Sunday, October 17, 2010

Chess, Politics, and Character

(To Avoid the personal story and get to the meaty part, scroll down to the bolded sentence)

There are three things I do to concentrate my mind and relax myself. The first is walking; a good walk can help clear the mind better than most things and also help you refresh your thoughts--during college I'd often embark on random, late-night trips around Ashland or take an early morning stroll through the calm city cemetery. The second is playing the piano-- I'm not very good at it, but it relaxes me more than anything else; my fraternity brothers would often find me in our Chapter Room at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning playing some melody on the out-of-tune piano down there, sometimes for hours on end. The third thing I do, which helps me the most to accomplish clarity of mind, is play chess.

One of the things I find most interesting about myself that I like to bring up to others is the fact that I actually learned how to play the game of chess before I learned how to read. Few people seem to care really, but I insist on what an interesting development it is. At three years old I had figured out, thanks to my mother, how to set up the board and basically move the pieces. By the time I was six (and reading!), no one in my family was capable of beating me.

For much of my childhood, chess was my greatest hobby and escape. At La Purisima Concepci├│n School in Lompoc, California, where I did my learning from 2nd-8th grade, I participated in the chess club run by my 4th grade teacher, Armando Zambrano. By the fifth grade I had shifted from participating in the Chess Club to helping lead it; I would assist in teaching new students how to play and help organize the club every Thursday after school. A game built upon hierarchy, Mr. Zambrano set things up for a point that, in order to be able to play him in chess, one had to work his way up through the ranks and eventually beat me. Once I was defeated, the student could play him. Once in four years did that happen; a bright boy who was the child of immigrants from either Korea of Vietnam (his name escapes me), two years my junior in my brother's grade, totally wiped me out on his third attempt. It was humbling; especially as I proceeded to watch him lose within ten minutes to the teacher.

I stayed on with La Purisima for another two years, once I had entered high school. The school principal paid me twenty dollars a month to to spend my Thursday afternoons moderating the club and helping teach chess. At my high school, St. Joe's in Santa Maria, I had wanted to become active in student government, but did not feel I would be successful in a run for a class leadership role. So, I found a loophole; presidents of clubs are on the Student Council, and founders of clubs are their first presidents. I proceeded to create the St. Joseph Knights' Chess Club, working with Mrs. Jetter the library, and managed to get a decent size of twenty-three individuals involved. Apart from the new duties involved in student government, it was also my first experience in things such as group management, diplomacy (with other club presidents and school staff), and fundraising-- by the end of my freshman year I had found donors for chess boards, chess sets, chess clocks, and official club t-shirts. Events management was also a skill; I organized the first chess tournaments on that campus in decades. The first had a decent showing; the second, held in the spring (by which time the size of the club had grown to close to forty students which, in a school of some 600, is a large number) was the talk of the school-- games were held during the lunch period, and everyone decided to crowd into the library to watch the spectacle and cheer on their friends. It got to the point that Mrs. Jetter had to institute all sorts of new rules for the library and permit students to bring in food for the length of the tournament.

It was a fun time. When I moved to Cleveland and began attending Villa Angela-Saint Joseph High School, I founded a chess club there and secured some donors for sets and boards. It had a fairly decent turnout. I also made money over the summer teaching chess as the Mulholland Tennis Club in Beverly Hills, when I spent two days a week teaching kids ages four-fifteen how to play. By this time, though, chess was beginning to become less a facet of my life and more just a mere hobby. It was at this time that interests in my life began to shift, as did my skills. I went from being a mostly bookish type who liked disappearing for hours to read or hiking around the backwoods of the La Purisima Mission, who spent most of his time living in the past as I studied history and planned to one day go into archaeology, to someone much more involved in the present. My time began to get consumed as I acquired leadership positions in other clubs, service groups, and the student government-- I did not have the time that Chess deserved to devote to the game, so I stuck to teaching it. At the end of my junior year of high school I had embarked on a highly ambitious plan to reform the structure of the student body so as to encourage more participation in things and a sense of school spirit (which I found lacking at VASJ), which led to other things that consumed much of my time for the rest of high school; yet I still found time every Wednesday afternoon to play a few games to teach people how to play.

By the time I got to college, I had lost almost all physical contact with chess. There was no university chess team, and as I became more and more focused with things much more actively political, I did not have the time to help usher one as I had at my three previous schools. I became engrossed in the Student Senate and my fraternity, and then took on management of the Campus Box Office. Chess became a mere hobby I indulged in on holidays when I was back among family itching to try see if they could finally best me (on separate Christmases, my Grandpa Jack and Uncle Prescott each engaged in an 8-match marathon against me before giving up, but one summer a few years ago my younger brother finally defeated me for the first time in his life, an promptly "retired" from chess afterwards).

