Classical Chess

“Bill James is the best known baseball analyst in the world” ( Bill began his writing career by questioning the assumptions in baseball, something commonly called, “The Book.” For questioning some of the commonly held beliefs in baseball Bill was excoriated by the MLB establishment. His books, and the thinking contained therein, caught on with many and his books became very successful. Many other baseball fans began to question things like the sacrifice bunt, held dear by the MLB establishment. Decades later Bill was hired by the Boston Red Sox as an analyst and the Red Sox became the World Champions. Now every MLB team has an analyst, or team of analysts.

Bill’s latest book is, “Fools Rush Inn: More Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom.” One of the essays is, “Classical Sport.” As is often the case, while reading the essay my thoughts would drift to chess and I would substitute the word “chess” for “classical music.” Read on and you will understand why.

Bill writes, “Classical music has very, very serious problems as an industry. The number of people who enjoy classical music is small compared to the market for other kinds of music and the market is composed primarily of old people.

“Classical music survives, or has survived so far, because it has advantages over the marketplace, rather than advantage in the marketplace. Classical music is perceived by a very large cadre of musical professionals as the highest form of music, and these people have integrated themselves and their music into the society in ways that insulate it from extinction by economic forces. High schools do not teach young musicians to play rock and roll, as a rule; they teach them to play “instruments,” which are in truth the instruments of classical music. Millions of small children take violin lessons, which their parents get for them because this is how music is taught. The perception that this form of music is “classy” -widely accepted in our culture- keeps the form alive by giving it these advantages, and many similar and related advantages. At the symphony I am below the median age and, I suspect, well below the median income. Those old people who go to the symphony have more-than proportional power because they have more-than proportional wealth. There is something much more than that going on here. It has to do with the perception of rectitude, of value and of virtue.”

“Music, like sport, is instinctive to us, exists in all cultures, and will never disappear. There are primal and sophisticated forms of music and of sport, which could also be called vibrant and calcified, or youthful and moribund. There is a spectrum in these activities that runs from vibrant, primal and youthful to sophisticated, calcified and moribund. All sports and all forms of music move across that spectrum, crawling toward obsolescence.”

I have always thought of chess as a form of the “Glass Bead Game,” made popular by the greatest novel ever written, “The Glass Bead Game,” also published as “Magister Ludi,” Latin for “Master of the Game,” by Hermann Hesse, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature for the book. The Glass Bead Game takes place centuries into the future. It concerns the place the game occupies in the culture. “As the novel progresses, Knecht begins to question his loyalty to the order; he gradually comes to doubt that the intellectually gifted have a right to withdraw from life’s big problems. Knecht comes to see Castalia as a kind of ivory tower, an ethereal and protected community, devoted to pure intellectual pursuits but oblivious to the problems posed by life outside its borders.” (

The game of chess can be thought of in the way Bill James writes of classical music. Chess has always been thought of as important because it requires thought, something some very wealthy people have valued highly enough to become patrons of the game. I am thinking of Gregor Piatigorsky and his wife, Jacqueline, and the famous tournaments they funded in Los Angeles in 1963 and 1966, called the Piatigorsky Cup. ( Every chess player knows of these tournaments, and if you encounter anyone involved with chess who has never heard of the Piatigorsky tournaments the question becomes, “What is this person doing in chess?” In 1961 the Piatigorsky’s sponsored a match between Bobby Fischer and Sammy Reshevsky. It ended prematurely when the wealthy couple wanted to change the scheduled time of one of the games because of a conflict Gregor had with a musical performance. Bobby refused because he had signed a contract that specified the round time of each game. The wealthy couple must have felt like Ronald Raygun, when running for POTUS, and he was heckled from the audience. Ronnie famously yelled, “I am paying for this microphone!” In actuality he was not paying. The people contributing money toward his campaign were paying, but why quibble? It was a great sound bite for the Gypper. The Piatigorsky’s were paying and thought Bobby should jump through any hoop provided. Bobby provided them with what is called a “rude awakening” when he “just said no.” Extraordinarily wealthy people are not used to being refused. They are also not used to being told “no” because they surround themselves with “yes men.”
I mention this because without the patronage of very wealthy people there may not be future chess as we have known it until now. Consider for a moment the state of chess without the largess provided by the latest patron, billionaire Rex Sinquefield. Rather than being held in the state of the art St. Louis Chess Club & Scholastic Center the US Championships may have been held in some room in a college, as has been the case previously. The STLCC&SC is an artificial construct. I mean that because St. Louis was never known as a hot-bed of chess in the way New York city was known to be a hot-bed of chess. The game of chess developed naturally in New York, San Francisco, and other cities without some fantastically wealthy individual building it so they would come. Please do not take me wrong; I am not saying this is a bad thing, just that it is a “thing.”

Chess is in a fight for its life in the marketplace. The common perception among adults is that chess is dead, and that it died when the computer program “defeated” human World Chess Champ Garry Kasparov. In order to survive chess has been “sold” as a wonderful game to help children “think.” Chess is a wonderful tool to help children learn how to think, but so are literature and math The game of Wei-Chi, popularly known as “Go” in the west, is also a wonderful game and in many ways it is better than chess because a computer program is not yet as strong as the best human players (I will discuss this in a planned future post). Go is exponentially more complicated than chess and it is much simpler to learn, with no “weird” moves such as castling or en passant. A draw in go is about as common as leap year. One of the major problems afflicting chess is non-serious games. It will be terribly difficult to explain the worth of a game in which he is asked to contribute after being shown a game such as the one played today in the British Championship:

Pert, Richard G – Pert, Nicholas
101st ch-GBR 2014 Aberystwyth WLS (8.2), 2014.07.27
1.e4 e5 ½-½

To those who may say they are related I say, “Go talk to Venus and Serena Williams.” To those who may say it is near the end of the Championship and they were tired I say, “It is only one game per day and the previous day was an OFF DAY!”

In reply to the post “Has Cheating Affected Chess?” my friend the Discman sent me an email in which he wrote, “Interesting discussion and on point. However, cheating isn’t the biggest problem facing chess. Computers have taken the mystery out of the game. GM’s used to be gods with almost super-natural powers. Now any schmo with a smartphone can figure out the best move. Technology and the public’s need for instant gratification have left chess behind. It is no longer relevant in the public consciousness. Yes, cheating and the potential of cheating are contributing factors, but not the root cause.”

Chris has hit the nail on the head. The Royal game no longer has mystique. Most adults without children consider chess an anachronism, much in the same way they think of the game of checkers, a hugely popular game once upon a time. Consider these comments, first from Ron Suarez on the USCF forum: “We have seen a big drop in adult participation and membership.” (
Gary Maltzman wrote this on the NCAA forum: “Seems like some of the big NC Tournaments are on an attendance downswing.” (

These kinds of comments proliferate on the web these days.

I have no solution to offer other than those previously written. The chess world has to look toward those in positions of power, for better or worse. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein to mind: “The thinking it took to get us into this mess is not the same thinking that is going to get us out of it.”


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