Is chess not for everybody?

by Peter Zhdanov
7/4/2012 – Recently Boris Gelfand said he thought that chess was not for everyone. "Chess is for people who want to make an intellectual effort, who have respect for the game, and we shouldn't make the game more simple so that more people would enjoy it,” said the world championship challenger. Do you think this is true? Peter Zhdanov, IT project manager and debate expert, begs to differ.

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Is chess not for everybody?

By Peter Zhdanov

Boris Gelfand's remarks have stirred a lot of discussions in the chess community, and many people said they fully agree. So, what makes this statement so attractive? In the modern world companies are not just selling us products. Their real goods are success stories. Buy this car and show how rich and influential you are. Wear this perfume and get all the girls. This phone proves you have good taste, unlike most people. These messages are centered on a person’s ego and his assumed exclusiveness. Gelfand’s words work in a similar fashion. The reader, in case he is a chess player, feels himself special: “I am smart; I can make an intellectual effort. Why bother explaining chess to the average Joe who isn’t as smart as me?”

Besides that, there are many attempts to sully chess by saying, for example, that this game is just a senseless shuffling of wooden pieces; that chess is simply a memory game where the person who knows openings better wins. While most of such statements range from dubious to absolutely absurd, they still dominate the minds of a large fraction of the public. Therefore, I think that with his phrase Boris is subconsciously trying to defend his favorite game from people who spread such insinuations.

Now let’s give the quote a second thought. Is it really true? In my opinion, not quite. Let’s follow in the footsteps of the legendary Mikhail Botvinnik and examine the assumption that chess is a combination of sports, arts and science. This will be our model. So, how does Gelfand’s statement relate to chess?

  1. Chess as a sport. Sports are usually not intellectually demanding, when it comes to watching them. One doesn’t have to be exceptionally smart to enjoy the show. Chess is somewhat different in the sense that it is very hard to understand what is going on in the game unless you are a strong player yourself. However, one doesn’t even have to know the rules of chess to be a fan. You can root for your favorite player or your country. You can monitor the chess engine’s evaluation and cheer when it goes up for your favorite and feel worried if it goes down. Finally, you can rely on the opinion of experts whom you trust. Therefore, I am not sure what Boris is arguing against. We don’t really have to make chess simpler to entertain the fans.

  2. Chess as an art. Most people are not keen on art. Their perception of it is rather primitive. Basically speaking, the prevailing majority of us prefer paintings which resemble photos, or feature objects that we are interested in. Example 1: a portrait by a street artist. Example 2: lovely kittens. Another group is people who don’t have their own opinion, but want to seem educated and civilized. They just memorize a few expert opinions and names of artists, as well as a few bold expressions. For instance, every day during the Anand-Gelfand match lectures on arts were delivered. One of the Twitter users tried to look smart and asked why they keep on talking about Repin and Vasnetsov when there are Picasso and Dali. Obviously, he fails to understand that mentioning some of the most popular and widely promoted artists doesn’t make one an arts critic and expert.

    The situation in chess is very similar. Most amateurs say chess beauty and mean chess tactics. Some of them are even happy to see something very basic – a fork, a stalemate, Lasker’s two-bishop sacrifice. Meanwhile, very few people in the world can appreciate a cunning way to convert a minimal positional advantage. And, just like in art, a lot depends on the trend-setters, the stars. Weak players just repeat what they have heard from the top guys. But, once again, it neither requires a significant intellectual effort, nor forces us to “make the game simpler so that more people would enjoy it”. It’s just that, like in any other field, very few people have a refined taste.

  3. Chess as a science. On the one hand, chess is similar to science in the sense that one has to apply a lot of intellectual effort over a significant amount of time to obtain a positive result; rely on the findings of others; have an analytical mindset. On the other hand, chess is clearly inferior to science in the sense that science is usually supposed to be either useful right away (“create a model so that we can use it to develop a product”), or at least potentially (“come up with something awesome, and maybe it will eventually be used”). The first type of research can be funded by private companies. The second type usually lies in the domain of the state. Meanwhile, competitive chess can hardly boast being beneficial for the society in the long run.

