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Chess Goes to School

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Scholastic chess has been a surprisingly hot topic around here on occasion. This Slate article by Ann Hulbert doesn't have much new for this audience, but it's a step beyond the usual local paper cheerleading. The final paragraph about one young player who became over-obsessed with the game is interesting. We all know how addicting it can be. On the other hand, someone with that personality could equally end up obsessed with the lastest Playstation game.

In an era when sports in the United States are a big business, as well as a fraught element of college admissions, chess offers kids in our overprogrammed youth culture a rare exposure to the real meaning and value of amateurism—the mastery of something for its own sake. Chess isn't going to earn anybody much of a living, but it can teach kids about learning—though it tells them absolutely nothing about how to apply that to life, or, for that matter, even to school. How is that for liberating? . . .

It has an allure that motivates kids to do the hard work of honing basic skills and then discovering their own styles, goaded ever onward by a rating system that can show them every increment of improvement. Ruthless standards and dizzying freedom, all in one package: That is a rarity. And it is a recipe for what experts call "effortful study," or the process of indefatigably tackling ever harder challenges, which many believe is the secret to successfully pursuing excellence in anything. Except, that is, when the fervent focus itself becomes too all-consuming a distraction.

Has anyone read the The Kings of New York book she talks about? Funny, I read this a few minutes after talking on the phone with Erik Anderson of America's Foundation for Chess. I'll have more on that in a bit, but they're going to have 25,000 kids in their program next fall, more than double what they started with last year.


The Kings of New York is a really excellent book. I had trouble putting it down, and finished it in a few days. You really have the feeling of 'being there' among the students at Murrow. Exciting, hilarious (at times) and bittersweet - the book really has a lot going for it. And then this year (2007), when they lost on tiebreak to Carolina Foothills again, it really reminded me of the poignancy expressed throughout the book.

On the other hand, the Slate article had a bit of the "been there, done that" feeling.

The Kings of New York puts a different twist on the usual scholastic chess story, describing kids who are successful at chess but who sometimes don't perform well at school. In other words chess doesn't change their cultural environment. A particularly interesting thing about the Murrow team is that all the best players are recruited from emigrants from former Soviet bloc countries, and are not trained by the team coach, who is actually a weaker chess player than they are. The players who develop at the school seem to max out at about an 1800 level. Thus their success is based on good recruiting and good organization, not good development or instruction.

Susan Polgar's performance in the 'Horizon' programme did not demonstrate that her chess skills were evidence of other types of generic intelligence. She was 6th or 7th in a field of 7 people who were extremely capable like her in one dimension or another. If anything, her analytic power got in the way of her imagination in approaching the tasks.

If chess does create value in terms of 'ability to survive and thrive', then why don't we create a mini-version of chess that does the same but doesn't come with all the baggage of ECO or Chessbase? Then 'Value/Cost' to the aspirant game-playing enthusiast will be less.

I vote for the economic and ecumenical 6*6 chess without the Bishops, 2-square-Pawn-moves (and therefore without the very odd e.p. rule).

I'm sure I benefitted from (a) playing chess as a child, and (b) never learning more than about 50 moves of the opening phase. Then I dropped chess, and got on with the rest of life.



Why is ECO or Chessbase undesirable baggage? In many practical situations---the sciences at least, and certainly in the biological sciences---the ability to process and recall large structured bodies of information is usually more important than the capability for Tal-like tactical fireworks which (for me, at least) is a requirement for an amazing chess game.

For many of us, High School was the time that we played. Even as we later abandoned the game, and moved on to professional careers, chess provided some very distinctive memories.

Everyone has their own story to tell. As former scholastic players, now in our fifties, our memory is of the New York tournaments in the early 1970s. Bill Goichberg had just founded his business, Continental Chess Association. His scholastic tournaments were already drawing hundreds of players from all over the East Coast, and the National High School championship was drawing close to 1,000 players from across the country. They were all held in the gothic ballrooms of a hotel in midtown Manhattan.

