A CHESS APOLOGIA

A column reprint from "The Gambit", of the North Carolina Chess Association. Author: Robert Morrell. Reprinted with permission.


Why do we play? What exactly do we get out of it?

This question most often comes from others, particularly "significant others". We are called upon to justify the time, the expense and the self-inflicted agony that chess demands of the tournament player. Sometimes, we ask the question ourselves. So, for the wags (George Bernard Shaw: "Chess is a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something clever, when they are only wasting their time.") the wives ("The whole weekend!?") and the wonderers ("I wonder what I see in this game?") the following is an argument for chess's worth, an apologia that can be cut out and saved for those who question the value of the royal game.

Before one can defend chess, one must first acknowledge a simple truth: it is only a game. If you cannot say this with a straight face, the rest of this article does not apply to you. For chess to have value as an activity, it must enhance life, not dominate it. If a chess player loses perspective, or turns inward, failing to utilize the gifts of chess in everyday life, then chess is indefensible. Truth be known, most tournament chess players do cross this line at one time or another, but nearly all seem to come to their senses eventually, usually after their first ratings plateau.

This caveat complete, let me start by saying that chess saves lives. I can testify to this personally, as an R&D technologist/computer nerd in a large hospital. A year ago I came up with the idea of a computer system to detect "discrepancies" in patient care. A few months after getting the system running, it alerted us to a two-year old girl whose therapy appeared to have been discontinued too early. The doctor, when contacted, went berserk. The medicine had been stopped by accident, and had the computer not noticed it, the child could have died in hours. The incident brought my superiors to my lab, and after seeing how the system worked, one commented, without prompting, "Only a chess player could have built this."

My boss based this on what most non-players think of when they think of chess, the if-then type of analysis. In fact, the truth of his statement went much deeper. Building the system required taking other's expertise and synthesizing it into something I could use, much like devising an opening system based on GM level books. I actually found myself asking doctors and pharmacists the same questions I asked of opponents in post game-analysis: "Tell me, why did you do this? What was your reasoning for that?" On a still deeper level, the very concept of the system was chess-like, in that it utilized a very minimal advantage (computers don't get bored looking at tons of data waiting for rare mistakes) and like a single pawn, pushed it over the long haul, and queened it.

I have doubts whether I would have ever have attempted to build such a system were it not for the confidence and skills organized tournament play has given me over the years. I am certain that without chess I could not have built it in time to save the child. Chess organizers take note: the next time you think yours is a thankless task, remember that there is a little girl out there, chasing fireflies, hugging her daddy's neck, and generally enjoying life, all the while blissfully unaware of her debt to you and the rest of the chess scene.

My experience is not unique. Another tournament player I know is a technician who works on complicated machinery. One day his boss gave him a difficult repair job, one with which no one else in the shop had any experience. Perhaps because of the aforementioned non-player perception, it was figured that a chess player could best follow the complicated manuals step by step. This the technician did, very carefully. Fortunately, it turns out, this particular chess player never did like playing "book" moves, preferring instead his own analysis. As he drove home that night, he continued thinking about what he had done, because something seemed wrong. Finally, after supper, it popped out, like a missed forced mate in a long forgotten game. Something had been missing from the instructions, and if not corrected, it would cause the machinery to fail the first time it was used. He called his boss, who after listening, agreed, and called the customer, and, just in time, stopped them from putting the device into operation.

The task of the machinery in question was to lower the landing gear on a commercial airliner.

Every summer, a secretary in my department asks me about the LPO. The reason for this interest is that she knows a psychiatrist who plays in the tournament each year. Only a few years ago this woman was coming off two suicide attempts. Now happily married with two beautiful children, she looks back on it all with amazement. It was the chess playing psychiatrist that brought her through. "He saved my life," she states flatly. I do not know if the psychiatrist would give chess any credit in anticipating and blocking the moves of someone bent on self destruction, but I do know that this secretary feigns more interest in chess than any other non-player I've ever met. She has been to the brink, and anything associated with the person that pulled her back has earned her respect.

Of course, not all chess players have jobs where lives can be saved, but the benefits need not be dramatic to be recognizable. Once, when my daughter faced that staple of childhood horrors, a piano recital, she approached me with advice for dealing with stage fright. My advice was to sit down, set up her scoresheet, put her hands in her lap, then think to herself her name, her location, what she was going to play and how it started, then take a deep breath, and begin. This did the trick, and was further vindicated by the problems of the other recital victims, who began playing almost before they sat down. Some became so confused in the first bar that they had to stop and start over, while a few had their still settling scoresheets fold up and fall on the keys. After the recital, my wife eyed me suspiciously and asked, "Did that come from chess?"

