This paragraph is the first of chapter 7: The Secret Of Chess.
I first stumbled upon the lectures of my future teacher and spiritual guardian,
during a despairing google for chess tips in Bangkok. He was different from all the other chess lecturers I’d seen before. Most lecturing grandmasters, even the most charming ones, approach the game with a hushed reverence, as if delivering news on a pediatric oncology ward, or trying to placate an errant tiger. Finegold is the complete opposite. He’s charismatic, frank, and viciously funny, matching a respect for the game’s elegance with flagrant mockery of everything else. When Finegold’s students raise their hands, he often points a meaty had at them and says, “You, with the wrong answer,” or “You, with some crazy comment.” Upon hearing one of their replies, he’ll often respond, “Ugh, that was painful,” or “Hey, you’re the best player in your chair.” He’s given to claiming that the Panov-Botvinnik Atack was named after “Mr. Attack.” His lectures are littered with Tarantino references, imitations of other lecturers from hiss chess club, and fatuous advice like “never move pawns.”
has a unique place in the chess world. He has ardent fans, because of his aforementioned characteristics, and many detractors, also because of his aforementioned characteristics. Moreover, he lives on an odd plateau of chess skill – that of the low-level grandmaster.
It seems like just yesterday Ben was being proclaimed “The World’s Strongest IM,” while gracing the cover of Chess Life (now Lifeless) magazine. Garner that coveted GM title and nobody knows your name…
The fact that this is a coherent concept is another illustration of the vast distance between the amateur and the professional player. To any player like me, any grandmaster lives in an unreachable and starry grove of intellectual superiority. Someone like Finegold can calculate in drunken sleep better than I can while achieving satori on Adderall. But, to most grandmasters, Finegold isn’t that notable, except for his personality.
Euwe, that hurts!
There are essentially two ways you could regard Finegold, given his position in the chess ecosystem. You could see him as a pitiable example of the game’s mercilessness, by focusing on the fact that Finegold never made it to the upper ranks. On the other hand, you could see him as someone who hurled himself directly into the howling void of chess and came out intact, with a fan following, two kids, a little house in Georgia,
and the ability to eke out a modest living by teaching his favorite game to captivated pupils –
occasionally including desperate adults who come all the way from Canada to absorb his teachings.
I arrived in St. Louis a few days before my first meeting with Finegold, to have a chance to explore the city. And during this pre-Finegold interval, I had a random meeting with a stranger that would prove to be an omen of the month ahead. She was a woman walking alone downtown, screaming.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Holy shit,” she screamed.
“Um,” I said.
“Fuck all these pussy-ass people,” she screamed.
“I am so tired of this life,” she screamed.
“Damn it,” she screamed.
She walked away. And, unfortunately, I came to agree with her about the city of St. Louis.
This is probably my fault. I am a great believer in the idea that a failure to love is often the fault of the lover. If I were more patient and more curious and more forgiving, I probably could’ve found more to appreciate. I’m told that St. Louis contains many beautiful sun-strewn lanes and cheerful people, and fun bars where tender words are exchanged over locally made beers of the highest quality. But that is not what I found. What I found was a humid, boring, and flat place, dappled with some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in North America. According to the website of the St. Louis Police, you shouldn’t “wear clothing or shoes that restrict your movement” in their fair metropolis, so you can run away from assailants if you need to.
The local food, also, is hilarious. There’s a special kind of pizza they make there, which is a prank played by Satan. It’s a cracker, topped with ketchup, finished with a goopy kind of processed cheese that you’ve never had before, because they invented a new kind of cheese for this pizza. It’s edible caulking that clings to the back of your throat, reminding you that you live in an unjust world.
Based on my experiences, I cannot recommend St. Louis. Unless, that is, you’re interested in studying chess. Weirdly, St. Louis is the home of the world’s best chess school. This is the greatest love of billionaire Rex Sinquefield,
a longtime St. Louis resident. Although he was never a skilled player, he was a skilled investor, to say the least, and he arrived at retirement age with enough money that he could quite casually open an air-conditioned temple devoted to his favorite game, and bankroll grandmaster lectures as well as exclusive tournaments with big prizes for the strongest players in the world. The club is housed in a pristine two-story commercial property, and might be mistaken for a posh hernia clinic or a yoga studio if not for the chess pieces depicted on the frontispiece’s stained glass windows.
We have now arrived at what I consider to be the best part of the book, that being the meeting of the teacher and the pupil.
“Hey, Finegold,” I said.
“Sup,” he said.
that Canadian guy.”
“That guy who emailed you.”
“I know who you are.”
“Yeah, so here I am.”
You ever notice that no matter where you go, there you are?
“How many lessons are you looking for?”
“I was thinking like ten hours.”
“You could do more – the more you pay, the more you learn.”
Wasn’t that the motto of Trump University?
As I considered this, a class of kids, whom he had just taught, flooded out of the classroom and started playing blitz in the lobby, which is to say that they started knocking pieces off tables, knocking clocks off tables, making illegal moves, and screaming at each other. Finegold presided for a few minutes until the parents showed up, delighting the kids with a barrage of verbal abuse, and then returned to me with a searching look on his face.
