of my mother not protected by the parent she herself protects. Faith, it seems, is like a game in which your army is forced to defend the pawn that’s likely to jeopardize your position.

In every story like this there’s conflict, dogmatism making animals of all of us, my mother seeking refuge elsewhere, that “elsewhere” becoming a space perpetuating the same restrictions she sought to escape. A cycle of boxes. What my mother learned was independence, not of spite but survival. On the chessboard, we’ve our resources, units used to achieve a singular goal: to checkmate the enemy king. I’m interested in where privacy comes into this both solitary and communal game. What is the meaning of a lone pawn’s aspiration if it only suits a single objective and not a familial dance en masse?

I reflect on author and Grandmaster John Nunn’s “Understanding Chess Move by Move,” where he analyzes a game between the two grandmasters Gata Kamsky and Nigel Short (PCA Candidates match, Linares 1994) and goes on to explain the pros and cons of the isolani; “…the owner of the isolated pawn usually prefers there to be many pieces on the board. His opponent, on the other hand, should seek exchanges with a view to reaching an ending in which only the negative side of the [isolated pawn] is apparent.”

The independence I learned from my mother resonated with me as a child and adolescent. I digested the narratives of chess figures such as Bobby Fischer who seemingly invented a private haven within the mind. The religious, political and personal declarations Fischer made later in his life were distasteful to say the least; from the denouncement of trust in former confidants to announcing political propaganda involving anti-Semitism. The Isolated Pawn is heavily influenced by the political climate of the board. Isolation also teaches that it can damage our surroundings as well.

In Shane McCrae’s “In the Language of My Captor” he inspects a branch of isolation I briefly mentioned before. Privacy. In his pair of poems “Privacy” and “Privacy 2” they both begin with:

                    I tell the keeper I don’t know
                    What he or any white man means
                    When he says privacy

                    In the phrase In the privacy
                    Of one’s own home               / I understand
                    he thinks he means a kind of
                    Militarized aloneness

The meaning of privacy muddies itself in the context of family, chess, or war. Upon reaching the second stanza we come to the italicized In the privacy/ Of one’s own home, a phrase through which safety is supposed to be affirmed for us. It’s supposed to be a place on our side of the chessboard, where we can safely retreat. Yet, the speaker reassesses their position to what is “permissible” when dealing with a militarized force. “He thinks he means a kind of/ Militarized aloneness”.

When playing my father in chess, he’d recite something to the effect of “there’s a difference between playing chess and moving pieces.” We may be privy to the rules of the game, even the vocabulary used for specific scenarios but like the keeper in McCrae’s “Privacy” we ourselves may not fully understand the mechanics or heritage in the moves we make.

Both the speaker and the keeper are ignorant of their own language. On one side, the speaker cannot trust the definition he was formerly taught of privacy. Privacy enacts a strategical risk. In chess puzzles, the author may inform the reader the category of tactics they’re attempting to solve; Remove the guard, / White to play and mate, / Deflection and Decoy, but over the board there’s no context available.

                                        / I understand
                    he thinks he means a kind of
                    Militarized aloneness.

I understand/ he thinks, the speaker is observant of the degrees of ‘certainty.’ The unspoken dialogue between the speaker, the keeper and the reader make it painfully necessary to name a violence we exchange. So the word Isolated in Isolated Pawn is a false identification if we consider the entire landscape.

When a king is attacked, he turns into a liability, and suddenly all the pieces lose some of their coordination. My grandmother is still cared for by the children she shared or projected her religious practices with, the same children who expressed discomfort of what occurred in the “privacy of their home.” She, though troubled by choices she alone made, sits at the board’s axis, balanced between her faith for a church that seemed to have left her for dead and the children who are slowly watching her die.

In McCrae’s opening lines to Privacy he simply claims

                    I tell the keeper I don’t know
                    What he or any white man means

Chess is understood to be a game of Perfect Information. If played with exact precision, the game will end in a draw. The problem with this is our inherent weaknesses, the mind’s limited capacity for information at a given time.

John Nunn mentioned that it’s in the best interest for one to exchange pieces until their opponent’s lone soldier becomes a poison as opposed to an asset. When the living are removed from the world of the living, we feel their absence refilling the space again. The duality of security in life can help us or hurt us depending on the context. Within the privacy of our homes, the door is locked and yet, open.

Chess is a game of geometrical invasion. The keeper in McCrae’s poem cannot and will not listen to the contradictory nature of his own language since, to avoid implication he needs illogic to validate his choice of targets.

I tell myself I don’t know what a pawn or any pawn means when they are isolated. I can be naturally distant, and by living with my mother she’s possibly affected by my introverted tendencies. But even now, I’m not thoroughly interrogating how and why I make the choice to be alone. One moment the pawn is left unaccounted for, in the next we pass the years excusing choices we’ve made at the expense of others. I believe we exchange the loneliness we think we deserve. How can I ignore the feeling I have when I open the door to my mother? It becomes a privacy earned. It’s a moment unrecordable, our haunting seclusion evaporated, a game fulfilled.



Nkosi Nkululeko, Poets House and Saltonstall Foundation of the Arts Fellow, is winner of Michigan Quarterly Review’s Page Davidson Clayton Prize for Emerging Poets 2018, is published in places such as Callaloo, The Adroit Journal, The Offing, Ploughshares, and is anthologized in The Bettering American, The Best American Poetry 2018 and Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry. Nkosi live and teaches music and chess in Harlem, New York.