After reading an article at Chessbase, Chess – a waste of time?, by Frederic Friedel, published 2/13/2023, an order for the book, Chessays/Travels Through The World of Chess,
by Howard Burton,
along with a few others, was ordered from my Chess book go to guy, Greg Yanez, at Chess4Less (https://chess4less.com/). When the book arrived it went to the top of the list as I stopped reading any of the other books being read to concentrate on Chessays.
Yesterday I discovered an article, The Societal Impact of Chess, Part 1: Introduction (https://www.chess.com/blog/hsburton1/the-societal-impact-of-chess-part-1-introduction) and suggest you read it after reading the review because the author, and film maker, talks about “Far Transfer,” which is the title of the sixth chapter. Chapter seven is entitled, “Farther Transfer,” with “Further Transfer” being the eighth, and final, chapter. The decision was made to truncate the review for two reasons. The first is that the review was already too long, and much time had to be spent cutting out some of the review, something I will admit to being loath to do. The other reason is that the final three chapters seemed to be rather esoteric. There is so much thought provoking material in the first five chapters the review will be presented in two parts. It has taken all of my wherewithal to not lead with the second part, which begins with chapter four.
One of the best features of the book is that here we have a ‘newbie’ to the world of Chess who is willing to write openly and honestly about how he perceives the world of Chess. Each and every person who has anything to do with governing the Royal Game should read this book, and maybe, depending on the individual, read it again. Anyone with an interest in Chess will appreciate this book. Although it is good enough to at least earn some nominations for Book of the Year award, many people in the Chess world will not like what the young man has to say. Nevertheless, anyone and everyone in the Chess community should at least be apprised of his thoughts concerning the world of Chess. From my over half a century of involvement with Chess it is apparent Chessays has about as much chance of being voted an award as a snowball has in hell.
The book begins with an introduction which contains this paragraph:
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to play chess, any more than I can remember a time when I didn’t know how to read, yet for most of my youth I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to either. As a child I was always much more interested in sports: street hockey or touch football or basketball.”
After reading the opening paragraph the book was put down as I sat, looking out the glass door to the outside world filled with greenery, and reflected… “That sounds like me,” I thought. Change the “street hockey” to “boxing” and it could be me. Include Baseball and it would be this writer, who was a twenty year old adult when first playing in a USCF tournament, where all six games were lost, I am sad, but honest enough to report…
In the introduction the writer informs the reader, “It was only in university that I had my first significant exposure to chess as a sport.”
That sentence made me cringe. Chess is most definitely not a “sport”. Chess is a GAME, just like any other board GAME. Baseball, basketball, and football (as in soccer; American “football” should be called “maim ball” for obvious reasons) are SPORTS. Bridge is a game, as are backgammon and poker. Dude comes into the Chess world (for various reasons which will be mentioned momentarily), plays a little, and assumes he has obtained enough knowledge to make proclamations about what is the definition of Chess…
He continues, “So I began to read about these mysterious openings, and much more besides, that my opponents all seemed so intimately familiar with.”
One of my high school English teachers, Mrs. Simpson, once returned something I had written that was covered in red ink, with many instances of my ending a sentence with a preposition. When queried about all the red circles after class ended she said, “It appears to me that you go out of your way to defy the rules of English grammar. You have as much chance of ever becoming a writer as a snowball has in HELL!” Well, as you can imagine, that stung.
The writer continues, “And the more I read, the more astounded I became: there was an enormous, simply overwhelmingly large, literature here – with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of books devoted to one opening variation, or a series of middlegame tactics, or endgame approaches, or what have you. It was astounding.”
Yes Mr. Burton, Chess can be astounding. One of the best things about the book is that Chess is being viewed objectively by someone new to the Royal Game. It is always good to learn how ‘newbies’ think about Chess because “fresh eyes” usually bring something interesting. We learn how he came to write about Chess when reading, “Decades later, I became fascinated by “the history of ideas,” tracing the subtle, shape-shifting development of key societal concepts over different times and places. I read books by intellectual historians methodically charting the notions of “freedom” and “genius” and “civil war” and found myself increasingly intrigued by how different human societies often managed to be both so similar and so different from our own.”
“One day I was idly thumbing through Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier, and came across the passage where chess is singled out as representing a dangerous drain on one’s time and energies, thereby making it “a most unusual thing” where “mediocrity is more to be praised than excellence.”
“It’s a very odd experience to suddenly feel yourself in complete lock step with a character from a 1528 book devoted to courtly Renaissance culture; and it made me think. Perhaps chess, I wondered, might make for a suitable topic of the sort of “intellectual history” I was personally suited to explore – not rigorous academic scholarship, of course, but simply getting a taste of our intriguing sociocultural evolution by looking through the lens of one particularly historically-rich activity: chess.”
The reader knows where the writer is coming from. (Sorry, Mrs Simpson)
Next we learn, “By then I had somehow become “a filmmaker,” so why not make a few films about that? Hence Through the Mirror of Chess-a four-part documentary series charting chess’s fascinating tale of cultural influence from its murky origins to the modern day.”
