Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard, by Robert Desjarlais, is one of the most interesting books about the game of chess I have ever read. This book made me stop reading and start thinking numerous times. Since the author questions exactly what chess is, and why we play, reading it has made me ask the same questions. Everyone involved with the Royal game brings his view to the board. The author is an anthropologist, and looks at the game from that particular perspective, which is one of the things that makes the book so interesting.
When I read a book I use post-it notes in lieu of actually writing in the book. There were a couple of dozen posted in the book upon completion. These are for things I found interesting, with a view toward writing a review.
The first chapter is entitled, 'Blitzkrieg Bop'. As you can imagine, it concerns 'blitz' chess. The author writes, "Blitz carries tones of pure immediacy. When playing blitz you're in the moment of that moment, with little time to think of anything else. It's a world of spontaneity and presence, of the "quick now, here, now, always," to use a poet's words." The footnote informs that the poet is T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton," The Four Quartets.
His description made me think of the Tao of chess; the Zen quality of being in the moment. On the following page we have another view of blitz chess from Kelly Atkins. "Blitz is fine for those who enjoy it, and it has its place, but it's the fast food version of our game-McChess in my book."
The author is a strong amateur tournament player. One of the things I like most about his book is that he talks with many different players and has some wonderful quotes. For example, "Many dislike playing children: "I hate playing kids in tournaments. It's terrible, because if you lose, it's obviously humiliating. But if you beat them, you feel kind of bad: you've crushed this eight-year-old kid."
Then there is this during a tournament game in which he was participating. "You step away from the board and go to the small bathroom just outside the playing room. You open the door cautiously. A few weeks back you stumbled upon a nine-year-old boy and his parents, huddled together. The parents were consoling their son, who was teary-eyed and sniffly. He had just lost a game against an international master he had good chances of defeating."
These two excerpts vividly illustrate what tournament chess has become over the past two decades with the emphasis on scholastic, or children's chess. The sniveling, whiney, children proliferate at every tournament. Who says there is no crying in chess?
Desjarlais writes about his love affair with one particular opening in the chapter entitled 'Sveshnikov Intrigues'. In a sub-heading of 'Infinite Strange Shapes', he says, "Different openings possess different qualities. The structures and energies common to a specific opening give it particular features, distinct tones of an almost metaphysical kind." He writes about what several different openings remind him of: "The pawn deposits of the Slave (sic) Defense remind me of the stalactites found in icy caves. The endgames of the Grunfeld Defense evoke an arid but fertile desert." This is one of the points where I had to put the book down and close my eyes while contemplating what I had just read. I had never thought about openings in this way. I reflected upon the openings I played, and why I chose them. I thought about the Dragon, which I had never played. It did not look like a Dragon to me. It was just called the Dragon. As far as I was concerned, it could have just as easily been called the Moon variation of the Sicilian Defense. I used to play the Grunfeld, but never thought of the endgames emanating from it as anything other than an endgame. I picked the book up again and read, "The French Defense resembles a labyrinth of forking paths..." But that could be said about any opening, I thought. Reading on, "...while the Najdorf Sicilian is a brutal street fight, with a swirl of knives slashing about." Yes! And I smiled to myself because, like a grasshopper, I had attained understanding! I played the Najdorf when I took up the game and played it until I no longer had time to keep up with the plethora of novelties. I loved the Najdorf like no other opening and felt most comfortable when it appeared on the board. The Najdorf seemed to 'fit' with my approach to chess in my early years while in my 20's. Other players picked up on this and began to play early deviations when I played 1...c5. I asked a NM, Michael Lucas, why he had played 2 c3 and he said, "Because everybody knows you get fired-up when you get to play the Najdorf!" I lost not one, but two games in which Mr Lucas moved his c-pawn on the second move, and both the same way, with him queening his c-pawn!
The author talks with Jim Santorelli, the cofounder of the National Scholastic Chess Foundation. "I love teaching chess," he (Jim) says. "I love teaching kids more. Chess is what I teach. I believe in what I teach. It is a phenomenal educational tool. Chess encompasses every aspect of critical thinking skills."
Jim mentions one of the negative aspects of teaching chess when he says, "I have lost the competitiveness in me somewhat, because that's all I do," he said in 2007. "I'm teaching chess all the time. The whole rationale is, that the last thing Tiger Woods is going to want to do when he's on vacation is to play a round of golf. My hobby is not chess at the moment. Chess cannot be my hobby..."
