Addendum-(chess) If you think science is competitive…

Since joining OT, I have noticed that everyone has a specific “profile”, a style of writing and preferred topics. Readers come to know what to expect. They know that Cath’s blogs will often be hilarious, with a sharp eye for anything humorous. They know that Athene’s will always be deeply insightful, often related to women in science,  and filled with wisdom that often has its comical twists.

I could go on about each and every one of the superb writers at OT (barring one–no comment…), including the terrific guest blogs that are frequently posted. Being relatively new, I often wonder what readers think of my own style. I can envision the confusion, not knowing if this guy is going to post another serious blog, a diatribe about microscopy, or something (supposedly) funny. Well, that’s my “bipolar” style, I suppose.

Based on the surprising amount of feedback and interest apparent interest generated by my recent blog about chess, I thought that I would add a short “addendum”, a cartoon by Luke Surl that struck me as funny. I particularly liked “Marxist Chess” and “Mormon Chess”. Cath, the “Knights Who Say NIH Chess” is dedicated to you…

Chess is serious business, but...

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). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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25 Responses to Addendum-(chess) If you think science is competitive…

  1. Steve, I’m flattered by your description of my posts. I still regard myself as a newcomer too (6 months of blogging so far) and what you say is a bit more encouraging than the IOP’s recent description of me as ‘longwinded’ – though the rest of the write-up in their magazine (Physics World) was positive enough. However, I’m a bit disappointed if people know what to expect of me! Rather than bipolar, I think I thought I was variegated, tryng to mix and match the frivolous with weightier material touched with a twist of irony. Clearly I will have to try harder to produce the unexpected.

    By the by, I recently found myself encouraging a friend who was feeling a bit crushed by circumstance to consider starting a blog – are we actually all using this site as therapy?

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Athene- for me it’s definitely therapy–I’m not sure about everyone else. But being able to spout off at least some of the issues that we encounter here on OT is both fun and stimulating.

    By “knowing what to expect of your blogs”–I meant the QUALITY–not that they are ‘limited’ in any way. I had better be more scientifically accurate in my choice of words!


  3. chall says:

    The lower right one was SO cute 🙂 “made it to the other side of the board” haha

  4. KristiV says:

    I’m impressed that a UK cartoonist had the Mormon chess one, though perhaps that’s the characteristic the group is best known for around the world. I would add “Libertarian Chess”, or “Doomsteader Chess”: all castles.

  5. Yep, the blogging is definitely therapy for me as well.

    Nice chess cartoons, too.

    BTW, talking of chess, on a visit a couple of weeks ago my dad (who taught me the moves of chess long ago) taught them to my 6-yr-old daughter. So we have a renewed interest in chess Chez Elliott… also probably influenced a bit by Steve’s chess post.

    One snag with this new family preoccupation is that the daughter keeps saying it is not fair that she can’t beat me yet. I tried pointing out that the best chess player I ever played against (later a well-known Grandmaster) learned the moves from his father aged 6-ish, but apparently didn’t get good enough to beat him until he’d been playing for three years! Not sure she’s buying it, though.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Austin- Try perhaps giving her a “handicap”- take off your queen and a rook- that might temporarily even things out and still allow a fair game.

      • I’ve tried that, Steve – after all, “odds” is a long-standing chess tradition – but for some reason she refuses to go for it. These six year olds, eh?

        The thing she will accept is that whenever she decides her position is looking bad, we turn the board round and I play her position and she plays mine.

  6. stephenemoss says:

    Hi Steve – nice to read another chess post. Think I find blogging and chess equally therapeutic, so nice idea to combine the two. Incidentally, I recently had my first success playing the Halisor trap, but thought you might like the Caveman attack against the Caro-Kann. There’s something about it I particularly like. Play through the moves here:

    • Steve Caplan says:


      Thanks for that! I almost always play Caro-Kann, and despite the fact that this is one of the few defenses for which I actually know the moves pretty well, I hate playing white against it. Probably because I actually like when opponents surge forward with the advance variation, I never chose that myself. This looks like a pretty interesting variation for white, although to actually throw the queen trap you need quite a sequence of moves. However, even if it doesn’t go nearly that far, it looks like a nice way to shake black off his “book moves” and make him take time to think it out. Haven’t got to chess club for a few months, but I’ll definitely try this next time!


