The Monkey Rock

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

Humans, like all primates, often show behaviour largely dictated by social status and prestige. This applies to practically everything we do: the way we talk, the way we do business, the way we do politics, and the way we play chess. The photo that Beckett wanted to adorn the front cover of his first published novel 'Murphy' I recently read a fascinating little book by the Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk (who, by the way, conducted one of the most interesting interviews with Garry Kasparov I've ever seen) about Dutch politics. In his book, Luyendijk writes about the political arena in the Netherlands from a journalistic perspective, and how important social status is in it: who you know, who you talk to - that's more important than skills, knowledge and experience. More than once, he refers to the political (journalist) scene as the "monkey rock" - a reference to the complex and often strictly hierarchical social structures in monkey societies. His observations can easily be extended to the chess world as well. In chess, status is primarily indicated not by social class or physical strength, but by ratings and titles. When I'm in a room with lots of players far above my own strength, I will probably be more quiet than in a room with beginners, and I wouldn't dare to speak my mind on chess-related matters with grandmasters without being spoken to first. It somehow feels totally rude. On the other hand, when I'm analyzing a game with my opponent, I always feel a pang of annoyance whenever a weaker kibitzer boldly suggests a move on our board - even if it's in fact a very strong move. Such is the power of status in chess. I once witnessed Kasparov doing a post-mortem with his opponent during the VSB chess tournament in Amsterdam, back in the '90s. Some journalist who was making notes dared to point out to Kasparov that he was hanging a piece in some variation. Kasparov looked at him incredulously and ignored him for the rest of the day and probably longer. I still don't know whether the journalist was right or not, and it doesn't matter. One simply doesn't contradict the World Champion. I think this is something most chess players feel intuitively, just like they will probably step aside a little if they see a strong grandmaster approaching in the playing hall. Make way for the big monkey with the blue buttocks. When you start thinking about it, the status phenomenon pops up in almost every aspect of our game. First of all, it just looks good to be seen in conversation with a grandmaster. This is something Luyendijk describes vividly when it comes to politicians. Journalists do anything to be seen with the prime minister or some high-ranked party member. At tournaments, I've often had chess friends coming up to me after they saw me talking to a GM, asking me things like 'Wow, what did you discuss with him?' - as if they might tell me their best novelties. As with monkeys, status is also particularly attractive to women. Ever wondered why those pretty chess women go out "walking with gorillas down the chess street", to paraphrase Joe Jackson's brilliant song Is She Really Going Out With Him? Now you know. And why is it so difficult to play even weak IMs in simuls? Of course, it's because they call the shots and you should be lucky to have been granted a seat at all.


Then there's the funny privileges IMs and GMs are entitled to. Usually (at least in Europe) they don't have to pay entry fees for a tournament they participate in. This sounds natural, until you start thinking about it. Weaker players with normal jobs actually pay to play in a tournament where they're supposed to lose to titled players so they can pay their salary. What weird kind of logic is that? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Surely if the titled players don't like those ordinary jobs they should at least pay the weakies to be allowed to beat them up? I once half-jokingly suggested to a well-known chess organizer that he should hold a tournament (with very high prizes), where only titled players would have to pay an entry fee, just to make it a fair contest. He looked at me as if I was crazy. In fact, I got the impression he felt personally insulted by my idea. I guess he felt we should all be grateful to be able to watch these masters at work, but apparently he wasn't able to make the distinction between run-of-the-mill IMs (whose financial situation isn't really top of my list of concerns) and the world class elite (whom I'd happily shower with golden coins each time they show me their 23...Qg3!! stuff). This week, the Tata Chess Tournament kicks off for the chess world's biggest baboon competition. Grandmasters will feel like emperors, amateurs will feel like little kids, and chess journalists will feel like those scrawny little monkeys sucking up to the biggest alpha males - unless the journalist's a grandmaster himself, of course. For journos, chess tournaments start with getting accreditation to enter the press room in the first place, humiliating yourself in order to be nearer to the gods: filling out forms, calling the chief press officer, or even showing your passport, as I once had to do to get a press card for a big tournament in Germany. It's relatively easy for me now to get a press card (though I always feel like a criminal when I go past the stern-looking security guards), but shouldn't every chess player have the right to visit the press room now and then? Of course, in return for being granted this highest of privileges, they'll have to abide by the unwritten rules of the press room. I've already described some of them above, but here are a few more:

  • Get up from behind the free internet PC if you see a grandmaster approaching - he might want to check his Facebook account.
  • Only ask a grandmaster questions - never say things like "That line is actually refuted" or "I just feel you're wrong in claiming a plus there."
  • In fact, don't argue with a grandmaster about anything at all. Treat him not like a grandmaster in chess, but like a grandmaster in life.
  • If you're a good-looking woman, you may approach a grandmaster more freely, but only if you'll have dinner with him afterwards.
  • Never talk about your own pathetic chess games. Ever.

What happens if you don't follow these rules? I've seen people get away with it. (They're probably monkeys with blue buttocks themselves in other areas of life.) I know I certainly wouldn't in most cases. Such things are sensed immediately by both parties involved. Most people trying to break these rules will just be ignored - for good. And let's be clear - I understand these rules completely. I think the world's best chess players deserve our respect, full stop.

The author and his daughter studying monkey behaviour at Europe's 'monkey rock': Gibraltar

The author and his daughter, last year, studying primate behaviour at Europe's 'monkey rock': Gibraltar, where from Monday 24 January to Thursday 3 February 2011 another strong chess tournament takes place

So where does that leave us, the patzers of this planet? Is our only consolation to treat weaker players in the same way? Many of us do - at least when it comes to chess - and that goes for me, too, sometimes. Fortunately, like all social behaviour, most of it is unconscious. Most chess players are blissfully unaware of their behaviour, and perhaps that's for the better. But even if you are aware what life is really like in the chess world, there's almost no escaping it - unless you actually escape from it: permanently. Only if you stop looking at your rating progress, stop looking down on weaker players, stop sucking up to stronger players, stop being annoyed by kibitzers, stop hating your opponent - only then do you have a chance of escaping the monkey rock. But then wouldn't you also stop being human?

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