I have not watched any of the four-part film and have no intention of doing so because it costs digits, err, money, and there is so much free Chess material why should I spend my Senior digits to watch more films about Chess? I purchased the book, not with a view toward writing a review, but after reading about it at Chessbase in an excellent article concerning a book published months ago. (https://en.chessbase.com/post/chess-a-waste-of-time).
Mr. Burton continues, “So there was that. But there was also something else. The more I read and researched the past and present worlds of chess, the more something else unexpected happened: I began to get opinions. And for me, at least, the best way to express opinions is through books.”
Or maybe a blog?!
The introduction concludes with these words: “And for those who do find themselves indignant and offended, the one way I respectfully suggest that you shouldn’t react is by launching some sort of reflexive, ad hominem salvo based on the fact that I have a pitifully low Elo rating or am not a FIDE executive, but rather by attacking the substance of my claims. I say this not because I am worried about anyone being angry with me (I am not), but because I’ve noticed that this is the sort of thing that chess players often do: viewing their entire world through the lens of a rigidly hierarchical framework so that the only voices they hear are from official members of the establishment. That is a dangerous practice for any domain, but particularly so when it come to chess, since so many of those voices conflate the interests of chess with their own self-image and are thus deeply deleterious to chess itself. Well, that’s my opinion, anyway.”
The first chapter is entitled: The Uses and Abuses of History. It begins, “Enthusiasts sometimes like to point out that one of the things that makes chess special is its exceptionally broad appeal to a wide range of different interests and inclinations.”
“Having played many other board games, such as Backgammon, Go, and Poker, I find it strange that only Chess aficionados consider Chess “special.” The idea has been promulgated to the point many, if not most, Chessplayers consider it a fait accompli. Consider this paragraph: “But however diverse these activities might be, there is one common characteristic of any self-proclaimed chess aficionado: a deep and abiding respect for “chess history” and an unquenchable pride in the game’s storied past.”
I like history, and enjoy reading about the history of the Royal Game, but I must disagree with what was written above. After having interacted and talked with countless Chess “aficionados” the fact is that many could care less about what happened previously because they are much more concerned with what is happening now. I recall talking with an exceptional budding young player at the House of Pain who said, “Why should I study those old farts who played so weakly? I’d rather spend my time replaying current games played by today’s players who are far stronger than those from way back then.” I remember thinking, “Wow, it seems like only yesterday Bobby Fischer was revered. Now the young’uns consider him a chumpy-lumpy.” That thought was prior to my saying, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, how can you know where you are going, kid?” That brought hardy laughter from resident curmudgeon Bob Bassett, who said, after he managed to stop laughing, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I was the one howling after the young spud asked, “What does that mean?” I mention this before writing the following sentence/paragraph: “Normally, I take this characteristic indifference as my starting point to launch into a full-throated tirade against the vapidity of the media or the woeful incuriousness of our time, but in this case the situation is even worse still, because it clearly demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of self-proclaimed “chess historians” simply can’t trouble themselves to take the most obvious preliminary steps to contact actual specialists to verify essential aspects of their “theories.”
To give equal time to the other side the author again gives another sentence/paragraph: “During my investigations, I have also encountered several anti-chess historians, self-proclaimed history of games types who were so overwhelmingly antagonized by what they saw as the grossly unjustified dominance of chess in the broader games history landscape that the very idea that I was willfully engaged in producing a detailed exploration of the history of chess was enough to send them into fits of blind rage.”
We will conclude with the first chapter with a two sentence paragraph followed by another long sentence/paragraph: “Chess, in other words, is acknowledged to be an activity that demands highly specialized skills honed by years of dedicated effort. But history, goes the thinking, is somehow something that anyone can do.”
“So when Russian grandmaster Yuri Averbakh opted to publish his own vapid and trivialized account of the game’s past, A History of Chess: From Chaturanga to the Present Day,
his efforts were widely applauded by “the chess community” because, well, Averbakh was a personable and celebrated chess player who wrote many highly-respected books on chess theory; and, after all, you can’t have too many books on the history of chess.”
Or too many Chess books filled with “Chessays” too, I suppose…
The second chapter poses the question, (Is Chess a) Waste of Time? A good question which caused me to wonder if reading the book was going be a waste of my time… The author writes, “If chess were a far easier game-if it was like checkers or reversi or mancala or something- (there is the number 10 referring to a footnote at the bottom of the page where it is written, “This is precisely the sort of statement that will drive one of those passionate anti-chess mancala fanatics I mentioned in the previous essay right over the edge.
But then they were there already.) – things would be different indeed. Nobody devotes her life to studying backgammon.”
Whoa now, dude. First, when any writer uses “her” in lieu of “he” it grates like someone scratching the blackboard with their fingernails. When a writer, any writer, swaps “her” for “him” it appears the writer is singling out only females, as in females being the ones not devoting their lives to ‘studying backgammon’, which is ridiculous, and untrue. When Gammons first opened in the Buckhead part of Atlanta one of the top players was a woman named Kathy, from Chicago, and she had devoted her time to learning, and playing Backgammon as a professional. If, on the other hand, the writer was only being “politically correct” he was not. If one is to assume the writer used the gender specific word intentionally rather than the gender neutral “him” then he is wrong, and it can be proven by anyone typing in the words “Bill Robertie” into any search engine. This can be found at Wikipedia: “William Gerard (Bill) Robertie (born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States on July 9, 1946) is a backgammon, chess, and poker player and author. He is one of several (6 as of 2022) backgammon players to have won the World Backgammon Championship twice (in 1983 and in 1987).” Bill Robertie (https://thegammonpress.com/bill-robertie-blog/) is the refutation to the writer’s erroneous and ridiculous statement.