    • The Caro-Kann was pretty rare in my playing days in the 70s – about 60% of people I played opted for the Sicilian against 1 e4, with either 1… e5 or the French Winawer the next most likely (about equally), then Pirc/Modern set ups and the Caro-Kann probably 4th equal. I guess this was mostly a fashion trickle-down from master chess, where Bobby Fischer and others had made the Sicilian the key battle-ground through the 60s and early 70s. I thought the C-K got much more popular after my time because the various Ks (Korchnoi, Karpov and Kasparov) all used it.

      Found a couple of my old games where I’d played the Caveman Attack as White against the C-K, but I can’t have liked it much, as the next time I saw the C-K a year later I played the much quieter 3 ed: cd: 4 Bd3 followed by c3 and Nbd2, or once even 2 d3 rather than d4 transposing to a kind of King’s Indian Attack.

      In the game Steve M linked, not sure the Rook sac/ Queen trap looks totally convincing. Might be prepared to defend that as Black over the board w an early ..b5.

      Talking of tactical variations /sacs/ traps, one of the things that has REALLY changed since I was an active player 30+ yrs ago is that the analysis of tactical positions is now all done with computers, whereas back in the day it was (human!) “master analysis”, as published in mostly in opening books.

      Anyway, I’ll stop now as we’re sounding like a serious bunch of chess dweebs.

      PS I’ve got a chess post in the works, perhaps for next week. I was thinking Steve C would be the only person to read it, but maybe Steve M will be reader no 2!

      • Steve Caplan says:

        Austin- I’m definitely looking forward to another chess blog! At least if I don’t play, I enjoy reading about it. BTW–my son (now 9) has always had trouble playing me, and gets upset losing. However, against another adult at chess club, he plays like a perfect gentleman. I discussed this with the chess mentor who played with him, and he said it’s very common–a child always has trouble playing a parent. So I guess we’re all in the same boat…

        Austin and Stephen- I couldn’t resist looking up the h4 variation in my MCO, because I’m entirely unfamiliar with this line. The MCO (Modern Chess Openings by Nick de Firmian) has c4 as the standard line for white after h4 and h5. There is no mention at all of the Bg5 in the book. So I’m sure it would catch a lot of us amateurs by surprise.

  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Excellent cartoons!

    Like Athene, I’m flattered by your description of my blog! It’s evolved considerably over the years – I started off blogging about new research papers – and so has the make-up of my pool of commenters. I think this happens with most blogs; it takes a while to find your natural voice! Yours is off to an excellent start, so just keep writing posts that please you, and you’ll soon find a pool of readers who agree!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thanks, Cath–With regards to readers/commenters, just hope I don’t end up like the Agatha Christie novel: “And then there were none…”

    • Ditto, Cath – I have now started two separate blogs thinking I would write a fair bit about science (as in: research), but in neither case has the blog stayed that way… or even started that way, come to that.

      I have a theory that many blogging scientists actually don’t want to blog RESEARCH SCIENCE much (the day job), rather than “meta-science”, namely “what it’s like to do this”, and all the other stuff that the work entails that has no research paper type output.

      I often thought this was one of the underlying tensions at NN, in that I always had the impression the NN founding idea (from above) was that people would blog about “this really great paper I just read”, or “hot research in” – and then hardly anyone did.

      Which I suppose is a “macrocosm” of what we have all just described for our blogs.

