Encounters: Richard and Richard and Woody

by Frederic Friedel
2/21/2019 – Last year's World Chess Championship in London was an exciting affair. All twelve games were drawn, and not everyone was there for the final tiebreak day, to see Carlsen win three games and retain his crown. But Frederic Friedel did attend the spectacular opening gala and the first two rounds. He describes the many interesting people he met and the impressions they left. This is the first in a series on chess-related encounters.

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It happened at the 2018 Chess World Championship in London. I attended the gala opening ceremony, together with a "date", my friend Hou Yifan, who came down for the occasion — from Oxford, where she is currently studying diplomacy on a Fulbright Scholarship. I also met another friend whom I have know for ages.

The two strongest female chess players in history, Hou Yifan and Judit Polgar, at the World Championship Opening gala in London, November 2018

At the opening gala I was greeted by someone I knew from the 2010 FIDE Presidential campaign: Richard Conn, a successful international lawyer and investor, Managing Partner of Innovate Partners LLC and Eurasia Advisors LLC, had run as candidate for Deputy President on Anatoly Karpov's ticket. "Come along, Fred," he said, "I want you to meet some friends."

Above the people Richard Conn introduced me to: Challenger Fabiano Caruana — okay, I have known Fabulous Fab since his early teens; Richard Dawkins, English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author; Richard himself; and American actor and playwright Woody Harrelson. I was thrilled!

First I was introduced to Richard Dawkins — and wouldn't let go of his hand during the greeting. He looked at me quizzically and I explained: "You have formed my entire intellectual life, Richard, from the late 1970s, when I read The Selfish Gene, until today, when I follow every debate and read every book." He was very interested to know that I had studied ethology and evolutionary epistemology in Hamburg and Oxford, though I had never met him in the English university town at the time.

A slightly blurry picture (the lighting was not conducive to mobile phone photography) of another encounter: Richard Dawkins, Richard Conn, Magnus Carlsen and his father Henrik

The other interesting character at the World Championship opening gala was Woody Harrelson, who spent a lot of time in the VIP room playing chess — and not too badly. Above he is doing fairly well against a visitor, who took the b7 pawn with his bishop on the next move. Instead of playing ...Re2 with a very comfortable position Woody started advancing his g-pawn and had to fight for a draw.

Above the Hollywood star takes on Magnus' manager Espen Agedstein, a 2400 rated player (watch him beat Magnus here). On the right is Richard Conn watching. I had the presence of mind to pull of a witty remark after the game: "Woody, you are a natural born chess player," I remarked. He grinned broadly — and you, dear reader, can figure out why.

Another interesting encounter, this time with me introducing Richard to Demis Hassabis, founder of DeepMind and project manager of the AlphaZero project

An old friend: Nigel Short, whom I first met when he was 14 and who visited me at my home in Germany dozens of times. He is now 53 and a FIDE Vice President but hasn't lost any of his outrageous humour. Once again we laughed a lot.

Another intriguing encounter was with Lucille Cailly, who has a fascinating background: she studied epistemology (my subject!) at the Sorbonne University in Paris, she is a writer, and a master poker player, with total winnings of a million and a half dollars. She has also dabbled in stand-up, which you can see in the following video:

This is the way she interacts with people, and we had a lovely dinner together. There I learned a lot more about Lucille — and urged her to tell her whole story in her next book. At the dinner was also another old and dear friend, Almira Skripchenko, who also moonlights with poker and is also one of Lucille's closest friends. At the World Championship, Almira grabbed my camera and took the above shots which have me in them. Unfortunately, this meant I do not have any pictures of her.

Richard Conn had brought along his latest book, The Earthbound Parent, and gave copies to Woody and me. It tells us "why all parents who value science and reason can help stop the centuries-old practice of religious indoctrination, and offers advice on how to encourage children to discover the world and their place in it for themselves. Only by teaching them that we are in this world together and have a limited time to live can we truly enable them to flourish and build a peaceful world—not just for their generation but for the future." (Amazon description). Here are two cover blurbs of the book:

"In a period of religious extremism, Richard Conn provides practical advice about how to raise children without dogma as thoughtful, responsible, creative individuals." – George Soros, philanthropist and author.

"A remarkable book I wish I had read thirty years ago. A convincing and beautiful guide to nonreligious parenting." – Henrik Carlsen, father of the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen.

In return for the book, Richard got a copy of ChessBase 15 from me and has promised to give us a report on how his daughter Natalie was able to use it, hopefully, to improve her game.

