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."

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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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