There was little money at stake, but in those days we all played for the game itself. The schedules were grueling – eight rounds in three days. Competition was intense, and most of the games were furious battles. It wasn’t grandmaster chess of course, but it was fighting chess. Surprisingly, there was a great deal of solidarity and collegiality among players who were often rivals over the board. All the players were united in their love of the game and their relentless fighting spirit.

Our best season was our second, in 1970-71. A senior student had mentored us into the game the previous year. After he graduated, we all decided to carry on. The New York High School championship was held in December 1970, in bitterly cold winter weather. We were unknown 15-year olds at the time, and nobody knew what to expect. The competition was formidable, with many teams headed by experts and masters. In those days, Stuyvesant was the reigning champion, but St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey, Great Neck North and South out on Long Island and Bronx High of Science were close behind them. We came out of nowhere, kept pace with the leaders for the first four rounds, and managed a fifth place finish.

The next battle was the National, in May. This time the team competition was a close fight between Stuyvesant and Evanston, while a very young Larry Christiansen took first place in the individual competition. We managed tenth.

It had been an exciting year, albeit a strange one. The following year, we all went into a very demanding, accelerated academic program that provided us with the equivalent of a full year of college by our final year in High School. The program actually did guarantee us a year of advance placement after we graduated. But it left us less time for chess. We continued to compete, but never again achieved the sort of showing that we had in the 1970-71 season.

Where are we today? The senior student who mentored us is a physician in the Washington DC area. Two of our players are attorneys in New York, and both are recognized experts in their areas of practice. One of our players is a university professor in Canada, who has authored some important papers in physics. And the last of our players is an industry statistician in the Midwest, who has written papers in econometrics.

Looking back on chess, wasn’t that a time! Perhaps it was best expressed in the Deep Purple song, Smoke on the Water: “No matter what we get out of this, I know we’ll never forget!”.

"On the other hand, someone with that personality could equally end up obsessed with the lastest Playstation game"

Or Guns, dwelling on his problems with no creative outlet... It may sound pretentious, but I feel like if Cho, Dylan and Eric had been chessplayers, those horrific events never would have happened....

And no, I am not saying chessplayers in general have anything common with these murderers. I'm just saying that there are worse things to be obsessed about.

A small note of correction:

Murrow was beaten for the second time in three years by the CATALINA Foothills team (not Carolina) of Tucson, AZ. As an average adult player here in Tucson, one often comes across these wunderkind at local clubs and tournaments; it is like running into a buzzsaw!

"I'm sure I benefitted from (a) playing chess as a child, and (b) never learning more than about 50 moves of the opening phase. Then I dropped chess, and got on with the rest of life"

But all of this is really secondary. Chess is not a tool to help people get smarter or better in school, chess is a game that should be played primarily for enjoyment, that might help you with the rest of life. It's too bad you were not able to enjoy chess as a game, instead of some type of "intellectual stepping stone"...

Speaking from an organic chemist's perspective, chess has been a very valuable training tool. I'm always struck by the similar throught processes that are used when designing a multistep synthesis of a possible drug and solving a mate in 6 diagram.

Ack! Catalina, yes. I stand corrected, and apologies to the school, coach, and players. :-(

In response to Guy Haworth's earlier comment, Ocelot wrote: "Chess is not a tool to help people get smarter or better in school, chess is a game that should be played primarily for enjoyment, ..."

Yes, and it's also the product of a 1,000-year cultural evolution.

While it is appealing (especially in terms of the theme of this thread) to view chess as a conscious human invention that can be or should be (re-)engineered in order to provide maximum social "benefit," think about it this way:

There is another social institution that, like chess, has evolved spontaneously, absorbing contributions made by myriads of unknown people, over a long period of time. In this case the time period isn't centuries, but millenia. The older institution serves a number of social purposes pretty well and, obviously, has stood the test of time. Still, there have been attempts to "improve" or "perfect" it, by giving it a conscious human design.

The institution I am referring to is LANGUAGE. The main attempt that I know of to remove its imperfections through conscious human effort, was called, "Esperanto."

For my part, I hope that the various proposals currently being put forward to "improve" or "perfect" chess (including most of the anti-draw rules), will prove as successful as Esperanto was.

