What can racing learn from chess?

by Alexey Root
6/30/2019 – Chess is more affordable than racing. Chess ratings are more highly-regarded than Driver Database ratings. The highest-rated women chess players have proportionally more opportunities than the top-ranked women drivers. In this second of two articles, WIM ALEXEY ROOT explores what racing can learn from chess. She also interviews and plays two in-person blitz games with a race car driver, Kory Enders, who aspires to be a grandmaster. | Photo: Louis A. Reed Jr.

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Blitz at the racetrack

When Louis and I met race car driver Kory Enders at the Texas Motor Speedway on June 8, I pondered what chess can learn from racing. This time it's what racing can learn from chess. Here are my thoughts paired with Kory’s in-person chess games against me (including the video), and Louis.

Affordable

I asked Kory whether he thought it was easier to get ahead in racing or to improve in chess. Kory replied that it was definitely easier to get ahead in chess. Kory elaborated, “In racing it is so hard to find sponsors. And the financial cost is prohibitive.” The Guardian’s article How do I become…a racing car driver quotes driver Peter Dumbreck as saying, “So much in racing is down to the equipment and raising the money you need to race for a season is the biggest challenge for anyone who wants a career in motor racing. It can cost tens of thousands starting out and millions as you get closer to the Formula One dream.” Even go-karting is more expensive than chess. A go-kart costs $500-$1000. And go-karting is the entry level of racing.

In contrast, chess is inexpensive at the entry level. Chess equipment (a board, set, and clock) can be purchased for less than $100. You can train online for free. There are free chess clubs at cafés and libraries, as I wrote about in my recent article Where to host a chess club? Even entering rated tournaments is relatively cheap. A one-year adult membership in US Chess costs $40. Many tournament entry fees range from around $10 to $100. And you might win your entry fee back in prize money if you play well. Playing well in local tournaments is also enough to get your rating above that of the average player.

To become a grandmaster, however, you will pay more. In 2016, when I interviewed Wayne Xiong (father of Grandmaster Jeffery Xiong), Wayne estimated that the family had spent $40,000 per year on Jeffery’s chess, mostly on lessons and travel.

Root vs Enders

Blitz room with a view

Ratings

Racing ratings are based on the Elo rating system, which is the foundation of chess ratings too! Arpad Elo was a chess player. Kory said that drivers “pay no attention” to Elo ratings from Driver Database. Kory said, “It is impossible for Driver Database to keep track of all the races. It is more like a Wiki.” Instead, Kory says, each driver pays attention to his or her ranking within a series. For example, mid-season, Kory is currently ranked ninth in the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

Another problem with driver ratings, and also with driver rankings, is that driver skill is not the only factor measured. That is, some drivers may have faster cars than others. Few racing series completely control for differences in equipment. One that claims to is the W Series. The W Series provides mechanically-identical cars to each driver and “will result in close and exciting races won by the most talented drivers, not those whose parents or backers can afford to place them in the fastest cars.”

There are many types of chess ratings: online, regional, national, and international. Chess ratings reliably measure each player’s chess performance. Having a more expensive chess board or clock does not help a player. Cheating to raise one’s rating or to win prizes has been a problem, but it is a problem that sanctioning authorities can likely control.

Chess players generally care a lot about their various Elo ratings. For Kory’s goal of becoming a grandmaster, he should first get a national (US Chess) rating and then a World Chess Federation (FIDE) rating. Within those two rating systems, it is clear where everyone ranks. My current rating of 2000 puts me in the top 5% of US Chess-rated players. And my FIDE rating of 2025 makes me the 63,532nd best rated player in the world.

Women

Very few women are professional race car drivers or professional chess players. Kory speculated that racing cars may be more attractive to men. He said, “Men plus cars equals happiness. Men like to drive cars fast.”

Some women like to race cars too. Perhaps even more so than for men, women drivers have trouble finding sponsors. A documentary on Janet Guthrie, the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, noted that even after Janet finished in the top 10 in the Indianapolis 500 she could not find a sponsor to back her for every upcoming race. Thus she often raced just one or two races per season, not enough to gain points toward a championship title or to improve her skills.

