A birthday chat with Ken Rogoff

by Macauley Peterson
3/23/2018 – Harvard professor Ken Rogoff is also a grandmaster who has appeared in the pages of ChessBase on numerous occasions, despite not being an active player since the 1970s. On March 22nd, he turned 65 years old, and we reached him by phone at his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to chat about the Candidates, ageing, Harvard, cheating, and a lesson learned 45 years ago. | Photo: INSM (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Grandmaster turned economist turns 65

Kenneth Rogoff is Thomas D. Cabot Professor at Harvard University, and a former Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund. At the height of this chess career between 1976-1978, Rogoff was a strong GM, among the top 70 in the world.


Macauley Peterson: Describe your relationship to chess these days.

Ken Rogoff: I’m a fan. I think it’s wonderful how the game is thriving. There are so many interesting fighting games. I would have guessed when I stopped playing in the late 70s that as chess players had more and more knowledge and as people had more access to digital databases and endgame databases I would have thought it would have devolved much more to draws. Of course, a very big change is the fact that there are no adjournments. People get tired and make mistakes. Because, back in my day, we adjourned after 40 moves and you could study the position and, probably more important, rest. So some of these late mistakes that people make come from not having adjournments — and that’s great. I also have the sense that partly, through Karpov and Carlsen and others, players have come to learn that if you keep playing, stuff happens. And a position that might be pretty close to a draw might still have a 10% chance to win and is worth playing out. 

MP:  Are you still following the top tournaments like the Candidates? 

KR: I absolutely follow them, obviously at a pretty superficial level. I don’t have a lot of time to look at them, but the Berlin Candidates is a particularly important, exciting tournament, and I’m checking in on ChessBase every day to see what goes on, and enjoying it. 

MP:  One of the big stories of the Candidates so far has been Vladimir Kramnik a couple of times pressing too hard, being overly optimistic and ending up losing in positions where he could have made a draw several times.

Kramnik in Berlin

Vladimir Kramnik in Berlin | Photo: Niki Riga

KR: I’ve only glanced at the games — it looked like he’d gotten squeezed in a couple of the games and I wasn’t quite sure what happened, whether that was because he was worn down and eventually made a mistake or whether he was actually playing to win at some point. I did see [the round 8] game with Grischuk and it looked like one of those positions that’s technically drawn but is hard to do in practice.

MP:  Do you have a chessboard in your office? 

KR: No, I have a picture of Bobby Fischer now in my office — a famous Harry Benson photo — but, no, that’s it.

analysing with Helmut Pfleger

Analysing with Helmut Pfleger in Munich, 2016 | Photo: Frederic Friedel

MP:  Back in 2011, in an article Technology and Inequality, parallels in chess, one of the points you make was that technology could lead to an increase in cheating — a perennial concern — which you called at that time “a growing scourge”. Have you had further thoughts on that in the intervening years?

KR: I’m really surprised it’s not a bigger issue. I’m not going to tournaments and understanding the measures being taken. I think Vishy Anand once said to me if he could be given a hint three times in a game that there was a really good move available to find, then he would be unbeatable. Anyway, it’s remarkable that cheating isn’t a bigger problem. 

MP:  Another interesting tidbit I found from one of the articles was that every year you receive an unsolicited letter from one of the world’s top players asking how to get out of chess. 

KR: It’s slowed down in recent years but there was a person of note maybe two years ago, who’s still in chess. I’ve probably gotten ten or twelve of those over the years, and I think only one of them is not still in chess. I don’t want to name names, but they were the champion of a large country. There are one or two others whose names I don’t see and maybe they aren’t active. Maybe it’s just been going on a long time and they’re just older now and not active, but I’m not aware of it.

MP:  You do see people who announce they are going to retire at such and such age and do something else but they don’t always follow through. One name that comes to mind is Gata Kamsky. When he was trying to qualify for the World Championship he was quite adamant about expecting to retire at 40 or so.

KR: People are very passionate about it. You certainly see professional golfers keep playing golf. You’ve got to kind of ask yourself what do you enjoy doing and what really grips you in life, and chess is pretty compelling — I definitely get it — that’s certainly part of it. And I think part of it is just that, when you’ve been very very good at something, it’s just hard to switch to doing something else. 

MP:  And of course the economics of it — in golf there’s a whole senior tour and you can still make a decent living, whereas in chess the “senior tour” is pretty much nonexistent.

A flip side of that, perhaps, is that, in contrast to other sports, there can be cases where you can maintain a very high level even as you are getting older. One example being Boris Gelfand, who’s really only dropped back in the very recent past. 

KR: I mean Kortchnoi was very strong into his 50s. Vishy’s pretty strong — he’s not at 50 yet, and Kramnik.

Anand and Rogoff

Anand with Rogoff and George Osborne, former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the 2010 London Chess Classic | Photo: Frederic Friedel

MP:  Aside from the odd blitz game with Magnus do you get behind a chess board yourself?