“Jesus, I want to kill myself,” he said, very quietly.
“Wait till you see my games,” I said.
“You’re not here to impress me, you’re here to learn.”
“But I’d like to impress you.”
“Well, you won’t.”
And he was right. He was right about everything. Sooner or later, everything he told me came true.
Just Because Someone Goes Crazy, It Doesn’t Mean You Also Have to Go Crazy
“If your wife
cheats on you, that’s bad,” Finegold said. “She shouldn’t have done that.
But if you then kill her, kill yourself, and the mailman, that’s not really constructive. You shouldn’t escalate a situation just because someone else did.”
“How does this apply to chess?” I said.
“Well, you consider yourself a creative guy, which is kind of a problem. So, from move two, you’re going out of you mind, trying to invent a work of genius. Which means that when your opponents play crazy, you start playing even crazier. Don’t do that. Just don’t be crazy at all. When they play weird, just play normal good moves. Other grandmasters will tell you that you have to punish your opponents for all of their mistakes. That’s one point of view. My point of view is that you have to win chess games.”
The wisdom of this became clear after the lesson, when we played some blitz at one of the tables
set up on the sidewalk outside the club.
The muggy air was licking my face. Cute couples walked by on their way to Whole Foods, unaware that they were passing a spectacle of truly historic importance: my first game against a grandmaster. It was also the first time I’d ever played against someone drinking two brands of seltzer at once. Finegold played the Slav Defense, an extremely solid opening.
“I hate playing against the Slav,” I said.
“The truth hurts,” he said.
“Is this a good move?”
“It’s a move.”
“But is it good?”
“Probably not. Whose turn is it?”
He moved his queen deep into my territory. For the first ten moves, I thought I might have a microscopic chance of victory, because I didn’t lose all of my pieces. But, every other turn, I made a slight mistake that I didn’t know I was making, and in the face of my craziness, he responded not with theatrics but with a quiet malice. As sweat dripped down my chest, I realized that a crowd was gathering – all the kids in the neighborhood wanted to see Finegold crush me. I tried to put up a good fight so I could entertain these little boys and girls, who were soon to be embittered adults, maybe losing at chess themselves. But Finegold didn’t give me a good fight – he gave me a slow, vicious grind, allowing me only to twist lamely while he attained total control. I was a jittery rabbit, running from a surefooted cheetah, in a maze whose pathways slowly curled in on each other and contracted, until we were confined together, predator and prey, in a tiny cell. Under the pressure, I cracked, and made a horrible blunder.
“You’ll have to forgive him for that,” Finegold said to the audience. “He’s tired, because he just moved here. From Crazytown.”
Finegold, who was always coming and going, and who noticed everything, observed that I was having a lot of fun, and that it was translating into my play as a whole. He disapproved.
“Take a look at those guys over there,” he said, during a lesson, pointing to an array of portraits of great players that hung on the far wall.
“What am I supposed to be seeing?” I said.
“Tell me who looks like he’s never had fun in his life.”
Garry Kasparov was the top-ranked player in the world for nineteen years, except for a three-month-long slump. And he was famous for his boundless, masochistic work ethic. “Chess is mental torture,” he said.
“Yeah, Kasparov never had any fun. Now, tell me who looks like he’s furious all the time.”
“Yeah, Fischer. That guy didn’t have a lot of fun.”
What he was saying was true. Slow tournament chess, played well, is like violent meditation. The mind is wrenched by an evolving series of parenthetical thoughts, during which the limits of human cognition are directly assaulted.
“Being a winner starts when you realize what a loser you are.”
At my next lesson, I explained my emotional turmoil to Finegold. He was having none of it. “Your emotions are irrelevant,” he said. “You can’t stop protecting your pawns because you’re sad. Chess isn’t one of those crazy stories that you sell to a magazine. You’re not a hero; your opponent isn’t the villain.”
“It’s hard for me not to think like that. It’s kind of who I am,” I said.
“Well, then, don’t be yourself.”
“I can tell you everything I know,” he said, “but absorbing it can take years. Chess is hard. Like, let’s take a simple part of being a grandmaster. To be a grandmaster, you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what your opponents want to do, rather than just focusing on your own plans. Saying that to you is easy, but it’s hard to do, because just thinking about yourself is kind of the human instinct. Being good at chess is pretty counterintuitive. A lot of the time, you’re fighting your basic tendencies.”
“That sounds hard.”
“It’s actually easy. It’s just impossible.”
I was twenty-nine years old. I walked back towards the metro station, through the deserted streets beyond, between beautiful art deco skyscrapers, and I thought about what Finegold had said at the end of our first lesson. After we’d gone through a few of my games, he had nonchalantly asked me whether I’d like to know the secret of chess.
“Um, sure,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll tell you. But you’re not going to believe me,” he said. “And maybe you never will.”
This was correct. I had no idea what to make of the secret of chess. And I definitely didn’t believe it. Only later, much later, when I was walking on a beach in California, did his words really strike me with their full force.
The review must end somewhere, and this is where it ends. It seems I have written, arguably, too much, but actually, it is only the tip of the iceberg. To learn the secret of chess, according to Ben Finegold you must find a copy and read it for yourself. You can thank me later…