Natalie Conn at six with Magnus Carlsen at the screening of Disney’s Queen of Katwa in New York City, shortly after she had won the first of two annual state championships of Connecticut

Natalie loves ballet and singing, but something about thinking really attracts her. No doubt this stems from the special bond she and her dad share in playing chess. Now at age eight she recently defeated a 1300 high school player who was ostensibly teaching her.

In his book, Richard describes how he exposes children to chess and makes use of programs like ChessBase 15 to play chess. That way you teach them the game without their ever noticing that they were learning anything. It is simply fun. He writes:

"Since I play a role in a nonprofit that teaches chess to second and third graders in public schools (over 1.3 million students so far), ran to be the Deputy President of the World Chess Federation, and have witnessed the salutary effects of chess upon young minds in my own family, I would be remiss in not recommending that you introduce chess to your child. It is an inexpensive game (just chess pieces and a board) and costs nothing to learn if you can access the Internet. Chess teaches a child how to plan, calculate, concentrate, organize thoughts, imagine the future, and accept responsibility for mistakes. It teaches strategy, tactics, spatial concepts, geometry, pattern recognition, the value of study and hard work, cause and effect, camaraderie, responsibility, and, in my view most importantly, humility.

Only by playing chess did I learn how difficult it was for me to calculate moves on a 64-square board with 32 pieces with everything right in front of me. How can one not benefit from that humbling experience? The illusion that we are in control and can calculate what will happen in our complex lives dissipates quickly when you blunder and lose a chess game. A sense of modesty and respect for uncertainty replaces the illusion of control and infallibility along with an appreciation for the hard work necessary to accomplish anything in life. These lessons can be learned in other ways but chess covers a broad spectrum of positive skill sets and is fun."


Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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richard conn richard conn 11/10/2019 12:08
I am not sure what you are getting at but the book does address the formation of ethical norms in the absence of belief in deities. It is available in audio for free on Amazon as part of a promotion. Perhaps you would consider at this point reading or listening to it before we engage further since the topic is obviously of great interest to you.
mickeytron mickeytron 3/16/2019 01:07
Hi. Do you believe that evil is real?
richard conn richard conn 3/12/2019 07:39
Hi. Agreed that we would only warn someone about dangers perceived as real.
mickeytron mickeytron 3/8/2019 05:15
Hi Richard. Robert Blumner in the foreword describes your book as offering a version - albeit gentler and more instructive - of Dawkin's view that conveying to one's children the danger of eternal damnation is child abuse. Would it not be the case, though, that if there is a danger of eternal damnation then to fail to warn one's children of it would be child abuse without limit? If so, then the point at issue is not the warning but the reality - or lack thereof - of a danger of eternal damnation. The warning issue is a red herring.
richard conn richard conn 3/4/2019 06:16
Hi. Thanks for your note. The book is quite different from the approach Dawkins took and the argument you mention is not in my book. Agreed that such an argument would not be persuasive.
mickeytron mickeytron 3/3/2019 01:50
Hi Richard. I may not have the time to read your book in the near future but I've read the Look Inside pages on Amazon and the various reviews. By the sounds of it you've covered largely the same ground as Richard Dawkins in his well known books but with a particular focus on parents and children. It seems to me that even without reading The Earthbound Parent one can begin to respond to it at a very basic level. For example, you're no doubt aware that the argument: "Religion causes conflict; conflict is undesirable; therefore religion is false" is fallacious.
richard conn richard conn 3/2/2019 05:37
Hi fellow chess aficionados. I enjoyed reading the comments below and am interested in learning your reactions to the book itself. The publisher tells me it is available in audio for free on Amazon by registering (again for free) for Amazon audio books.
mickeytron mickeytron 3/2/2019 02:33

I don't think I should let your statement "The best we can do is to separate the things we know (science) from the things we believe (religion)..." pass without challenge. It really is a very naive view that you have, if I may say so. Science presupposes belief in certain things which are incapable of scientific demonstration: the validity of logic and mathematics, the basic reliability of sense perception, the law of causality etc. Let me put it another way: consider the statement, "We should only believe what can be scientifically proven"; can this statement be scientifically proven? If not then it is self-refuting.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 2/26/2019 09:45