KR: I don’t. I’m just too addicted to it. I think I did a blindfold exhibition for children once ten years ago, and I think even that made me think about it too much. I love chess passionately. I’m completely fascinated by it, but I know that if I start playing, I’ll play a lot more and I’ll think about it all the time. And that’s fine, I mean, it’s good — except in what I do, I try to be creative, and it’s hard when you’re always thinking about chess. 

MP:  So it can be a little bit of a destructive influence? 

KR: Distracting. I have to say at this age I’m well aware that my vision of the board just isn’t the same — whether it’s my age, or having not played in a long time — I feel like when I look at the board I don’t see everything right away the way I used to. It just takes longer to adjust to what’s going on. But I haven’t experienced the pain of what that would imply first hand. 

MP:  So you’ve been almost 20 years as the Thomas D. Cabot Professor at Harvard University. How is Harvard’s chess scene and chess team these days? 

Darwin YangKR: I occasionally meet people. I don’t actually go to the chess club. There’s a grandmaster Darwin Yang, who actually took my class, he’s a junior and a great person and I think he’s going to do very well in whatever he does. And I occasionally have a chess player apply to Harvard and I try to help out — unsuccessfully on a couple occasions for reasons I don’t understand. It’s just kind of hit or miss — the faculty don’t do admissions, someone else does admissions. But I don’t stay in close touch with what’s going on with the chess club here. I never have — even when I was at Yale as an undergraduate playing chess, I didn’t have much to do with the Yale chess club.

Darwin Yang | Photo: US Chess Trust

MP:  But if a promising prospective comes with a chess background, you’ll put in a good word for him or her — is that because you know that there’s some connection between chess aptitude and academic studies? 

KR: I’m sure there is, but I think I can interpret what they did and translate what it is and sort of put it in perspective, and so I’ve done that on a few occasions. Letters of recommendation where you don’t know the person don’t carry a lot of weight — that’s just how it is — but I’m certainly all for having chess players come to top universities, including Harvard, and think they tend to do very well.

MP:  One other thing I discovered in our archives, it was actually an April 1st post, but it seems to have been a real event. Your game with Robert Huebner, the World Students Team Championship in 1972 in Graz. What is the story? It’s not mentioned in the article and I was terribly curious.


KR: I think the real story was that Huebner had played a really important game against Karpov the round before and lost. It was a fantastic game by Karpov, if I’m remembering — he was white and just squeezed Huebner. And I don’t think they had met before, and Huebner had finished second in the Interzonal to Fischer. Karpov was an emerging talent. And so Huebner just didn’t want to play — he was just exhausted. He was emotionally exhausted because that was a very important game, and so — and this is just how I understood it — he told his team captain, ‘I don’t want to play’ and the team captain said, ‘well that’s silly, you’re white you can play first board, shift everybody else a board down and that helps us a lot. If you’re too tired, just make a draw.’

Huebner, playing white against a much lower rated player felt insulted to be making a draw so he wanted it to be very clear that he was just doing it [for the team], and so he played one move and offered a draw. And I should have refused it — I made a mistake — but I went to my team captain — I think it was Benko — and I said, what do I do? And Benko said, ‘you got to be kidding, take a draw’ — that’s how I remember it, I could remember it wrong — and so I did. I shouldn't have. Then they made us play something [the arbiters disallowed a one move draw -Ed.], and then he started playing suicide moves. They made us apologise, and so we played again. He started playing suicide moves. I played suicide moves back. By this time everyone was standing on every table watching the game instead of playing their own games. I think I had more pieces at the end, but we agreed to a draw again. And this time the tournament director said we’re going to forfeit both of you — quite rightly — we were both wrong. I didn’t know how to react when he was doing that, you know I had a lot of respect for him, and just didn’t handle it well. And then basically the third time I think I apologised and he didn’t and I think I won by forfeit in the end. And probably the correct decision was to forfeit both of us.

Rogoff in 1970

Rogoff (second from right at age 17): with Andy Soltis, Mike Seinkawicz and Richard Verber at the World Student Team Championship (under-27) in 1970

MP:  So in the game that actually shows up in the database, the suicide moves that you were playing — it’s not like you’d agreed on this before — it was just a reaction to what you were seeing?  

KR: Oh no no, I was following what he was doing. I had no idea — he was leading the way. He was this incredible player, playing white, and I just hadn't confronted this kind of situation before, and like I said, it was a team tournament — but of course, I should have just played. That’s very clear to me now — played and lost, it would have been fine. That was a wrong decision but once I sort of started down this path I didn’t seem to find a way out. So I’d agreed to a draw the first time, and then the second time we started doing that — I mean I didn’t want to win that way. This was insulting to the tournament and to everyone, it was just wrong. It was obviously wrong on his part, but it was equally wrong on my part to play along with that. I should have just said, 'ok beat me,' which he would have probably because he’d have been so mad. He’d have been very focused. But it would have been good for my chess.

MP: Thanks very much for your time, and happy birthday.

KR: Thanks for calling and good luck with ChessBase. It's my connection to the chess world.

Correction: Professor Rogoff's birthday is March 22nd, not March 23rd as originally indicated.


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


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