Monday, 24 September 2012

The Worst (Research) Day of My Life (Part 3)

In previous posts, I described the agony of August 22 in 1992 and 1994. But August 22 was not quite finished with me. In 1995 I started writing a book on the Chinook story (eventually published as One Jump Ahead in 1997, the predecessor to the 2009 edition). I signed a publishing contract and then...

… work began in earnest on the book. I had lots that I wanted to say, and the words seemed to effortlessly flow from my mind to the printed page. But there was one chapter (or more precisely, part of a chapter) that I kept avoiding, one story that I just couldn’t find the inner strength to write. Every time I tried to compose the words, I felt a deep sense of unease and would put it off to another day. Eventually another day came. It was the last chapter; I had to write it.

[August 22, 1992.] Game 18 of the 1992 Tinsley match. Infamous game 18. Forfeit.

I can vividly remember every detail of the closing moments of that game. I remember the stage, the board, Tinsley, the audience. I remember daydreaming about a possible win—going up three wins to one in the match—and then the abrupt reality check as Chinook revised its assessment downward to a draw. I remember being angry with my disappointment at the likely draw outcome. I remember the surge of adrenalin that I felt when it dawned on me that there might be a problem with Chinook. I remember the horror as I helplessly watched my much-loved creation forfeit. But most of all I remember the whispers. I remember the murmur from the audience as spectators talked to each other in hushed tones. “Why isn’t the program moving?” Someone in the audience said exactly those words, just loud enough that I could hear them. Those words, barely rising above the din, became permanently etched in my mind.

I can recall the sound in the room slowly rising as more spectators started whispering, wondering what was going on. It was like an orchestra, which reached a crescendo the moment Chinook’s flag fell signaling a forfeit. During all of this I can still recall—no, feel—the sense of helplessness that overcame me as I sat on the stage with 200 pairs of eyes staring at me with confused and concerned expressions. I can recall so much of those final minutes. It’s all indelibly seared on my brain.

Then the nightmares started. The first one came two months after returning home from London. I would relive the final minutes of game 18 in all its excruciating detail. Most of all I remembered the whispers, the murmurs: “Why isn’t the program moving?” I would awake with a start, with my heart racing and my breathing rapid and shallow. I had great trouble falling back asleep. The nightmares happened several times a month. I don’t know what triggered them or why they were so intense. All I knew was that game 18 had a profound impact on my subconscious psyche.

When it came time to write One Jump Ahead, I found it difficult to turn my feelings about game 18 into words. Eventually, I had to do it. I sat down at my desk, took a few deep breaths and forced myself to confront my emotions. What seemed like a few minutes later, I paused to get a coffee. To my surprise I had somehow managed to write many pages of text. The floodgates had opened, and words just kept coming. I finished the first draft of the text that day, and it went through very little editing to reach its final published form (unlike most other chapters).

Since that day my nightmare hasn’t reappeared; I’m cured! Writing that fateful text turned out to be therapeutic for me. I wish I had known that when I started work on the book; game 18 would have been the first chapter I wrote, not the last.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Schaeffer,

    Thank you for sharing all of the details of the worst day(s) of your research life. I don't take enjoyment in your pain, but I'm really glad you shared your thoughts, because I find it fascinating! I'm glad writing everything (especially in One Jump Ahead) helped get rid of your past demons (checkers is a very cruel game, as you know first hand). Thank you again for all these posts about Chinook! I'm sure I'm not the only person in the checkers community that is enjoying them!

    — Ryan