Chess Dreams

The game of chess has formed the subject of inspiring real-life stories, books, and movies, typically about a dedicated chess coach who takes a team of inner-city kids and leads them to heights of glory, beating suburban teams that enjoy every advantage. Yet whatever color, ethnicity, or class background these young chess players represent -- whatever divides they span -- they share one attribute: they are all boys. Or nearly all. 

A recent New York Times article looks at this reality, raising what the writer calls “one of the vexing questions in chess: Why, in a sport where physical differences do not matter, are boys and men so much more prominent than their female counterparts, despite efforts to attract more girls and women?” He notes that while at middle-school level the boy-girl ratio in a competition may be as low as two to one, at major tournaments it is much, much larger. Not a single one of the world’s current hundred top-rated players is female. The Times cites an essay in a chess journal, by the English grandmaster Nigel Short, addressing the same question. Describing the recently retired Hungarian grandmaster, Judit Polgar, as “clearly an outlier,” Short surveys the high dropout rate in chess by younger female players and the continuing lack of participation and achievement at the international tournament level, and closes with this speculation:

Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way? I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills. It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.

Unsurprisingly, Short’s conclusion whipped up stormy protest, and the Times article duly offers alternative explanations for male dominance, based mostly on the specter of bias against female players, a habit of underperforming due to an ingrained sense of inferiority, and an array of realities within organized chess that make girls and women feel unwelcome. 

Before addressing this issue I should fess up: I have squandered more of my life than I would want to admit playing chess.

I say squandered because, while I love chess, I’m not very good at it, never rising above 1700 in my USCF tournament rating, which qualifies me as a decent club-level hack. Despite my mediocrity, I find the game compulsively involving, even addictive (and especially its adrenalized speed-chess variant.) Over the years chess has come and gone in my life like an opportunistic illness -- taking me over and raging feverishly, then gradually yielding to repeated doses of self-restraint... only to flare up all over again, three or five or ten years later. 

A decade ago, three things happened to put the definitive kibosh on my tournament chess. First, my daughter was born, an event I’d like to say put my priorities into new perspective, but which in fact simply sucked up all my discretionary time (though maybe that’s the same thing). Second, several tournaments I played in took place on gorgeous weekends, when the world was enjoying wall-to-wall sunshine, and sitting in a stuffy windowless hotel ballroom for hours on end seemed a needless sacrifice of beauty and healthy living.   

And third, I endured a couple of particularly awful, painful losses -- games when I had played to the very top of my ability, only to have one careless move ruin everything. This awfulness is the special heartbreak of chess: via tactics and analysis you build up a gorgeous edifice of logic, only to have it destroyed in front of you, in a second, by a reckless, careless, stupid, and/or greedy error. The suddenness and the totality of such a loss is devastating. It would invariably cue up a night of ruined sleep as I lay in bed analyzing the disaster over and over in my mind, replaying what happened, and following alternate chains of moves. Why lose sleep over a game? It’s silly, right? In the end, I stopped playing chess because I couldn’t take the losses.

To return to the initial subject, is it retrograde to say that a lot of the syndrome I’m describing – that chess itself -- seems, on the whole, pretty “male”?  Part of it is the high level of aggression the game requires and rewards. This is underappreciated by non chess players. Yes, chess is an intricate puzzle – the non-player intuitively understands that – but it is also a battle, one where the weapon is sheer analytical power. The goal is domination. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, you don’t know chess. The game’s hallmark is its joining of exquisite intellectual design to the savage will to dominate. When you lose, there is no place to hide. You are being battered by someone else’s superior intelligence. It’s really pretty brutal.

I have a friend, a woman, whom I have played chess with over the years. She’s a better chess player than I am, both quicker and deeper in her analyses. But I often beat her. My ability to prevail highlights the difference I’m talking about. Chess is both puzzle and battle, and while my friend loves the puzzle part – solving positional complications – she may be less keen about the battle part; she seems to lack that brutal will to win.  

But I should stop writing about this, because as I do, I can feel the old dreams bulking up again, and the fever rising. Who can I call for a quick game?

For those of you who want to read more about the seductions of this ancient and glorious game, here’s a link to a rueful essay I wrote about chess – specifically, about playing in tournaments and struggling to keep up with talented child players. Just another of the game’s many humbling challenges. 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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