    Do professional chess players really generate something useful for the humanity? If it is only about entertainment and aesthetic pleasure, then chess is either a sport or an art, but not science. The only more or less adequate attempt to justify chess as a science would be to say that top chess players are developing the game, and the game can be used to improve certain human qualities of the players. Here and there we hear that kids who play chess are good at math and generally do well in school. Many grown-ups are taking up chess to improve their “tactical and strategic thinking”. Some believe this is the right approach. Others smile and say that these mantras are just chess PR. We don’t know for sure. Anyway, this article is not about chess being a science or not.

If we agree that chess is a science, then we can extrapolate the experience obtained in science to chess. There is real science and popular science. Real science is usually perceived by the qualified professional minority, while popular science normally deals with interesting real life issues that can be somehow explained using real science. However, the explanations are naturally very superficial and primitive. One doesn’t show 50 pages of calculations and sophisticated arguments to a coach potato watching TV. Only a tiny portion of the ideas is presented. Moreover, if the scientific discovery doesn’t have an instant application or an easily understandable wording, interpreters will create an illustration for it. For example, the Poincare theorem that was proved by Grigori Perelman is not something you can phrase in a way a layman would understand: “Every simply connected, closed three-manifold is homeomorphic to the three-sphere”. To avoid citing it, magazines started making up simplifications featuring balls, rolls and other real life objects that can somehow be deformed. While not being scientifically accurate, these interpretations create an image in the head of a non-specialist.

Likewise, a lot is being said about chess being too intellectually demanding to televise. Conservative-minded critics often claim that if we feature half-naked girls; piles of cash; play blitz and the like, then we will kill classical chess and destroy its image as a game for noble and intelligent gentlemen. However, first of all, it is a matter of measure. One doesn’t have to go into extremes when designing the format. Secondly and more importantly, why can’t there be show chess (“popular science”) and tournament chess (“real science”)? Indeed, watching top GMs play in a tournament hall for hours can be boring, especially if one is deprived of commentaries and other or types of entertainment. But is observing a mathematician scribbling formulas and notes hour after hour in his ivory tower any better? Hence, we can safely reassure critics that chess can both be televised and not profaned in the process.

Finally, let me return to the initial quote mentioned in the beginning of the article. As an experienced speaker and debates coach, I have always been telling my students that they should carefully pick the right vocabulary and wordings to address their audience. Eloquence and smartness don’t pay off as long as the audience has problems understanding the message you are trying to convey, or if people dislike your style. Don’t talk like a professor when addressing truck drivers. Don’t swear like a sailor when speaking to kids. If someone doesn’t get you, it’s your problem, not theirs. Of course, one can adopt a different approach: “I am good as I am, and if someone is too dumb to appreciate what I am saying and doing, then who cares”. The drawback of this mentality is that no one would be willing to understand and support such a person. No one. Not even sponsors, government officials or us, chess fans.

What do you think?

Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, debate expert, BSc in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science and final year PhD student in Sociology. In chess he is a Russian candidate master, author, husband and manager of grandmaster Natalia Pogonina. You can read more of his articles at the Pogonina web site.

Previous articles

Do Women Have a Chance against Men in Chess?
08.03.2012 – As we know all too well: most of the strongest players in the world are male. In the past we have speculated on the reasons for this gender discrepancy, with vigorous reader participation. On International Women's Day Peter Zhdanov, who is married to a very strong female player, provides us with some valuable statistics, comparing men and women on a country-by-country basis. Eye-opening.
Do men and women have different brains?
30.06.2009 – In a recent thought-provoking article WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov presented their views on the topic of why women are worse at chess than men. A number of our readers were unconviced: they think that efforts at "explaining" differences between the sexes only from environmental factors are doomed at the outset. Recent studies seem to support this. Feedback and articles.
Women and men in chess – smashing the stereotypes
20.06.2009 On June 5, 2009 WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov got married – she a Women's Grandmaster, he a successful IT-specialist and debate expert. Peter is also Natalia’s manager, together they are writing a book called "Chess Kamasutra". Today they share with us their views on the perennial topic why women are worse at chess than men, and take a look at the future of women’s chess.

Copyright Zhdanov/ChessBase

Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, expert and author of two books on parliamentary debate
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