The comment was about avoiding religious indoctrination. I think indoctrination of any kind is not good. One can teach his/her child the belief he/she has, but it's good to teach other religious/scientific/philosophical ideas as well. If I'm saying to a child that Christianity is true and everything else is false, then I'm indoctrinating the child. If I'm telling the child that there is no God, then I'm indoctrinating the child. An approach without indoctrination is to tell the child what the facts are and what do we believe and why do we believe what we believe. If we do so, then we are not indoctrinating the child by any means. According to the article the problem the book aims to counter is religious indoctrination and the approach taken is a God-less way of raising the child. This is far from militant atheism, but it is atheism indeed. I do not see a problem with it per se. I do not see a problem with a Christian raising either. The problem is the indoctrination before critical thinking develops. If the parents are celebrating Christmas with the child, for example and explaining what they believe, I think this, by itself is not indoctrination. The religious indoctrination is the approach of mixing up facts with beliefs and teaching beliefs as facts. Many scientists believe that there is no God and do not recognize this as a belief and consequently indoctrinate their children/students. However, if somebody does not believe in God, this does not necessarily mean the belief of God's inexistence.
mickeytron mickeytron 2/25/2019 07:13

"You are right when you state that whenever a scientific mistery is resolved there is a high chance (according to our observation of scientific discoveries done before) that we will encounter new misteries."

I'm happy to rest my case there because my main motive in posting comments here is to show that claims like 'science has replaced God', or 'we don't need old-fashioned belief in God because we have science now', which are repeatedly made by the 'new atheists', are just hubristic.

The kind of hubris that motivates in the article above the statement, "Richard Conn had brought along his latest book, The Earthbound Parent, and gave copies to Woody and me. It tells us "why all parents who value science and reason can help stop the centuries-old practice of religious indoctrination, and offers advice on how to encourage children to discover the world and their place in it for themselves. " As if the only people who value science and reason are non-religious people.

Of course there are a whole range of human experiences where science has nothing at all to say. We don't deny the existence of beauty because nothing answering to that description emerges from the chemical analysis of a cut diamond.

The hubris of people like Richard Dawkins is really nauseating actually; I for one find them ignorant and tedious.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 2/25/2019 11:46

You have asked several questions. I would be happy to discuss any of those, but as I said earlier, in this comment section we should avoid long scientific discussions. If we briefly discuss a single question, then we do not drift too far from the topic. If you intend to discuss why gravity exists, then we can briefly discuss that. If you would like to discuss the causes of the gravitational constant, we can discuss that briefly. The expectation for science to explain itself is vague. We need to formulate a question in order to discuss it. But please, choose a single question to discuss.
mickeytron mickeytron 2/24/2019 06:51

Does science explain why there is such a force as gravity, why it follows an inverse square law, and why the 'gravitational constant' has the value that it does? If it does not then it is merely descriptive rather than explanatory. Further, does science explain itself? If it does not then we have the strongest possible reason for regarding it as non-explanatory.
Harry Pillsbury Harry Pillsbury 2/24/2019 04:59
I would have preferred for the article to have just focused on chess and the personalities rather than spin off into a condescending lecture about "religous indoctrination". One can believe in a Creator without buying into man made dogma.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 2/24/2019 01:26

Science is the collection of what we know and the methodology we use. There is plenty of room for improvement both on what we know and the methodology we use. What we do know is fact and what we do not know is theoretic at best. There is a mainstream in science, if you consider it to be dogmatic, or even "religiously atheist", then you have a scientific debate with the mainstream, not with science itself. The assumption that God does not exist is dogmatic and religious as well, yet, its believers do not recognize the fact that they are religious as well. You can make a case for theism saying that we cannot exclude the possibility of a creation, but this does not prove the validity of any religions, it just points the fact that militant atheism is dogmatic.

You say that science is not explanatory. In many cases in which we do not have the answer this is true. Where we already have the answer this is false. Let's discuss the question of your choice briefly. Discussing all questions would be unfair from our part, as this is a chess site and we should avoid drifting too far from the topic. However, in order to discuss a question, you have to formulate a question which according to your current knowledge has no scientific explanation at this point.
mickeytron mickeytron 2/23/2019 05:46

I don't see science as explanatory because there are no scientific 'explanations' that rest only on premises that are intuitive or self-evident, and therefore need no further explanation. What science has been able to discover about the way the universe works has been useful, I agree; but not explanatory.
mickeytron mickeytron 2/23/2019 04:21

"If science does not have the faintest ideas about some questions, at least according to your argument, then consequently we know that we have no clue about the questions you are speaking about. If science is unable to determine the answer to a given question, then any assumptions regarding that question is unscientific."

