Oh, the Ego

Oct 31, 2014, 11:32 AM |

It is amazing how much a relationship across a chessboard can mean. Many of the greatest chess geniuses--Lasker, Polgar, to name a few--rely heavily on the idea of chess as a psychological struggle; that there is more to the game than how the pieces move. Well. I have a story to illustrate how that dimension of chess can be particularly interesting and satisfying.

A little while ago I was at the house of a new acquaintance of a friday night. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was, of course, the bookshelves; and the first thing I noticed on the bookshelves was a small but impressive selection of chess books. I don't remember all of them, but one was the reference work Modern Chess Openings. Not something you would own without a certain level of expertise. Add to that the fact that the owner of the book was a computer programmer, which often correlates with proficiency in chess (or is it that both are stereotypically Russian pursuits? I don't claim to be a demographer and I prefer not to sound bigoted when I can help it).

Anyway: the impression I formed of this man from his library and his demeanor when he asked me to play was that of a well-traveled journeyman. Here, I thought will be a game in which I learn something. Of course I was right; one learns something every game. But I did not learn much about chess, except that I am really good at tactics if the other person hasn't the first clue what he is doing (which, to be fair, is probably how Mikhail Tal felt about every player but one or two he ever faced).

What I learned instead is that looks can be deceiving from both sides. I assumed he was a good player because of certain tells in posture; it turns out if you successful enough as a computer programmer, you can infuse confidence into everything you do, whether well or badly, and you can buy a few chess books on a lark that, though they would suggest frequent or deep perusal (think back to any household you've seen with a book of abstract mathematics or continental philosophy tossed, as if after recent use, on the coffee table) are not indicative of the frequency or depth of study. But turn the situation around. Why was he so confident going into the game? I don't just mean he was a confident guy; why did he think he would pose a challenge to me and then spectacularly fail to register even as a burr on the pants-leg of my already picayune proficiency in chess? Presumably because he had never played someone even at my skill level.

The picture emerges of what I would provisionally like to call a "pediatric chess player"--someone who, when he was young, was permitted to win; and, when he grew older, played chess only with the very young. That was the environment in which I was raised. Pursuits like chess, piano practice, and other arts, however sophisticated, howevermuch excellence in such pursuits demands lifelong attention even from the most naturally apt devotees, were never pursued by the adults of my family, which is ironic because it is impossible to be an expert at any of those things (except in extraordinary circumstances) as a child.

Why is it that we leave aside the things that give our lives meaning just at the point when our lives need meaning? Chess--or an analogous activity--may be fun for a kid. But everything is fun for a kid; fun is precisely the word for the lack of accountability most kids have until they reach some stage of adolescence. As an adult though? With the yearly, incremental accrual of responsibilities that constitutes adulthood, does an adult not need, whereas children merely like, chess?

Children need chess and other intellectual pursuits to grow; but don't adults need them to survive? Aren't the stresses of adulthood so great that, even more than as children, we need games to be a daily or at least weekly part of our existence? Why, then, do we not make a priority of such pursuits? And if we do not, are we simply perpetuating a system in which our children in their own course learn to trivialize intellectual pursuits unless they are directly profitable? It is only a short step to music, art, and gym being cancelled from the public schools and the departments of drama, German, Russian, and a few others, being abolished at SUNY Albany a few years back.

I recognize these are rhetorical questions; but do feel free to respond.

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