If you think science is competitive…

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…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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31 Responses to If you think science is competitive…

  1. chall says:

    Ahh… chess, the strategy and half the game knowing what the opponent might know (or not) 🙂

    I have tried it, but never to the level you explain so well in this blog post. I’m hooked on another strategy game – much to the dismay of myself and another game that laid dormant during the times of intense research stuff (i.e. my post doc at the time) – Diplomacy. It’s a really intresting game, imho, and quite different if you play it in person or on-line. (I guess it could be similar to poker in that way since Dippy (short hand) is based partly on relying on the other people and what they say they’ll do, and what you do and of course, since it is strategy – knowing some moves are more imparative than others… Maybe you would find Diplomacy on-line interesting? Someimes the time line is very forgiving – you can have 48 hours to put in moves… even more if you end up with a more “play by email” or something like that…

    Of course (?) this is all to say that I am very envious of your interest and skill in chess. After reading your blog post I’m even more interested in trying – if I only thought I had that time and mind to get really good at it….

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Chall- I’ve never heard of “Diplomacy”–sounds intriguing. My son is looking it up as I write. It sounds similar to “Stratego”- another great game, and “Risk”. I think the advantage of those games are that one can acquire a pretty good playing level without the necessity of HOURS of study necessary for even beginner chess. One of the things that put me off chess is that no matter how brilliant one might be at tactics during the game, in order to get to the point where tactics become possible, you need to transition well from the opening. There is a book out, called the “MCO” (Modern Chess Openings: also known as the chess players bible) which goes through virtually every opening ever played, with all possible combinations. The 15th edition, by grandmaster Nick De Firmian, is precisely 748 pages of small print. Now in order to really advance so that you can transition into “middle game” well after the first 10-20 moves, one really does have to have a partial mastery of at least a decent variety of these openings and responses. Otherwise you end up at a disadvantage.
      There is a sector of chess players who play “chess by mail”, which is online today, submitting a move every day or two. It’s unclear to me how this actually works, because it’s not that there is an honor system where one doesn’t use books and computer software, but rather one takes advantage of books and software. So I don’t really understand what the point is. But players swear by it. Funny enough, I played a very highly ranked “mail” player (it’s also got a rating system through the US chess fed.) OTB (over the board) at a tournament, and even with my modest ranking, won quite easily. So I guess the computer/book component of “mail” chess is quite prominent in the play.

      • chall says:

        I agree that the books in chess seem to be numerous and long 🙂 As for Diplomacy, it’s not like RISK since that has dice…. and therefore is some chance involved. D is going to be different every time you play it based on the other 6 players and their knowledge. There are standard moves and openings, not to mention strategy – and statistics which country wins the most etc… over all, a fun game (albeit sometimes a bit too paranoia inducing “when comes the stab?!”)

        /geek mode off

  2. Always good to meet another chess player, Steve – though I am actually an “ex-player”, since I’ve barely played a game in three decades. I spent a large chunk of my adolescence playing chess fairly seriously (very seriously aged 13-16 and a bit less so aged 16-18), but then I quit when I got to University aged 19 and have never played since. Anyway, I too wonder if I might take it up again in my retirement!! Or, since my kids are still young (six and two), maybe I will get a chance to revisit chess if I teach them to play.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      When we both retire, we can play chess by mail!

      • Austin says:

        Tried “correspondence chess” once, but it was pretty glacially paced, to say the least.

        Email, though… that might fly.

        PS Given what is happening to the UK Universities, suspect I will be retired a lot sooner than you, Steve!

  3. cromercrox says:

    What is it with Jews and chess? My Dad was and still is a pretty good player (I think). When he worked, as a lawyer, he used to hone his skills playing against elderly Jewish clients. My Dad says that his father taught him, and used to beat him (as in, whack him) if he made a silly mistake – which caused him to improve rather quickly. Perhaps he should have done the same to me, because I’m a lousy chess player. Scrabble, though … that’s different. I like to think I am a moderately good Scrabble player. I represented Cambridge University, and I have taught Crox Minor (2) who is really good and regularly beats me. We keep meaning to go to our local club but have somehow never gotten round to it.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Scrabble is great–have you tried “Boggle”?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      cromercrox says: “What is it with Jews and chess?”

      Steve says: “Aren’t we….. the PEOPLE….. of the ROOK?!”

    • I’ve always wondered that too, Henry, having read a fair bit about chess history in my teens. One answer that often used to be given was the Jewish tradition of intellectual disputation / learning / scholarship that you sometimes write about.

      One of the interesting things to me was is how many of the chess masters from the old Soviet Union were Jewish or part-Jewish, including my favourite Russian chess author David Bronstein, and my playing hero Mikhail Tal, among many others.

      Back in my chess playing years in the 70s I used to play in national junior tournaments at the YMCA in London, where they would have lists on the walls of the leading juniors world-wide in each age group. In the early 70s, I recall distinctly that that the top player in the world in my younger brother’s age group was from the USSR, one Gary Weinstein. He later became much more famous (and world champion), as Gary Kasparov, his mother’s maiden name.

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Chess is one of those things I was much better at as a kid than I am now. See also: handwriting, guitar, and remembering third items on lists.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I won’t comment on chess, but my handwriting as a child was so bad that even in 3rd grade I would type school work on one of those old typewriter’s where you have to manually return the case with a good swat from the left hand. As for guitar, I’m an illiterate as far as reading music goes…

    • Steve Caplan says:

      What was the third thing I was supposed to relate to?

