Thursday, May 9, 2013

Why is Chess Not More Highly Respected in America?

Chess masters are viewed as athletes and even heroes in many countries--the current Armenian champion is featured on billboards and receives a salary from the national government--but, with rare exceptions such as Bobby Fischer and perhaps Paul Morphy, that has not been the case in America. It is both rarer and more difficult to achieve chess mastery than it is to earn a doctoral degree but in America chess masters are not accorded the respect or the financial compensation commensurate with reaching the 99th percentile in their chosen endeavor.

Stuart Rachels became the youngest National Master in American history (a record previously held by Fischer and that has since been broken several times, most recently by Awonder Liang) before earning the International Master title and tying for first place in the 1989 U.S. Championship. Rachels retired from professional chess in 1993 to follow in his father's footsteps by becoming a philosophy professor. Rachels' life experiences and his training as both an elite chess player and a philosopher provide him a unique perspective regarding how chess and chess players are perceived in America. In The Reviled Art, Rachels laments chess' low status in America: "My proudest moment--winning the U.S. Championship--brought me satisfaction but no glory. By then I knew that my victory was not a national news story, but I was disappointed to discover that it was not even considered local news. In Atlanta, where I was then a college student, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution declined to run a story about the tournament, while my college newspaper ran a story on page thirteen, devoting its front page to the minor accomplishments of a Division III college swimmer."

The preface to The Reviled Art is a quote from Rachels' father, James Rachels: "If chess is an art, it is hardly treated as such in the United States. Imagine what it would be like if music were as little known or appreciated. Suppose no self-respecting university would offer credit courses in music, and the National Endowment for the Arts refused to pay for any of it. A few enthusiasts might compose sonatas, and study and admire one another's efforts, but they would largely be ignored. Once in a while a Mozart might capture the public imagination, and like Bobby Fischer get written about in Newsweek. But the general attitude would be that, while this playing with sound might be clever, and a great passion for those who care about it, still in the end it signifies nothing very important."

During the early 1970s, it seemed like Bobby Fischer's dramatic World Championship victory might elevate the status of chess in the United States but Fischer was a tormented genius who did not defend his title and after Fischer disappeared from public view the "Fischer Boom" became a whimper. However, Stuart Rachels does not believe that chess would have become a mainstream activity in the United States even if Fischer had stayed on the scene:

The Fischer-Spassky frenzy was about a Cold War clash, and about the public's interest in Fischer himself; it had little to do with chess. If Bobby had kept playing, it would have been great. Professional chess players might now make a decent living in America. The U.S. Chess Federation might have as many members as the American Contract Bridge League (USCF: 90,000; ACBL: 160,000). But Fischer could not have made chess popular in the United States. There are three reasons for this. 

The first, peculiar to the U.S.A., is our country's deeply-engrained anti-intellectualism. In America, chess is regarded as the premier strategy game, but this accolade earns the game little respect...

The second reason is that chess is an anti-social activity--or rather, tournament chess is. Casual games can be social affairs, but serious chess is quiet and solitary. Tournament games typically last for hours, and though you are playing against a human being, you do not speak to him, and you are not working with him--you are trying to beat him. Not many people want to spend hours alone with their own thoughts.

The third reason Fischer couldn't have made chess as popular as golf or tennis is that the game's beauty is invisible to those who haven't labored over a chessboard for untold hours.

Stuart Rachels gives an in depth explanation of both why chess games can be beautiful and why it is difficult for the uninitiated to appreciate this beauty. He begins by noting that when his father decided to reduce his personal library he found it easy to discard his books about bridge but he could not so blithely get rid of his chess books: "Throwing away Fischer's games," James Rachels said, "would be like throwing away Shakespeare's plays." Such a sentiment is readily understood by any chess player but may be incomprehensible to someone who does not play chess: how can moves from a board game be compared to great works of literature?

Stuart Rachels offers this description of chess beauty:

Great chess games are breathtaking works of art. What does their beauty consist in? Some facets of a game's beauty can be grasped only by considering the game as a whole. For example, an entire game can embody the flawless execution of a plan (as when, in a Queen's Gambit Declined, White launches a minority attack on the queenside, creates a weak black pawn on c6, organizes his forces around that pawn, wins it, and displays good endgame technique). Or, the protracted struggle of a long game, with its tensions, its clash of styles, and its shifting fortunes, can have aesthetic merit. Or, a whole game can be satisfying because the victor made no detectable errors; reflecting on the game as a whole, we can see that the victor's performance was unspoiled...

Explanations of beauty, however, ring hollow in chess, much as they do elsewhere. In the end, the beauty of chess is something you grasp visually, if you grasp it at all. The move, the combination, the final position, look beautiful. You see it. Even when a Grandmaster thinks about a beautiful move while he's watching a dull movie, he "sees" the board in his mind...

