Kenneth Rogoff On Chess And Debt

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.


  • 5 years ago


    I was fortunate to meet both Ken and future-IM Jon Tisdall at a big Rochester Chess Club event at the old Midtown YMCA in the early 70s.  I waited for a chance at a skittles game with Ken between rounds, and drew with Black, and as a reward he gave me another game.  One of the highlights of my chess career.

  • 5 years ago


    I am a few years younger than Ken Rogoff, but we both grew up in the Rochester NY area.  When I was active OTB in high school, back in the 70s, he had already moved away, but "Rogoff rumours" were still common at the Rochester Chess Club and at tournaments.   "I heard he is coming back to play"  "Did you ever meet him?" and so forth. ( For the record I never met him - he was already a distant legend when I first heard of him.)  It is very interesting to me these days to hear him speak as an economist on NPR, since to me he will always be that mythical chess player of my formative years.  He is without doubt the strongest player ever to come out of the Rochester NY area.

  • 5 years ago


    I think he's right, that to become really good at anything, you have to become addicted/obsessed.  And I think it's up to each person to decide how healthy that is.

  • 5 years ago


    very nice article

  • 5 years ago


    Fantastic! Very revealing. Never heard of him though, but he was a top player.

  • 5 years ago


    Great article...thanks!

  • 5 years ago


    Very interesting. I had never heard of this guy before. Nice article!

  • 5 years ago


    Rogoff's recent book, This Time is Different is a brilliant analysis of over enthusiasm in markets.  In chess, if you don't become a super GM, can you make a decent living?  The answer for most very strong players is no, but of course a number do okay teaching, and or writing books.  It is easy to see why many of even the very strong players eventually quit the game.

  • 5 years ago


    Thanks Sonof, great as always. Very insightful. I wish I was that good at chess that I became addicted and had to give it up to go and make loads of money. Money mouth

    Oh well.Cry

    Probably saved himself from insanity. What's that old cherry - '..... insanity .... genius..... ya-di-ya-di-ya' ? (something like that!)

    Also, I'd like to keep ALL of my hair for now, and much after I'm 58. 

  • 5 years ago


    Very interesting.

  • 5 years ago


    I believe Kim Commons was a very talented US IM who quit chess to make way more $ as a realtor, maybe he and Rogoff could start a club of retired chess players.

  • 5 years ago


    I've made a correction to the FT article text here - I think that Karpov was 20 and Rogoff was 18 when they played in 1971 (as Rogoff confirms in his biography). The original article says they were 18 and 16 respectively.

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