Kenneth Rogoff On Chess And Debt

Feb 6, 2012, 3:02 PM |

Kenneth Rogoff (pictured) was a gifted young Grandmaster of the 1970s who quit being an impoverished chess player for a successful and lucrative career in economics.

Now, some decades later he is the 58 year-old Professor of Economics at Harvard University, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, and bestselling author of "This Time Is Different".

But is he happy? Wink

The Financial Times newspaper recently published an interview with Rogoff as part of its "Lunch With The FT" series, where chess was a major topic of discussion.

Some excerpts are below, and the full interview is here.

Improbably, for a future Harvard professor, (Rogoff) was also a high school dropout. “A lot of my last years of high school, I essentially missed,” he says. “I just played chess, I did nothing else.”

“I was living kind of a bohemian lifestyle. I would be playing chess in top tournaments in five-star hotels and then sometimes sleeping in railway stations, because I wasn’t making much money. Or maybe just because I was stupid.”

When he was 18, Rogoff met and played Anatoly Karpov, who was 20 at the time and later became world champion. “He was meant to be an English major, so I went up to speak to him, and it was quite clear he didn’t speak any English.” So how did they communicate? “I had taught myself some Russian, so I could read chess books. “Karpov,” he recalls admiringly, “just understood chess, so well.” Rogoff concluded that although he could certainly beat Karpov in individual games, he was unlikely to best him consistently.

Karpov versus Rogoff in Puerto Rico



Rogoff’s real hero, however, was Bobby Fischer, the American chess champion of the 1970s. He remembers following the games from the famous Fischer-Spassky world chess championship in 1972, and being awed by Fischer’s play – “It was like seeing the hand of God at work; the originality, the simplicity.” Fischer even paid the teenaged Rogoff the compliment of analysing and praising one of his games in an article. But Rogoff did not let that go to his head. “I took that to mean that he knew I could never beat him. Because I knew he was hyper-competitive. I completely understood the message,” he chuckles.

Kenneth Rogoff at 16 - already the U.S. under-21 champion


“Being very good at anything involves being somewhat addicted – so part of my strategy of moving on was to give it up completely. I don’t play chess casually...not unless it’s incredibly rude to decline playing.” But chess is still part of his mental make-up. “I think about chess all the time. In boring meetings. Or at night. Sometimes I think about chess to calm myself down, almost like meditation.” Still, he has to be careful not to let the addiction return. “I can’t have chess on my computer. But I think I have it under control most of the time.”


Top Picture from wikipedia. Other pictures and Fischer article link from Kenneth Rogoff's Harvard University biography page.