I pondered that while thinking of something IM John Donaldson said while doing commentary on the US Championship while sitting next to Jennifer Shahade, who has given up playing chess. John said he thought it was important for those who do other things in chess, like teaching, to continue to actually play the game. Could teaching be one of the reasons more former players have given up playing tournament chess?
Some of the best thoughts come from women who play the game. For example, he writes that Elizabeth Vicary thinks "...some male chess players exhibit an orientation to the game-scrutinizing pawn endings late into the night, fretting over side variations in Petroff's Defense, competing for days on end, parsing minute differences in middlegame continuations, often to the disregard of social ties or life more generally-that smacks of "autistic obsessiveness." He quotes her as saying, "I think there's a connection here: the fact that men more readily display autistic tendencies than women, and the fact that men are more obsessive about chess than women are."
In other words, you do not have to be autistic to play chess, but it helps!
The author writes honestly about his changing feelings for the game in a chapter entitled, Ambivalence. I have already written about the chapter in the BaconLOG post, Decisions, Sunday, September 11, 2011. Mr Desjarlais writes of a conversation he had with IM Greg Shahade, who has recently started playing chess again. After reading what he had to say, one wonders why. He told the author: "It's brutal to play in these tournaments sometimes. It's just so unpleasant. They make it such hard work. I don't know why people can enjoy a game that can last six hours, followed by another game that can last six hours in one day. It's not fun...You don't want to play again after a long game." Ain't that the truth!
When the author writes, "Disillusioned is what I am," the reader can empathize because he understands from where the disillusionment emanates.
In many ways the 7th chapter, Cyberchess, is the most disquieting. What high level chess has become during the age of the 'puter is vivvidly illustrated by a quote from the former World Champion, Vladimir Kramnik, the man who dethroned the Champion known best for his Vulcan mind-meld with computer chess programs, Garry Kasparov. The author writes, "Since many potential opponents have the same information stored on databases on their own computers, a few clicks away, grandmasters are compelled to undertake the labor-intensive task of analyzing and memorizing thickets of critical lines that they might encounter during their games, to avoid walking into an opponent's computer-assisted home preparation. Vladimir Kramnik explained to an interviewer, "You have to be much more precise when you analyze positions than before. In the era before computers you had certain interesting lines, moves that looked good, and that was enough. Your preparation was done, you just went out and played the move. Basically your preparation took two hours. Now the same thing will take five hours or more. You have to check all the games of your opponent, then you check everything that happened in the line you are planning to play. Then you find out what Fritz says about the ideas you have come up with, and try to remember this all. So you are working much harder."
I am reminded of a time not so long ago when computers first appeared in the workplace. It was said that office productivity would increase exponentially because of the machines. Sometime later articles began to appear in which the so-called 'experts' were confounded because every study indicated that office productivity had actually decreased. Thinking about what Vladimir said made me envision today's GM in a room with a different computer, crunching variations, for each of his opponents in the upcoming tournament. I also thought of the famous picture of Garry Kasparov, with glasses, while looking at a 'puter when working with Magnus Carlsen, who was, at least, moving actual wooden pieces on a wooden chessboard. (http://www.whychess.org/node/1904)
The reason this is such a good book is because of the authors honesty. Many in the world of chess would have you believe that everything is good in chess; that there is no bad. I have been told by the pooh-bahs that I should not write anything negative about chess; that there is enough negative aspects written about the game that I do not need to add to it. It is simply not possible for me to be a 'cheerleader'. The author takes an objective look at what chess has become today. For that I applaud him. When I give a chess lesson, I always think of something the Legendary Georgia Ironman told me while we were standing on the balcony looking down at the empty tournament hall before play was to begin in a World Open. "Bacon," Tim said, "Everyone here has had their life altered by the game." Chess will have a positive, and a negative, affect on everyone who steps into the arena. Everyone contemplating playing tournament chess should read this book, especially the parents of children about to enter the strange world of chess. Consider this from GM Nigel Davies, writing about his son and chess: "I must say that I’m delighted to have managed to interest him in chess because I’m convinced it’s great for developing young minds and offers a way better than average peer group. But before anyone asks I would not want him to try and do chess for a living, at least not as a professional player." (http://chessimprover.com/?p=1555) I cannot imagine any father saying that about his son and baseball, golf, or tennis. Can you?
The author writes: "As one man explained to me, "But I do like chess. I also don't like it."