Ken Rogoff: economist and chess player

by Frederic Friedel
9/30/2015 – If you own a television set and watch news you will know him: Prof Kenneth Rogoff, who is interviewed on a weekly basis by the biggest news outlets in the world – CNN, CNBC, New York Times, Bloomberg – regarding world economics. But did you know that this famous economist started off as a chess player – and a highly successful one at that? Mini-series on Rogoff and chess.

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In 1969 the August issue of Chess Life had Sammy Reshevsky on its cover:

Inside there was an article on the 1969 US Junior Championship, won by Ken Rogoff:

Here is the text of that memorable report:

Rogoff Wins U.S. Junior

Kenneth Rogoff of Rochester, New York scored 6-1 to win the United States Junior Chess Championship by the widest margin ever recorded in the four-year history of this invitational event. The Championship, an eight-player Round Robin, was conducted by the U.S. Chess Federation at the Hotel McAlpin in New York City from June 23-30. First prize is an all-expenses-paid trip as the U.S. entrant into the World Junior Chess Championship in Stockholm, Sweden, August 10-30.

Rogoff started well by winning his first two games and surging to an early lead which he maintained by aggressive play throughout the tournament. Going into the final round, his score was 5-1 and only James Tarjan of Sherman Oaks, California, with 4-2, had a theoretical chance to move up into a tie for first place. This tie would have resulted if Rogoff had lost in the last round while Tarjan won. Just the opposite occurred — Rogoff defeated Steven Spencer of New York City in the final round while Tarjan was losing to John Jacobs of Dallas.

Ken Rogoff, U.S. Junior Chess Champion in 1969 at the age of sixteen.

Jacqueline and Gregor Piatigorsky, who were the sponsers and paid expenses for all eight players at the tournament (at the McAlpin Hotel in NY), had originally donated a more magnificent trophy, which was supposed to be passed on to the winner each year.

"Unfortunately it was stolen from the hotel before I could officially take possession, quite typical of NY back in those days," Ken told us. "The trophy I am holding here is the one I was allowed to keep. There is no picture of the circulating trophy because the tournament director had been keeping it under his supervision, and it disappeared before I could hold it.

Kenneth Rogoff, at sixteen, is the youngest player ever to win the United States Junior, an event in which the eight highest rated players under twenty years of age compete each year. He has played tournament chess for only two and one-half years and emerged during the past year as the dominant player in Upstate New York. Among the interested spectators and analysts at this year's games was Grandmaster Robert Fischer, who apparently feels Rogoff has great future potential if his development continues at the same rapid rate. Last year, Danish Grandmaster Bent Larsen had also made note of Rogoff's talent.

Salvatore Matera of Brooklyn and James Tarjan, each with 4-3, finished second and third, respectively. A decisive factor in breaking the tie was Matera's win in the fifth round over Rogoff — the new Champion's only loss. Matera, who won this tournament in 1967, earned an all-expenses-paid trip to play in the U.S. Open at Lincoln as a result of his second-place finish this year.

Clear fourth in the final standings was Greg DeFotis of Chicago, who scored 31/2-31/2. Greg- was this year's drawing master, splitting the point five times, winning once, and losing once. Tarjan and DeFotis are both members of the United States Student Team which will play in Dresden, East Germany, August 1-18.

Fifth and sixth in the final standings were John Jacobs of Dallas and Norman Weinstein of New York, each with 3-4. Jacobs got the nod on tie-break as a result of his victories over Matera, Tarjan, and Weinstein. Randy Mills of Shawnee Mission, Kansas was seventh with 21/2-41/2 and Steven Spencer rounded out the field with a 2-5 score.

Junior chess activity throughout the United States has risen rapidly in both quantity and quality since this invitational event was originated. The tournament undoubtedly furnishes an incentive for many young players to increase their ability, since it provides the clear goals of a national title and qualification into the World Junior. As indicated by the increasing strength of its contestants from year to year, the program – conceived of and supported by the Piatigorsky Foundation — has been extremely successful. The top-seeded entrant in 1969 had a rating of 2322 and the average of all eight players was 2273; this compares with respective figures of 2263 and 2224 in 1968. The invitational United States Junior Championship has thus made an extremely significant contribution to American chess and may well be an even greater factor in the future.