@ Guy:

Did you consider Fischer Random (or Chess960 as it is nowadays called)? Now "baggage" of ECO, just plain understanding of how the pieces interact! This shows who really does understand chess and who merely can repeat theory... ;-)


It is great to see this news article and books like 'The Kings of New York' coming out. The more spotlight on the game of chess, the more opportunities will come for us chess players. Everyone should go out and buy the book 'The Kings of New York' so that more chess books geared towards the general population will be produced.

Also movies like `The Knights of the South Bronx` and `Searching for Bobby Fischer` were great for the game (especially when shown on cable tv). We should contact local media and ask that movies such as these be played again.

These are all small steps that we can take as individuals to improve the game of chess.

re: Jon Jacobs comments...

I don't believe that comparing the evolution of language to the evolution of chess is valid. Language is a biologically-based phenomenon (if you don't buy that - even with an awareness of various aphasia studies - then there's no point in discussing this further). Chess (as you rightly point out) is a socially-based phenomenon, although games and play in general clearly spans species (e.g., wrestling kittens) and is presumably biological in nature.

Perhaps another way of thinking about it is this: since chess is the game about which the most prose has apparently been written, it could be considered the "fittest" game in the entire population of games. Rule variations, anti-draw measures, etc., are simply mutations to the game that may or may not last in the long run.

You might be interested in the article Origin of Chess-A Phylogenetic Perspective by Koichi Masukawa in Board Games Studies #3 which uses tools from biology to study the history of chess. Phylogenetics is used to trace the evolutionary changes in a species over time. Linguists also use these techniques and there appear to be some strong similarities between all three areas of study.

I use chess in my work with children with emotional challenges to teach impulse control, mindfulness and executive functioning. It’s learning to deal with the emotional part of the game that the kids find most helpful. It’s been very successful, but the goal isn’t to produce great chess players, but to good people. One successful outcome is the kids in the program no longer get into fights when the loose in other games because as beginners, they’ve gotten used to loosing in chess!

The following is the Wikipedia story on British chess prodigy Jessica Gilbert, who died tragically at 19 last summer.

Jessica "Jessie" Gilbert (January 30, 1987 – July 26, 2006) was a British chess player.

Brought up in Woldingham, Surrey to Angela and Ian Gilbert, her father was a career manager with the Royal Bank of Scotland. Gilbert's parents had separated in 2003, and Jessica was living in Reigate with her mother and siblings; while her father had remarried, and lived in Hackney, East London.

Jessica Gilbert had represented England in every major chess competition from the age of 12, and came to prominence when she won the Women’s World Amateur Chess Championship in 1999. Such was her achievement, she was even mentioned in a parliamentary debate by the then sports minister, Tony Banks, who said: "We are extremely proud of what Jessie Gilbert has achieved for chess and for this country."

She also gained the Woman FIDE Master title from the game's governing body, FIDE. Gilbert had won a place at Oxford University to study medicine from September 2005, but decided to take a gap year in order to spend time focused solely on chess. In the space of only a few months in early 2006, Gilbert achieved three norms in major chess tournaments.

On the night of July 26, 2006, she fell from the eighth floor of the Hotel Labe, in Pardubice, Czech Republic, where she was playing at the Czech Open.
Some of her acquaintances came forward to claim that Jessica was a sleepwalker, and that she could have fallen to her death through the window, which would have been left open due to the hot weather in Europe at the time. But the authorities and the Czech Open organizer Jiri Petruzalek pointed to suicide as the cause. Jessica was said to be taking anti-depressants, and it was later revealed that she had a history of self-harm and had tried suicide previously using paracetamol tablets. On the evening of her death, it was reported she had consumed beer and vodka from the room's minibar. Jessica also shared the room with her 14-year-old friend and fellow chess-player. Her friend got up to visit the bathroom sometime in the early morning. When she returned, Jessica was missing, and she assumed that she had gone for a walk.

