Thursday, February 4, 2010
The Soviet Union was closely aligned with the game of chess, especially during the 1980s. For all of its flaws, the U.S.S.R. knew how to produce suburb chess players. This was an important public relations victory for the communist system. Being closely related to popular perceptions of intelligence, rationality, and human genius, the glow from the game of chess translated into a grudging respect for the world’s largest nation. Chess was a truly neutral international arena for competition, a place where cultural difference and language hardly mattered. The fact that Russians won Olympic medals as well as chess titles produced no little anxiety among Westerners, who were outflanked on either side of the brain and brawn divide.
America had its chess champions, Bobby Fischer most notably, but Fischer’s story was made more compelling by the perception that he was defeating Soviet goliaths. I grew up playing chess. This will shock readers who will think that I must have spent my early years playing football and rugby. When I was young, the two leading world chess players were both Russians, Karpov and Kasparov, which seemed to hint at the general superiority of the country they represented. If the West no longer even proferred a lamb to be slaughtered by Soviet grandmasters, did freedom really have a future?
My obsession with chess reached its apex in the seventh and eighth grade. I remember my very fist life purchase, a beautiful wooden chessboard. (See Larry David's interrogation of Jerry Seinfeld: "Do you value wood?") My fellow geeks and I would play once a week and the school chess “rankings” were announced over the school p.a. system. It was a time of innocence. Somehow we didn't yet know that our social incompetence (and in fact a ranking of social incompetence) was being simultaneously pumped into every classroom in the school.
Thinking back, I recall a memory of humiliation, life being little more than a long string of petty humiliations. I was playing in the championship game when my opponent made a critical mistake early in the game. He begged for a chance for a “do-over,” a term you won’t find in official chess regulations. I obliged, but then made my own critical error and then followed my opponent’s lead and asked for my own “do-over.” My opponent turned me down; I lost the championship and went home (I’m embarrassed to say) nearly in tears.
More embarrassing still, my mother heard my story and decided to complain about the unprofessional chess environment to the teacher who oversaw the chess club. I was mortified. What made the situation even worse was that my mother was on the school board, known to the teacher by her official capacity. I never looked the teacher in the eye again.
This, and my fading talent, weakened my enthusiasm for chess. My freshman year of high school I took my last stab at chess. At a tournament, I came up against an empty chair. The clocked ticked away; my opponent had obviously missed the tournament and I was guaranteed an easy victory. My excitement grew in direct relationship to the lack of time left on the clock. Was I on my way to another chess trophy? Suddenly my daydream was interrupted by the unthinkable: my absent opponent showed up and proceeded to defeat me even without the time every chess player needed for thought and analysis.
This was the end of chess for me. I had been beaten by an empty chair. And speaking of empty chairs, the Soviet champion during this period of youthful humiliation, Garry Kasparov, has written a wonderful article reviewing Diego Rasskin-Gutman’s Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind. Kasparov, as we know, has become one of the leading exponents of democracy and opponents of Putin, but he has retained his enthusiasm for the game that made him famous. Recall that at age 22 in the year 1985 he became the youngest chess world champion in history.
Kasparov is especially interested in this book, because he reigned over chess during that short and fascinating period in which computers battled against humans for supremacy in chess. At the end of the twentieth century, computers became competitive, but soon thereafter they quickly outstripped human ability. Computers have changed chess in dozens of ways. Chess players are getting younger; chess coaches and chess culture are less important to would-be grandmasters; people play more like computers, with less attention to style and more attention to doing whatever works to win. Kasparov ends his review with a call for a new kind of chess computer, one that learns to play like a human rather than merely pouring over endless chess combinations with ever greater computing power. Failing that, Kasparov seems to want a new game.