Mmm, could be.

These incidents are simply examples of uses of intellect that benefit others, and is a basic element of civilization, progress, and of any activity that adds value to the world. The central misconception about chess and its relation to all this is the apparent belief that people play chess because they already have sharpened intellects, and if they weren't playing chess, might be doing more.

This is a preposterous example of putting the cart before the horse. Arnold Schwartzenegger is not muscular because he stars in muscle man movies. He exercised (let's forget about the steroids for the moment) until he was muscular, then he got the movie roles. At the amateur level, no one questions a jogger or weight lifter's need for exercise, despite the fact that few will ever use their improved muscles for anything more urgent than changing a tire. Chess players, on the other hand, exercise the one "muscle" that makes us uniquely human, that if not saving our lives, improves it daily.

The problem for anyone trying to justify the royal game is that the non-player usually has a flawed understanding of the nature of intellect.

The first flaw is the belief that intellect is homogeneous, divided at most into pre and post morning coffee thinking ability. It has only been in recent years that psychologists have moved away from the one-dimensional measure of IQ towards recognition of the multifaceted aspects of intelligence. Chess players have known of this for centuries. Athletes stretch their body's limits, chess players stretch their minds. We are sensitive to its nuances; understanding both its weaknesses and strengths. A chess player learns the smell of self deception the way a runner learns to anticipate leg cramps. We know the blinding effects of greed, and the difference in the textures of confidence and cockiness. We understand careful analysis, but can also trust our intuition and spontaneous insight.

It is also society's focus on IQ that has led to the most pernicious myth about intelligence: that of its immutability. The more paranoid view this as an intentional myth for the maintenance of class and caste, but it was an inevitable perception, given the narrow slice of intelligence that science first learned to measure. It is as if you only weighed your bones to see if you have gained weight (I wish!) The belief that intellect cannot be enhanced has pervaded society, and is viewed as a major obstacle by many education professionals.

For anyone who has played chess for more than a couple of years, this myth is self-evidently false. Chess gives us a medium in which we can directly experience improvements in intellectual ability. No one who has gone from the mate only attacks of the E-D level, to the pawn counting materialism of the C player, and then on to the B+ thrill of intuitive sacrificial play has any doubts about the ability to improve intellect.

Chess literature is awash with examples of chess as a turnaround program for troubled youth. It makes no sense to believe that the game would have no beneficial effects on normal players as well. These benefits are as complex and varied as the human brain itself, as the examples listed earlier demonstrate. There are, however, two key areas that chess is most distinctive:

First, chess teaches focus. In an instant world of sound bites, short term profits, micro-nuked food, and flash cut MTV-style video editing, chess players may become the last people alive who can maintain continuous, coherent thought for longer than eight seconds. When discussing tournament chess with non-players, I have discovered that nothing will cause more astonishment, often even disbelief, than the fact that games often last four to five hours. Mention spending half an hour on a single move and people will look at you like you're from another planet. No other aspect of chess runs so counter to the new world (dis)order. Indeed, the most persuasive argument against sudden-death time controls is that it seems to mimic the world epidemic of attention-deficit disorder. (You blitz-chess players can go write your own article.)

Secondly, chess teaches consequences. The universe created within a chess game can be a very unforgiving one. There are no instant replays, no extra credit after school, no disaster relief loans. It is a sharped edged reality, lacking the dulling aspects of Deus ex machina luck, and un-warped by insider connections. Again this runs counter to the no-fault society at large. Perhaps this is what attracts those troubled youth to chess. Having been surrounded all their lives by the ever forgiving psychobabble of well meaning social bureaucrats, it must be refreshing to get into something that says clearly: do it right or you lose! Chess players learn the importance of detail, as well as the dangers of oversight, assumption, and good old fashioned ignorance. Would you rather have your brakes worked on by a player of 1) the lottery, or 2) chess? Maybe its your lucky day!

Chess is certainly not a panacea. There are other aspects to life than intellectual, including emotional and physical well being, and, regardless of your beliefs, the human spirit. As rich and varied as real life is, a game cannot solve all problems. Chess is simply a useful tool in an important aspect of life, like a pickup truck to a farmer. (Farmer's wives have been known to complain about their spouses' attachment to their trucks, so the analogy is doubly apt.)

The level of usefulness that others see in chess will depend upon two things. First, it will depend upon the level of usefulness that they see in chess players. Second, it will depend upon their perception of the game itself, its depth, complexity and disciplines. Final responsibility for both of these perceptions rests with chess players, so if chess suffers a bad reputation we really have no one to blame but ourselves.

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