Two days following her death, it emerged that her father, Ian Gilbert, had been charged with seven counts of rape and two of indecent assault. The charges were said to relate to more than one victim. British police would not name the alleged victims, but confirmed that one of them was dead. On 29 July 2006, the British press began to name Jessica Gilbert as one of the victims. Mr Gilbert had at the time of the charge to enter a plea. If he were to plead not guilty, it would have raised the prospect of Jessica having to give evidence against her father, and being cross-examined by his barrister. Mr Gilbert was released on bail, pending his case starting at Guildford Crown Court on 21 August 2006. On 31 July 2006, the Crown Prosecution Service said that they would be reviewing the case in the light of the media coverage of Jessica Gilbert's death.

When the trial started, he entered a plea of not guilty. On 7 November 2006 the prosecution played a tape recording of Jessica in interview with Surrey police. She told officers of the first attack by her father when she was eight: “I was asleep and he sat on my bed and I woke up. He didn’t say anything. I did not scream or anything because he had his hand over my mouth and I was really scared.” She said there were at least another eight such attacks over the next five years. She also told the officers her father tried to strangle her by wrapping a computer lead around her neck, and would walk into the bathroom at their home in Woldingham, while she was having a shower.
On December 14, 2006, Mr Gilbert was found not guilty of all charges against him. He speculated that Jessie had accused him as the means of revenge after some arguments they had. Two days later it was reported that Angela Gilbert had been arrested on suspicion of threatening to kill her ex-husband, although she was later released and the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to proceed with the case.

To reply belatedly to some of the reaction to my comments:

I did not, as a child of 8-18, regard chess as an 'intellectual stepping stone': not sure whether my parents did or not. I enjoyed it for what it was, but never got on terms with the openings. I could not remember isolated facts, and could not see a pattern to the opening lines.
However, looking back, I guess playing chess was a positive thing, especially as I didn't overdo it. But, as stated above, I think I'm now separated from chess by a Grand Canyon called the first 15 moves.
All game domains set their particular challenges, and many real-world scenarios can be modelled in a 'game domain'. So I think it is valid to ask if there is a game domain based on chess - but simpler and without the back-history of ECO/Chessbase - which has generic benefits for young people.
I agree with the person who said there are benefits re data-mining large databases of complex information - but at least one is not being asked to remember that database.


I am always amazed when I hear non-players (or indeed players) bringing out this nonsense about how they can't play because they know nothing about openings.

I mean, really, it's just rubbish, isn't it? You sit down and play 1 Nf3. Your next move is 2 g3. And you just carry on. You can play c4, d4, d3 and e4, b3, c3/a3/b4; it doesn't matter. Nothing will happen and in ten moves or so there'll be a chess game. And more or less the same with Black.

The question is why people let themselves believe this sort of stuff.

rdh's comment on playing the opening reminds me of something I heard the late IM Michael Valvo say: a master's goal in the opening is simply to have a playable position going into the middle game.

One thing that bothers me is beginning kids playing 1. Nf3 or 1. c4 or the Modern Defense as black. Somehow, I think that during their formative years, kids should be playing open, tactical, early Alekhine/Paul Keres double king-pawn stuff.

Dek Stump's comment is factually incorrect in several ways. Of the eight memebers of the Murrow team in the book, three were born in the former Soviet Union: Alex, Sal, and Ilya. The other five: Shawn (the long-time number 3), Dalphe, Willy, Oscar, and Nile (who was probably number 4 last year) were my former students at IS 318. It's unfair to say they stagnated, chesswise, at Murrow. Oscar is rated 1900 or so but much stronger (at least I think so because he usually beats me). Shawn is almost 2100 now; the last two times I saw him he was making money playing blitz in the skittles room at Foxwoods and winning the Bruce Bowyer Memorial Tournament.
I found the article in Slate magazine perceptive and smart. It is drawn not just from The Kings of New York, but also from a front page New York Times article about Shawn:

All of it is interesting, and great reading. My only criticism is that stories like these are often and maybe unavoidably flawed by the way people get turned into characters.
Elizabeth Vicary


Any idea why the Benoni is so hard for white and black, referring of course to Gausdal 2007?

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