  5. ricardipus says:

    Chess – never had the bug for it, and my (elder) brother beat me handily the few times we played as boys.

    But… now my own son (Jr. Ricardipus #1, as almost nobody calls him) has somehow gotten interested (I think via my father-in-law). He can now beat me reasonably often, but more importantly (for me, and I think for both of us) I’m enjoying playing against him. Old dogs, new tricks I suppose.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      You need to use the Sicilian defense, Najdorf variation. That’ll get him…

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        He’s a Leafs fan, he’ll have to go and look up the word “defense” first.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Ooooh–do I sense a Canadian rivalry? BTW, Maple Leaf Gardens makes an appearance in my novel as the Leafs take on the Canadiens…

          • ricardipus says:

            I sure hope your novel is set a few years in the past – MLG is being re-developed as a grocery store at the moment. 😉

            And Cath – the Leafs’ traditional problem has been goal scoring, not defense. Not that it really matters. By the way, how are you doing in the hockey pool? [raspberry noise]

          • Steve Caplan says:

            Ricardipus- Ahhh- well it is set in the past. I wrote it thirteen years ago, and only “mildly” updated it. Since I do not follow hockey (since 1982), I guess I missed that little fact. I don’t think 2 couples going to a hockey game at a grocery store would have achieved quite the effect I was looking for…

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            Touche 🙂

        • chall says:

          noooo… that’s just not fair Cath.

          at least we got a huge Heart. Filled with love. And not mocking others. bah. 😉

      • Austin says:

        But beware of the poison pawn…!

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Don’t think the grass is always greener on this side of the pond! Scientists are battling to stay in business here too. The stimulus package was a 2-year respite, but now that it’s almost over, things are looking pretty bleak for many here as well…

          There’s always chess…

  6. stephenemoss says:

    @stephenemoss on Twitter

    Great to read a post about chess. Reminds me of a few years ago when my daughter, then aged 6-ish, asked me to create a chess club at her primary school. Together with another dad, and some modest investment by the school, we got the club up and running and very popular it was too. Then when my kids moved on to big school I started chess classes for the year 3 and 4 kids. That was fun too, and it got me back into playing chess on-line – I can recommend chessworld.net as a friendly place for those interested. I probably make about 10 moves per day, which for me equates to about 10 minutes, so it’s not a major distraction from work.

    I’ve been trying the Halosor trap recently, with limited success. It’s nicely explained here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esBbetLHTII but like many traps it relies on your opponent playing a long sequence of specific moves, and they rarely oblige. Years ago, as a youthful lecturer in the Physiology Department at UCL, I would occasionally wander into the office of Sir Bernard Katz and find the great man playing chess. Despite him being a most unassuming and modest man, I never had the nerve to ask him if he’d like a game. Perhaps it was the aura of the Jewish chess-playing intellectual, perhaps it was the Nobel prize. Wish now that I had.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thank you, Stephen. Online chess can be a good way to play at one’s own pace, although you need to be pretty disciplined to restrict yourself to 10 moves/day. I found it could be quite addictive. I played for a while on playchess.com, affiliated with the “Fritz” chess program. The advantage was that it was set up in a way that games could be imported to the analytical program rather seamlessly. I think I enjoyed the computer analysis more than the games themselves, and can remember many nights setting up the analysis so that by morning I could find out “where I went wrong”. It’s a great way to learn.

      I am not familiar with the Halosor trap, and will definitely have a look at it. My entire approach had been to choose openings that would limit the number of my opponents potential responses so that my ignorance of opening theory would make as little difference as possible. So for those who have a background in chess, I would for example choose the Caro-Kann defense when playing black, and thus avoid ever having to learn the very popular Sicilian openings and their multitude of variations.

      Who was Sir Bernard Katz playing chess with, when you’d come into his office? An actual opponent, or was he just looking at moves or problems on the board? Perhaps that was his way of “meditation”…

      • Austin says:

        When I was first getting keen on chess I used to use well-known openings, which worked well against other school/junior players I could “out-book”. Later on, when I was playing mostly other hyper-keen juniors and adults who were also more serious players, I switched to more obscure lines for exactly the reasons Steve (Caplan) says. So (for chessies) I used to play the Grand Prix Attack or the closed Sicilian as white after 1. e4 c5, since I didn’t want to have to learn 25 moves of variations of stuff that my opponent might still know better than me. I still have a box of chess opening books in the attic somewhere, though all 30 years out of date.

        Fascinated to hear Steve M’s Katz story. I am also an alumnus of the UCL Physiology Dept (as a grad student in the early mid 80s), but had never heard BK was a chess player.

        • stephenemoss says:

          BK used to play on a chess computer – this was the early ’90s so probably something quite basic at that time.

          Regarding the Caro-Kann, the Caveman attack is nice if you’re playing white. But few players seem to use the Caro-Kann these days. Sadly I lack the dedication or time to commit multiple openings and variations to memory, but the game is endlessly fascinating.

          I recall hearing recently that the real greats generally don’t plan many moves ahead (which is the popular view), they often only think about the next move. It’s just that when they make that move it’s the best one possible.

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