Yet, despite no longer actively playing the game, it has had a profound impact on my view of life and the shape of my character. The game taught me almost everything that I now apply to my interactions with people and the leadership and management positions I've previously held. Patience, foresight, careful thought, how to take control of the circumstances forced upon you, resilience, a sense of justice-- all of it is there on the chess board. One experience I had gave me one of the greatest lessons in my life. I played a game of chess against a former chess expert when I was a teenager; just for fun. It was the most beautiful battle I had ever orchestrated, I was at the top of my game-- and I did not have a notepad to record the damn thing! Despite my spectacular fight, I made a mistake in the endgame and lost my queen, setting things up to allow my opponent to put me on the defensive and narrowly win checkmate. My masterpiece was shattered. However, when my opponent shook my hand and looked me in the eye, he congratulated me on playing one of the best games he had seen and thanked me for the honor. "I won the game, but you played it better." It dawned on me then that, while the goal is important, it is not everything-- for many people who view chess as more than just a mere game, how you attain the goal is usually much more fascinating and important than the goal itself.

And that is chess, the game of law and intellect-- raw human mind against human mind. Naturally, then, it is no surprise that this ancient game of kings is often a place where egos clash, politics is fought, and honor is at stake. At no time was this more prevalent than when American chess w├╝nderkind Bobby Fischer, merely a boy, went to fight in the Cold War against Soviet Grandmaster Boris Spassky in 1972. The Russians are obsessed with chess, and learning chess is often part of the basic school curriculum--for Americans, this was the first time the public had actually become enthralled by the sport. So important was Fischer vs Spassky that, at one point, Presidential Adviser Henry Kissinger (an avid chess player himself) had to personally intervene to convince a temperamental, demanding Bobby Fischer to play Spassky. The match gripped the world and sent Americans cheering when Fischer defeated his Soviet counterpart. The only thing that spoiled the grandeur of it all was Fischer's ego-- though, ego and insanity are common traits among those who excel the most at chess.

Getting to the reason I wrote this essay, the politics of Chess is still alive and kicking today. I would like to draw attention to this recent article in TIME Magazine on a current feud in the world in chess that involves old West vs East divisions, Kremlin interference, men with guns escorting a chess club leader from his office, and talk of UFOs.

You see, the world's two great chess players are Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. The latter has been making headlines over the past few years not for his chess, but rather for his political leadership in fighting for civil rights and democratic reform in Russia, and frequently being jailed by the henchmen of Russian boss Vladmir Putin (Putin has declared Kasparov to be an enemy of the state and banned him from being able to run for any office). FIDE, the international body governing chess that organizes international tournaments, has been led for the past several years by a man named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a Putin loyalist and puppet president of one of Russia's minor republics. He frequently likes to explain to people how he was once abducted by aliens. That's a different matter, though.

The Kremlin had promised to deliver Ilyumzhinov another term as president of FIDE, but then Karpov and Kasparov decided to lead a coup in order to get Karpov voted in as president. The Russian Chess Federation, in a revolutionary show, elected Karpov as their official candidate for FIDE, cheering themselves on excitingly in their decision. But, this excitement was short-lived as the chairman of the federation's supervisory board, a Putin loyalist, declared the vote invalid. Men in black suits with guns arrived at the main Russian Chess House and arrested the leader of the Russian Chess Federation, accusing him of corruption and mismanaging funds. In spite of this, Kasparov went around the world, managing to win the support of the chess federations of North America and Western Europe. At the end of the day, though, the Kremlin won out, with Ilyumzhinov winning the FIDE presidency 95-55 votes, mostly due to the help of small nations like Zimbabwe. A Putin-backed guy was just unanimously voted in as the new president of the RCF, in a quiet ceremony. One old Russian chess master said of the vote, "It was like a meeting of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Everyone raised their hands and hailed our new dear leader." Checkmate, Kremlin.

Oh, the politics of chess. It is unfortunate that Putin's heavy-handedness stretches even into this realm, and I wish Kasparov luck in his principled stand against Tsar Putin. Even if he did not achieve checkmate, he is playing a better game.

As a postscript, I had decided not to renew my membership in the United States Chess Federation when I was thirteen years old due to a disagreement in a ruling at a tournament I participated in and a disillusionment with Bobby Fischer, who was proving to be even more and more crazy with his anti-American, anti-Semitic remarks (my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor). I was pleased when the USCF revoked his titles, but otherwise remained removed from their affairs. I have not participated in an official tournament since then. I think I want to get involved once more into this interesting world of politics, justice, and intellect. I renewed my membership last week, looked up the abysmal score that the final tournament I played in left me at, and decided to, next year, take a swing at it once more. I can learn so much more about the good life from a chessboard than I can from a textbook.

1 comment:

  1. I think you have an inspiring and interesting story to tell to others from learning it yourself to sharing it to people around. It's a great accomplishment indeed to be teaching the game you learn to love and it's even more fulfilling if they win in tournaments. The government should see chess as a great educational tool and eventually introduce it into the school curriculum.

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