Turn the page and one finds, “This profound complexity is a fundamental aspect of what make chess chess.”
What makes chess chess? The game of Go, or Wei Chi, is exponentially and profoundly more complex that is Chess. Is that what makes Go Go?
“Which brings us to the intriguing case of Albert Einstein and Emanuel Lasker.
Many consider Lasker to be the most dominant chess player in history, given his 27-year reign as world champion from 1894 to 1921. He was also a mathematician, who in 1905 developed a theorem in algebraic geometry which significantly influenced no less a figure than Emmy Noether.”
1905 is an ironic date for Lasker’s most important mathematical work, because it was also Einstein’s annu mirabilis, where he published, among various other profoundly transformative ideas, his theory of special relativity-ironic, not so much because Einstein and Lasker later became friends during his time in Berlin, but because Lasker later famously contributed to the ridiculous anti-Einsteinian 1931 screed, One Hundred Authors Against Einstein.”
“Why, in Einstein’s view, hadn’t Lasker done more to achieve his wondrous human potential? Well, Einstein surmises, because of chess:
“Spinoza’s material existence and independence were based on the grinding of lenses; chess had an analogous role in Lasker’s life. But Spinoza
was granted a better fate, because his occupation left his mind free and untroubled, while on the other hand, the chess playing of a master ties him to the game, fetters his mind and shapes it to a certain extent so that his internal freedom and ease, no matter how strong he is, must inevitably be affected.”
The author continues: “What is most interesting to me about all of this is not so much that I’m convinced that Einstein was right and that the act of focusing one’s attention on the most profound conceptual issues imaginable is the most judicious use of one’s brief time on the planet (Footnote #30: “Although, of course, he was and it is.” I could hear my former English teacher, Ms. Simpson, asking, “He was ‘what’, and ‘what’ is ‘it’?”)
Chapter 3: Evolutionary Forces
The reader is informed by the writer, “Personally, I’m unconvinced that those 19th-century players were as indifferent to winning and losing as is now generally supposed, but there is no doubt that times have changed considerably: for better or worse chess is now a fully-fledged sport.”
There he goes again…
And again: “Of course, chess is far from the only activity to move from the domain of friendly, “gentlemanly” competition to cutthroat professional sport over the past 150 years or so, as juxtaposing Pierre de Coubertin’s
writings with modern-day attitudes will immediately reveal, but its distinct lack of any physical component makes it a particularly vivid measure of to what extent our sporting culture has evolved.”
And again: “Chess, in short, has emphatically made the transition from game to sport-which is the major reason, I believe that it is Fischer and not Morphy who best represents the modern archetype of the American chess player.”
“But intriguingly, many pastimes have not made this jump to the modern sporting realm. In particular, duplicate bridge, the primary target of Johan Huizinga’s over-professionalization ire, you will recall, (https://davidlabaree.com/2021/11/22/johan-huizinga-on-the-centrality-of-play/) still very much remains mired in the milieu of games, along with the likes of backgammon and Mahjong.”
“More revealing still, radically new forms of non-physical competition have recently sprouted up that are unhesitatingly viewed as sports-so much so, in fact that their very development has occasioned the creation of a new word to appropriately describe them: esports.”
“So what’s going on? What, in the modern age, distinguishes a sport from a game?”
Now the author finally comes to the crux of the matter:
“Well, I don’t pretend to know, of course, but you may recall from several pages ago that I have a theory. Here it is.”
You must read the book to read about his “theory.” Frankly, I do not know if the writer is full of excrement, but I have a theory…
After many pages devoted to explaining his ‘theory’ the reader finds this:
“When it comes to chess, the first thing to say is simply that, as previously noted, for better or worse, the Fischer worldview has unequivocally demolished the Morphy one: modern chess ticks all the contemporary sporting requirements and is no longer regarded by either its advocates or detractors as “a relaxation from the severer pursuits of life, whose battles are fought for no prize but honor.” It’s not at all certain whether or not the majority of Morphy’s contemporaries subscribed to such a characterization back in the 1850s, but it’s patently obvious that nobody believes it today.”
“The dust has settled, and chess is now a sport and not a game.”
At least in the author’s mind…
“A further point worth mentioning is that chess is hardly the only “old fashioned” game to make the modern sporting transition. The most obvious example is poker, which decidedly satisfies all of the above-mentioned criteria and is thus now near-universally recognized as a sport.”
Really? I asked several Chess players who also play, or have played, poker, if they thought poker could be considered a “sport.” One fellow caused me to laugh uproariously when he answered, “Sport? How the hell can anything done while sitting on one’s ass be considered a “sport?”
End Part One