Chess provides a striking example of how knowledge can influence perception. When a novice and a master look at a position, there is a profound difference in their experience. The master sees the power of the pieces: he immediately knows which squares the bishop attacks; no conscious thought is required. More complicated matters can also be perceptual. A master can immediately perceive that a square is weak, a bishop is bad, a pawn is backward, and a queen is pinned. He can perceive all this in one or two seconds of scanning the board, while the novice has only taken in the fact that chess is being played on the board rather than checkers...

Once, when I was giving a thirty-five-board simul, I noticed at one board that a piece had been moved to a different square while I was concentrating on other games. My opponent immediately apologized and put the piece back, blaming the error on his small child, who was watching. This was not a matter of "memorization"—I do not have a trick memory—the position just didn't make sense with the piece misplaced.

A person does not have to possess Rachels' fine-tuned sense of the board to appreciate chess beauty but it takes a certain amount of knowledge to make sense of a chess game; as Rachels put it, a master may be able to instantly grasp the essence of a position in a glance but in that same glance most people will only be able to determine that the game being played is chess, not checkers. It is not difficult for anyone to understand the beauty and grace of a soaring slam dunk, a majestic home run or a long touchdown pass but the concept of chess beauty cannot be expected to make sense to someone who does not play chess.

After providing many examples of chess beauty and of the way that masters perceive the game differently than amateurs, Rachels concludes:

When art lovers talk about what they "see" in a painting, I usually don't believe them. I usually think they're just being pretentious. If you suspect this of me, please know this: any chess expert can confirm what I've said about chess perception. And there is no issue about determining who the experts are. In chess, the experts are the ones who win. In other artistic areas, experts are harder to discern, and so claims about perception and beauty are harder to verify.

In Mano a Mano Competition is Pure, I expressed a similar sentiment:

I love chess for many reasons--the game is part art, part science, part raw blooded competition--but one of the best things about chess is that your performance can be immediately and objectively quantified: you win, lose or draw and your rating is adjusted accordingly (often within 24 hours thanks to the internet/computers). Facing someone over the chessboard is much like going into a boxing ring--you are battling one on one against your opponent and it does not matter how rich you are, how popular you are or who you know: if you don't bring everything you've got then you will get knocked out...

Unfortunately, the writing business--like the music business--does not have objective ratings. There is no mano a mano competition; people who are completely unqualified to analyze either writing or basketball often determine who "wins" and who "loses."

While chess expertise can be accurately quantified, Rachels believes that chess beauty is too abstract of a concept for most people to grasp:

Most of the fun in chess comes from appreciating the game's beauty. This requires being able to see it. And being able to see it requires time and effort: it takes most people years to develop a competent perception of the board. This is the main reason why chess will never become popular in America--it's too hard. And this is why Fischer could not have been Caissa's Arnold Palmer.

Rachels is probably being a bit too pessimistic here and he later backs off a bit by conceding, "Weaker players can enjoy the game, and it doesn't take years to become weak. Different things are enjoyed at a lower level than at a higher level. For example, a novice might get excited by a simple knight fork, which a stronger player would find routine. But this is enjoyment nonetheless." I know from firsthand experience that in just one evening an attentive and enthusiastic student can go from knowing virtually nothing about chess to being able to appreciate, at least on a rudimentary visual level, the beauty of one of Morphy's most famous games.

Rachels devotes a significant portion of his essay to discussing chess composition. Rachels asserts, "The composed problem is the highest form of art in chess" and he is disappointed that chess problem composers are accorded so little respect even within the chess community itself:

The world of chess compositions is like the chess world writ smaller. Society ignores chess players; chess players ignore composers. Chess players don't like problems for the same reason that greengrocers don't like chess: because it strains the brain. Humans can grasp a lot about chess, but most people don't want to; chess players can grasp a lot about problems, but most aren't interested. The chess composer is a tragic figure, even compared to the chess player. Kasparov and Fischer enjoy fame, and even players who haven't penetrated the public consciousness are renowned in chess circles. Yet the Kasparovs and Fischers of the composing world are largely unknown even to chess players.

Although Rachels wishes that chess artistry in all forms were better appreciated, he rejects attempts to popularize the game by classifying chess as a sport because Rachels believes that physical exertion is an essential aspect of any sport. I disagree with Rachels; sport is not defined purely by the level of physical exertion required but rather by how much skill is utilized: that is why chess can rightly be called a sport but board games that rely on rolling dice or other elements of chance cannot rightly be called sports. Chess is a mind sport, a sport that requires extraordinary concentration, focus and mental/physical stamina; contrary to popular belief, it is very much a young person's game at the highest levels, precisely because of the sustained intense mental, physical and psychological effort that competitive chess requires.

Chess is a unique human endeavor, combining art (beauty), sport (skillful competition) and science (a strong player must know how to identify important patterns, utilize logic and employ proper technique). It is a shame that chess is not more widely appreciated and that it is not utilized as an integral part of the education process; as former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov recently stated, learning chess can provide "a self-confidence that transforms a child's view of his or her potential."

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