The key final round game, Ken Rogoff vs Steven Spencer, has been annotated by you'll-never-guess-who – please do not tell everyone in our feedback section below if you know the answer. We will bring you the article with the very instructive commentary in part two of our Ken Rogoff mini-series.


Kenneth Rogoff

Kenneth Rogoff is Thomas D. Cabot Professor at Harvard University. From 2001-2003, Rogoff served as Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund. His 2009 book with Carmen Reinhart, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly has been very widely cited by academics, policymakers and journalists. One regularity that Reinhart and Rogoff illustrate is the remarkable quantitative similarities across time and countries in the run-up and the aftermath of severe financial crises. In general, they show that for financial crises, the differences between emerging markets and advanced countries are far less pronounced than previously believed.

Rogoff is also known for his seminal work on exchange rates and on central bank independence. His treatise Foundations of International Macroeconomics (joint with Maurice Obstfeld) is the standard graduate text in the field worldwide. His monthly syndicated column on global economic issues is published in over 50 countries. He serves on the Economic Advisory Panel of the New York Federal Reserve. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Rogoff is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Group of Thirty. He is among the top ten on RePec’s ranking of economists by scholarly citations.

More on Professor Rogoff’s research, opinion pieces, and bio can be found here. He is currently working on an interesting subject: phasing out paper currency, which he began writing about 20 years ago.

Chess grandmaster

At the height of this chess career between 1976-1978, Ken Rogoff was a strong grandmaster, among the top 70 in the world (in 1976 Professor Arpod Elo, the originator and keeper of the ratings list, called Ken to let him know that his interim FIDE rating had reached 2540, which put him in the top 40). He has not been able to abandon his love of the game – in 2010 and in 2011 again he visited the London Chess Classic, and in fact even joined in the live commentary of games.

In the VIP room he was consulted by practically everbody (above John Nunn and Ken Thompson),
especially at a time when the world economy seems to be in serious trouble

Recent news reports

And a few recent TV interviews:


Topics Ken Rogoff

Editor-in-Chief 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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Ianjo Ianjo 10/3/2015 08:11
Kasparov is a Thatcherite who gives speeches in activities in honor of Milton Friedman, Rogoff making arguments for austerity...Clearly chess does not necessarily go hand in hand with political economic intellect
Teltow Teltow 10/2/2015 01:52
Before I buy the book, is there a chapter on externalities, like say...global warming?
Jose Tomsig Jose Tomsig 10/1/2015 04:55
Congratulations to Prof Kenneth Rogoff for his chess playing skills and for his accomplishment in the
field of economics. However, your biography of Prof Kenneth Rogoff does not mention a defining
moment of Prof Kenneth Rogoff career: the publication of doctored research paper -Growth in Time of
Debt- in collaboration with Carmen Reinhart. The convenient exclusion of a number of data points
by an Excel mistake and the implausible theories behind the exclusion of other data points
made many people think about Profs Rogoff and Reinhart as data manipulators with the intention
of favoring their particular pet economic theory. Please set the record straight and include this
fact in your biography. The error has been recognized by the authors and the conclusions of the
paper are now considered invalid. Please check the following New York Times article for details:
"The Excel Depression" by Paul Krugman. April 18, 2013.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/opinion/krugman-the-excel-depression.html?_r=0

Ianjo Ianjo 10/1/2015 12:43
Frederic can you provide evidence of having once questioned or criticized either Kasparov or Rogoff? I know they are your friends, but friends do have criticism...
geeker geeker 9/30/2015 09:49
No spoilers, but the identity of the Rogoff-Spencer annotator is really obvious...
NJD NJD 9/30/2015 05:28
I remember seeing him in Toronto with hair a lot longer than that...
ilkleychess ilkleychess 9/30/2015 01:58
Perhaps you could have mentioned Reinhart and Rogoff's infamous Excel error which was used as justification for disastrous austerity policies, not to mention confusing causation with correlation.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/forget-excel-this-was-reinhart-and-rogoffs-biggest-mistake/275088/
genghiskhent genghiskhent 9/24/2015 01:39
I played in the US Junior with Ken in 1971 and got to know him over the 7 days in Newburgh NY (then location of USCF headquarters). Obviously a strong player, and highly intelligent, but also a great guy.
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