This would be true only if science is not merely the study of the material universe but the study of reality vs non-reality. But if you can't justify such a view of science then you're just question-begging.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 2/23/2019 01:43

The best we can do is to separate the things we know (science) from the things we believe (religion) and to avoid to fallaciously try to claim that we know anything about what we believe. Also, science can be repeatedly used to test whether religions can be true. For instance the Quran claims that we can know it holds the truth because there are not "many" contradictions. Even though the term "many" is vague, we can literally find hundreds of contradictions in the Quran, so the Quran fails according to its own validator. According to Christianity, Jesus was conceived in a supernatural way, so we cannot use our knowledge about nature to test the validity of this claim, but there are some other points where we can test Christianity whether it can be the truth. If religions pass such tests, then we cannot exclude the possibility that they are correct. If they fail the scientific test, then we know they are false.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 2/23/2019 01:33

"the inability of science to explain the origin of the universe, of the laws of nature, of life, and of mind and thought. Science doesn't have the faintest idea of how to answer these fundamental questions. These are hardly little gaps."

Actually there is a lot we already know, I advise you to look into what we know so far, it would be a useful experience. However, according to your argument "science" is not able to give responses to "fundamental" questions. Science is not a person, it is the collection of knowledge and methods of gathering knowledge. If science does not have the faintest ideas about some questions, at least according to your argument, then consequently we know that we have no clue about the questions you are speaking about. If science is unable to determine the answer to a given question, then any assumptions regarding that question is unscientific. So, if you say that you believe in a given religion, that's perfectly okay, but if you try to prove scientifically that we should be religious or a given religion is the truth, then you contradict with your starting point where you said that science cannot answer fundamental questions.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 2/23/2019 01:23

You are right when you state that whenever a scientific mistery is resolved there is a high chance (according to our observation of scientific discoveries done before) that we will encounter new misteries. However, I disagree with you when you say "Indeed, science doesn't really explain anything [...]". Please look around and observe the plants, the animals and the humans and behold how much of their biology we do understand. Behold of the great architectural results the human species was able to have so far. Behold the very computer you are using and the browser which opened this page and the Internet, through which your browser downloaded this page and the UI which displays this page and behold: all these are results of questions answered by science. Science actually works. I did not see any smartphones, visions or any other practical proof that any of the religions I am aware about are true. This is why we can believe in religions, but they are not part of what we actually know scientifically.
TITUSS TITUSS 2/22/2019 08:45
Im not a "very religious" person, and i view religions as mostly group evolutionary strategies. It's very eye opening to notice that often times those who preach the "don't indoctrinate your children in this religion or that other one" are usually the most "religious" people themselves, and have a totally different double standard about their own religion or set of beliefs, humans...
mickeytron mickeytron 2/22/2019 04:37
The God hypothesis makes a range of predictions that are consistent with observation, i.e., the inability of science to explain the origin of the universe, of the laws of nature, of life, and of mind and thought. Science doesn't have the faintest idea of how to answer these fundamental questions. These are hardly little gaps. They are vast and profound. Indeed, science doesn't really explain anything, because it can only appeal to laws of nature which themselves remain unexplained. For example, the inverse square law of gravity can be 'explained' by the 3D symmetry of space; but what is the explanation for the 3D symmetry of space?
lajosarpad lajosarpad 2/22/2019 10:21

Here our opinion depends on what we believe, not on what we know. We have a pretty good idea about the origins of biological life, as we know the recipe for life and some environmental experiments confirmed important parts of the theories we have. How do we know that the universe was fine tuned for life on Earth? We only know that we have a friendly environment for life. Whether it is a result of fine tuning is a matter of belief. The mathematical "elegance" of the laws of physics is a concept we have and it is very subjective.

After you say that science cannot explain a few things you try to explain them with religion:

"Most likely, there is a Designer, though we have different ideas of who he is."

yet, the term "most likely" is a scientific term. If you believe that some things cannot be explained by science, then likeliness is a surprising term to say the least, as it is a conclusion from something you just said we have no clue about.

Also, if there is a Designer, how do we know there is only one and why is the Designer necessarily male?

Please, don't be offended by my response, I have a lot of respect towards religions (except the destructive ones) for their way of improving human societies and we cannot scientifically exclude that some of the religions are true or partly true. In fact, I think this could be a strong case for Theists. The very fact that we cannot exclude religions to hold the true is a scientifically defendable point of view. Theism is the belief in God/Gods, Atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of God/Gods, but it does not automatically mean that God/Gods do not exist. Lack of belief in God does not mean the belief in the contrary. Those who do not believe in God, but do not believe that God does not exist either are agnostics.


