The Luzhin Defence
On the road with the band as usual, and the bus is rolling along. After a brief spike in interest about a year ago, I took a year off of chess to pursue other interests and focus on music. Somewhere, somehow, about a week ago, everyone in the band started playing all at once, and I’ve caught the fire once again. I’d like to review the movie from which this post takes its name, a great performance by John Turturro and proof that chess can be as nail-biting as any sport out there. Currently I have nine games going at any given time, and I seem to win about half of them. I’m studying and learning all that I can about this funny little game and all the logic that goes into it. Can you guess which of the following luminaries are chess players? Or rather, which are bad chess players?
“Chess is ludicrously difficult.” -Stephen Fry
“Chess is one long regret.” -Stephen Leacock
“Chess is a sad waste of brains.” -Sir Walter Scott
“Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency.” -Raymond Chandler
“Chess is not a game but a disease.” -Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
“Chess is one of the sins of pride.” -John Bromyard
“Chess is a game of courteous aggression.” -Julian Barnes
“Chess is a game of skill and not of genius.” -William Hazlitt
“Chess is both profoundly trivial and trivially profound.” -George Steiner
“The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess but proficiency in whist implies capacity for success in all those more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind.” -Edgar Allan Poe (whist is some sort of card came comparable to Checkers in its scope)
“Chess is a game of bad moves.” -Andrew Soltis
Soltis is a Grandmaster who has written extensively on the game. The others are critics, politicians, writers etc. who either barely knew the moves or likely had some bad experience losing to a more experienced opponent. Hazlitt hits it nearest the mark. Granted, there is a huge learning curve in this game compared to the majority of simple board games and card games. I suppose the fact that familiarity and experience both trump innate ability and genius has frustrated many an example of said geniuses, where games like checkers (“draughts”) or whist have a much faster learning curve and thus allow the mentally mighty to flex their cranial muscles straight away. I like Fry’s application of witticism to indicate his frustration with (but deep respect for) the game.
It is, after all, just a game, and that’s often forgotten by the layperson. Chess is stereotypically lauded as this crowning mental achievement which pits the greatest minds against one another. True, it possesses an innate depth and a catalogue of variations beyond the capacity of your typical mind to come by with any rapidity… but it is still just a game. The most avid chess players in the world will be quick to tell you that, and researchers who were seeking an affirmative have instead found little support for the notion that chess aids in applicable meta-skills like mnemonic recall, foresight, strategic planning, critical thinking etc. This might be a typical confusion of correlation with causation: perhaps people who already have a knack for these principles will gravitate toward the game, but chess probably doesn’t make their innate predilections any better. Only the player who has some skill with analogy and active powers of broad speculation will find chess as informative to his other skill sets and pastimes.
Here’s an attempt to do just that. Though I disagree somewhat with the premises, I admire the effort and I think making these types of analogies is at the heart of building strong connections between devoted skill sets. Seeing analogies, no matter how skewed or faulty (every analogy has its faults and the point at which it breaks down or becomes meaningless), is a great mental exercise and can help to fortify one skill with another. Perhaps comparing a musical art form to a strategy board game is a tall order, and any coherent effort should be admired. Why not? Maybe I should think of my own analogy between these two near and dear pursuits, and see if the results have any effect on the way I perceive them in the moment. Perhaps Magnus should take up saxophone and see where that gets him?