Janet Guthrie raced in the 1970s and 1980s, but today’s top women drivers have similar problems. Pippa Mann, who has started in the Indianapolis 500 six times since 2011, blogged in 2018 that, “Sometimes there’s a choice to be made. I can please a sponsor who might help me go racing again, or go and earn some money so I can pay rent and buy food.” The first, and so far the only, racing series restricted to women drivers is the W Series. The W series began this year, with races in Europe from May to August of 2019.

FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich issued a statement on June 10, 2019, “With the aim to increase women’s participation in the professional game, FIDE maintains a female track in all professional series and an open track for all athletes.” Theoretically, women chess professionals now have double the opportunities compared to men, though few women have qualified for the top “open” tournaments. One was Judit Polgar. At her peak, Judit was in the top 10 players in the world.

Games

Kory played four games on June 8, two blitz games against me and a blitz game and an untimed game against Louis A. Reed Jr., who has a US Chess rating of 1369. I was nervous for my first live game with Kory, since he had defeated me in our online game in May (see my previous article for that game). For our first in-person blitz game, with a time control of five minutes per side and no delay or increment, I had White. Here is a video of my win.

Kory then played White against Louis. At one point, Kory left his king in check. Since it was a blitz game, Louis could have taken Kory’s king and claimed a win. But Louis let the game continue and a few moves later Louis touched his own queen and one of Kory’s pawns. Taking that pawn would have lost his queen, so Louis did not play that touch move. Thus, that first Kory-Louis game ended up being clock move rather than touch move. Louis won.

At the start of my second in-person game against Kory, where I had Black, I explained touch move and clock move. But none of that mattered once we started playing, as I got a winning advantage quickly. It was Kory’s worst game against me, as he had played reasonably well in the opening of his first blitz game. In this second game, he set up the questionable pawn structure f3-e4-d3.

Then Kory played as White again against Louis, but without a clock. Kory is used to playing online, two-dimensional chess. Three-dimensional chess with a chess clock was challenging and stressful for him. Kory agreed with me that the difference was similar to that of racing on a simulator versus racing on a track. Without a clock, Kory played better and achieved a position with equal chances, with each side having four pawns, a rook, and a knight. Then Kory blundered and lost, but it was his closest game of the day. Louis estimated Kory’s over-the-board strength to be around 1100 or 1200 but I thought Kory might be as strong as 1300.

Training

As mentioned above, it is possible to train for races with a simulator. At his family home in Sugarland, Texas, Kory practices on a simulator that he and his father built. As described in this newspaper profile, Kory can simulate racing on any track in the world. But racing on a simulator cannot truly compare to racing other drivers on the physical track, where adrenaline and stress are magnified. As Kory told me, his life is literally at risk when he races.

For chess training, Kory can continue to play chess games online. Many sites offer online games, for example playchess.com. But Kory also should play in-person games. He needs to deal with the stress of his opponent’s physical presence and the ticking of the chess clock. As for anyone aspiring to improve at chess, Kory should work on each part of his game: openings, tactics, strategy, and endgames. Becoming familiar with databases, reading chess books, and acquiring a chess coach could all be components of him improving at chess toward his ultimate goal of becoming a grandmaster.

In racing, it’s not easy to learn from the past. Changes in cars and tracks result in races in 2019 that don’t resemble races from 50 years earlier. In contrast, chessplayers can learn from present and past games. For around $500, for the ChessBase 15 Premium Package, chess players can study 7.6 million games, create dossiers on specific players, and have their own games analysed.

All photos and videos by Louis A. Reed Jr.

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Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.
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BuzzardBait BuzzardBait 7/5/2019 08:48
I like the synchronized moves on the board with the video; very nice! Of course for us chess players, trying to convert a winning endgame with only seconds left on the clock is pretty exhilarating, but I think one of the big draws of racing for fans and drivers alike is the ever present danger and adrenaline rush that almost nothing else in the world can compare to.
chessgod0 chessgod0 7/1/2019 04:11
"The highest-rated women chess players have proportionally more opportunities than the top-ranked women drivers."

It's more correct to say that highest-rated women chess players have more opportunities...than similarly rated men in chess. Comparing top men to top women is not a fair comparison when you can compare ELO ratings which are an real world measure of actual performance strength.
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