Yeah, the Bolshevik dictatorship was very antitheist.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 2/22/2019 09:54

"As far as raising children without religion, what if there is a God?"
As far as I understood the article, the book is about raising children without religious indoctrination. This, according to my understanding does not mean teaching there is no God to children and, frankly, they can learn about religion when they grew up and developed critical thinking.

"The assumption here of course is that all religious tenets are false"
Maybe that's the assumption, I did not read the book, however, in the article this is not written down in any forms. As far as I understand this is not about scientific assumptions, it is rather about avoiding indoctrination.

"the scientific explanations do not explain"
- the origin of the universe
- the origin of biological life
- fine tuning of the universe for life on Earth
- the mathematical elegance of the laws of physics

The argument above is a logical fallacy of several types, like the argument of incredulity (just because, according to you "science" does not explain the possibility of some things, or we do not understand them does not mean they are impossible without divine intervention), the fine tuning fallacy (in fact this is textbook example), tha watch maker fallacy, God of the gaps fallacy. These logical fallacies - in my opinion - have the goal of making others accept shifting the burden of proof, which is, of course another logical fallacy.

Now that we see that the arguments you brought are fallacious, let's fix the scientific errors in there as well: we know a lot about the origin of the universe, we do not know the first moment, but we know a lot following a very short time after the first moment. Was the first moment God commanding the universe to exist? Possibly. Or not.
jaberwocky jaberwocky 2/22/2019 09:32
Do you have some interest in religion but reject dogmatic and exclusive versions? If so, you might like this humour:

CT Scan
it's okay this time
says the main umpire
keep playing for good teams
and enjoy the games
- by Bob Cowley
Masquer Masquer 2/22/2019 08:23
The Earthbound Parent – by Richard Conn. The book costs $10.37 in paperback or ... $6.66 in the Kindle version.

Very fitting. Remember, atheistic Bolshevism also tried to do away with God and religion.
Finrod75 Finrod75 2/22/2019 07:55
lovely pictures, nice to see these visitors in a chess event. Even though The evolution theory is a complete nonesense....
this brings more color and good atmosphere.
jflores33 jflores33 2/22/2019 01:30
Thanks for a nice article, introducing us to famous people. As far as raising children without religion, what if there is a God? Should not our children know about that? The assumption here of course is that all religious tenets are false, even though the scientific explanations do not explain the origin of the universe, the origin of biological life, nor the fine tuning of the universe for life on earth. Finally, the assumption does not explain the mathematical elegance of the laws of physics. Most likely, there is a Designer, though we have different ideas of who he is.
jaberwocky jaberwocky 2/21/2019 11:48
That's an interesting article.
It's good to be wary of religious dogma. However the best parts of the main religions may be similar, and seem to help a lot of people.

Higher power?
an interesting idea at least -
unbiased advice
that there are rules
and strong hints
on where to find them
mickeytron mickeytron 2/21/2019 11:38
I haven't read Richard Conn's book but am confident that the book "Who Made God? Searching for a theory of everything" by Professor Edgar Andrews is a good antidote. Those who really value science and reason - and indeed the logical and material realities which the game of chess entails - ought to see that the God hypothesis is the only game in town. All others derive from it.
zedsdeadbaby zedsdeadbaby 2/21/2019 09:13
@Laurence. I think I know what you mean. For religious people their God is as close to them as a family member. It is easy, as an atheist, to wade in and denounce the whole damn thing. Which is the same as attending their wedding and telling them that their family and the dress are shite. A little decorum is needed.
Heavygeardiver Heavygeardiver 2/21/2019 07:39
Mr.Conn is to be commended on his work in chess. Personally when I play or teach chess I let the game itself be the religion. Religion and politics can keep their nose out of it! TinkerBell ,Santa Claus,George Soros and The Donald can play their kriegspiel to their own accolites!
Laurence2 Laurence2 2/21/2019 05:50
There is religious extremism and also non-religious extremism. I hope this book that is being promoted here is not the latter. Also, it is possible to indoctrinate children in non-religious (atheistic) views as well as indoctrinate them in religious views. It is just giving out difference information.
Patp Patp 2/21/2019 05:21
Interessing article, Richard