A few years back, when my two children were about eight and five years old, I taught them the rudiments of playing chess. As they showed enthusiasm, I looked about the city and located a chess club. The club is located within a school cafeteria one evening a week from 6-9 pm, and provides a free platform for chess players, along with encouragement, lessons with two outstanding and committed teachers, and a fun atmosphere.
As it is my habit to carry a backpack stuffed with papers everywhere I go (my wife often chides me that I might suddenly pull out a recent paper while at the symphony…), I found it natural to pull out a recent paper and get some reading done while my kids were playing. And then, about six weeks after we had begun our weekly ritual, it happened: someone asked me to play.
I looked around, embarrassed, not wanting to hurt the man’s feelings, and saw that there were indeed an odd number of players, and everyone else was deeply engrossed in their games. Including my own kids. So I said, “Why not?”
And thus I got hooked.
In the beginning, it was fun; I had nothing to lose, being a complete beginner, and I found it was an unbelievable distraction from work—since I probably dream science most nights, I found that playing a tough game of chess was one of the few things that could completely distract me from thoughts of work for a few hours.
I have always been fascinated with chess. Perhaps from reading about some of the chess heroes from days gone by. For example, the amazing Harry Nelson Pillsbury worked 14-hour days inside an automaton called Ajeeb at Coney Island in New York.
The stories have it that he drank whisky from morning until night, and still managed to survive for ten-years playing chess against any comer. In 1900, he finally left his job to cross the Atlantic and play top-level chess against world champions in Europe. He was also known for an unbelievable memory; apparently three university professors once rattled off a list of 30 extremely complex words and Pillsbury repeated them back one-by-one, three minutes later. And then he repeated them in the opposite order. The next day he was able to repeat them again, but only in the proper order.
My heritage also compels me to be struck by the number of Jewish chess players who made it to the top tiers of the game. One fascinating personality was Akiva Rubinstein, who despite never being world champion was widely recognized as the best player of his day. Richard Reti, in his classic “chessography” entitled “Modern Ideas in Chess” (1923) , tells the story of the young Rubinstein who is an ultra-orthodox Jew in Vienna at the turn of the century, busy studying the Torah. One day, he walks into the Viennese cafe where all the renowned chess players meet and play. He challenges the top player to a game and loses. He leaves the cafe and disappears. He doesn’t return for three months, but when he finally comes back he is able to handily beat all the other experienced players and become enthroned as the top chess player.
There were many other world class Jewish chess players, among them a world champion named Emmanuel Lasker. For those readers with any interest in chess, I highly recommend Michael Chabon’s stunning novel “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”, which features a dead man under the alias of “Emmanuel Lasker” and has a decidedly ‘chessophilic’ attitude.
But I digress…
I had never played chess before, and of course never studied it. In fact, I didn’t even realize that people actually study chess. I simply thought it was a talent. I knew that there was some strategy, but had no idea how complex it was. I was so naive!
(By the way, the journal Science recently published a highlight of a paper providing evidence that while a certain reasonably high IQ is necessary for chess success, everything else comes from practice: see chess for drudges)
Along with my kids I began to take part in a few weekend tournaments. I became a card-carrying member of the United States Chess Federation. I actually did pretty well. I played and won my first “quad”, a “rated” small-scale tournament played by four players against each other, usually with players of similar levels. But I was playing against other relative beginners and those who hadn’t climbed the rating scale too high.
It turns out that the rating scale is very complex—that a supercomputer is needed to calculate winning or losing rating points—and one can fluctuate up and down considerably from tournament to tournament. Despite these fluctuations, I reached a plateau. Just under 1400 points. For some perspective, a child just beginning to learn to play might have a rating of 300-500 points. A grandmaster is probably going to be 2500 points or higher. The top player who frequents the chess club in Omaha is a “master” with a 2000 rating. 1800 is very strong. 1600 is quite strong. If I’m not mistaken, 1400 is about the border between the so-called D and C ranges.
Well, I wanted to improve. I bought some amazing chess software programs, including one called “Fritz” that actually analyzes games that are entered into it, and makes fun of the user with Robin Williams-like accents and vocal insults. Once I made a move and a heavily accented Russian voice said “Played last in the Russian metal-workers championship in 1935”. I probably should have taken the hint and given up then.
I read books, did exercises. But guess what—so did my opponents. And then I realized—in my line of work, there is no way I am going to be able to study opening, middle games, end games, tactics and strategy enough to really get better. I was suddenly in a unique situation: all my life I had believed that hard work had got me where I am. That I could control and overcome any weaknesses in my intellectual abilities by simple brute force—studying, learning and more studying and learning. And here I was, suddenly faced with a situation where I could not resort to my faithful modus operandi. How frustrating!
As it happens, when I became more heavily involved with the final editing and preparation of my novel for publication, “something had to give”. For me it was the chess. While I do miss the adrenaline of the occasional spar, I have come to the conclusion that science is too competitive for me to have a hobby that is even more competitive. Perhaps when I retire…