      • Indeed – when I was first invited to blog at Nature Network, my original site was still very heavy on the research blogging content. I wrote a few similar posts on NN, and got no comments. So I lowered the tone, got my first decent comments thread, and it was all downhill from then on! And yes, said trend (on my blog and others’) did seem to dismay some of the higher-ups! There was definitely an unspoken “why are you lot talking about funny science-related double entendres when NPG has published so many great papers this week?” in the air…

        • Steve Caplan says:

          You are right, though–if people want the “real science”, they’ll read the papers. if they want a general idea of what’s going on, there’s the “news and views”. But, for “science + entertainment”, or a unique perspective from the world of science–that’s the genius of these sites *slaps self on back*…

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Cath- I heard a female technician calling out to her male PI way down the hall (at a previous and undisclosed place of work): “It’s a yeast infection, that’s all it is!” And then, of course, there are “tales from the darkroom”…

  8. Steve, belatedly I’d like to link your chess playing posts to my own on stereotype threat , having recently come across an article specifically discussing The Gendered Situation of Chess. The evidence from the study described in the cited article showed that women showed a 50% performance decline when they were aware that they were playing a male opponent (games were played over the web so it wasn’t quite so obvious what sex the opponents were). The women simply played less well when they thought their opponent was male, compared with when they thought they were facing a woman. One of the conclusions in the study seems absolutely to align with the scientific world:

    “A second and more general message of our study is that self-confidence and a win-oriented promotion motivation contribute positively to chess performance. Since women show lower chess-specific self-esteem and a more cautious regulatory focus than males, possibly as a consequence of widely held gender stereotypes, this may at least in part explain their worldwide underrepresentation and underperformance in chess.”

    So, in chess as in science, competitiveness is hugely important, and women underperform because of stereotype threat.

    • Partially prompted by Steve’s chess posts, I raided the attic a few weeks back and dug out the score books for my teenage “chess career”, which amounts to about three hundred-odd competitive games over a five year period in the late 70s. I’ve been playing through the games and showing some of them to The Daughter (aged six and a half).

      Anyway, only TWO (!) of those nearly three hundred opponents were female, which shows that competitive chess was pretty near male-only back then. If I limit it to only junior (age limited) tournaments, probably a better way to count, then it is still only two female opponents out of more than a hundred [Both games ended in draws, BTW].

      I would imagine the female:male ratio has evened up a bit since, in chess as in other things. Maybe the Steves (Caplan and Moss) can advise?

      Thinking about it, small children (e.g. the Daughter’s age) actually seem pretty fiercely competitive in most things, regardless of gender. Do the articles offer a view on when “Stereotype Threat” becomes an issue age-wise?

  9. Steve Caplan says:

    Athene and Austin,

    Thanks for sharing those fascinating studies and insights. Unfortunately, unlike science, I fear that chess has an even longer way to go to catch up for girls and women. In a few less games than you, Austin, I can also recall only ever playing 3 female chess players- and 2 games were against the same young physics major- someone I suppose who was/is used to playing against the odds. The other game was against a 14 year old girl. Coincidentally I won all 3 games, which is rare considering that I lost 70 percent of those I played.

    The chess club here is devoid of ANY adult female players, and while there are younger girls starting out, their ranks decrease at every age group- until there are none.

    While it is tempting to speculate that evolutionarily women might not have the same “blood lust” that war and chess seem to require at a certain level, I suspect that again the issue may be as Athene has described: women feel out of their element because there are so few of them and this is a closed circuit.

    My daughter, now approaching 13, played very well a few years back, winning almost every tournament she played in- an she was usually the only girl and always the only girl to come home with “hardware” (trophies). She quit although she enjoys the game, supposedly because of the pressure. But as she successfully auditions for plays and musicals all around the city, and was runner-up in a state-wide speech contest–i don’t think it’s “pressure” as in stress over success, but rather the male dominated atmosphere that did it. Of course it may just be love of the theatre. But I’d agree with Athene’s study that girls/women may feel particularly challenged competing withj men, especially in areas where they are a clear minority.

    The question is what to do about it?

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