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Phil-osophically Speaking - January 7, 2011

The Chess Effect

My curiosity was piqued when I read that the game of chess is part of the school curriculum in 30 countries and that New Jersey had, some years back, made it part of their elementary school program. This is not an extracurricular activity, mind you, but a required course. Other states have already implemented chess as part of the curriculum or are contemplating it. Its proponents argue that chess should be part of the scholastic fabric because it improves both critical thinking and problem-solving skills

My own experience with the “Queen of all games” had been long and absorbing. Teaching myself the fundamentals at around age 8, I played sporadically until the seventh grade when I joined the school’s informal chess club. Lording over this cerebral environment was a chubby, moon-faced 12-year-old kid named Christopher. He was, they said, ‘a genius.’ A possessor of an intellect that raced so far ahead of his emotional maturity that even an imagined slight could set off his hair-trigger temper which, I was told, was a terrible thing to behold.

Since I had never met a genius, it all sounded deliciously intriguing. I decided to befriend him by inviting him to play chess. By this time, I was a pretty fair player for my age and was anxious to see the prodigy at work. Garrulous, but not bombastic, he gave a running commentary about not only the game we were playing but about himself as well. He seemed deeply impressed by his own intelligence. Yes, he was a genius he candidly told me as every IQ test he had ever taken had made abundantly clear. Moreover, he had been aware of his cognitive superiority ever since he was mewing about in his playpen, an intellectual endowment he boasted that also extended to the 64 square chessboard.

He was not at all timorous about parading these certitudes as evidenced by the omnipresent slide ruler clipped onto his belt — a not too subtle advertisement for his stratospheric intelligence. True, he admitted, his emotional equilibrium was a touch off, but this was the price one paid for being so smart so young. And so went the commentary and the game although, I thought, for one whose self-proclaimed cerebral capacity was so prodigious, he did not vanquish me with any great dispatch. Perhaps he was bored or too in love with his oral autobiography to abruptly end the contest.

He was likable enough, in an odd sort of way, and we became friendly. As for his vaunted temper, I saw only episodes of petulant irritation. But one day, while having lunch in the school cafeteria, I heard an infernal racket coming from the serving area. A tall, bearded physical education teacher was on duty that afternoon. The coach, as he was known, had a reputation for heroics at the slightest sign of trouble, usually occurring in the vicinity of the prettiest teachers. The serving area was not visible from the seating area, but I could hear shrieking and the breaking of dishes. It was a situation made for the coach who, like the action figure he was, charged to the sound of the guns as if he were the Caped Crusader. More yelling … a loud shriek … sounds of shattering glass.

A muted pause and then, finally, emerging from the darkened serving area and into the light of an eerily silent cafeteria filled with breathless juveniles was the coach and the chess prodigy. The coach had my pudgy friend immobilized in a classic half-nelson and without hurting him, lifted him several inches from the ground, his feet furiously dangling in mid-air, and literally carried him out. All the while, Chris in the bluest, most uncomplimentary language imaginable expressed his heartfelt sentiments about the coach, the cafeteria staff, the faculty, the student body and the human race in general.

It was quite a performance. I could not decide whether I was more impressed with the coach’s half-nelson or my friend’s peculiar economy with the English language. Several periods later, I saw Chris sitting as serene as a Buddhist monk in the rapture of contemplative prayer. He did not seem to have a worry in the world. “Hey Chris,” I probed tentatively, “what the heck happened back there?” “Oh,” he informed me with a nonchalance that characterizes mere trivialities, “A couple of miscreants cut the food line and being famished I freaked out.” Nothing to be alarmed about, he assured me, “prodigies are like that.”

Two years later, Brooklyn’s Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky for the World Championship. It was thrilling to see an American finally defeat the Soviets who had dominated the game for decades. The notoriously temperamental Fischer represented rugged, American individualism defeating the faceless, bureaucratic Soviet machine. The match was televised and people gathered around their TV sets as if it were the Super Bowl. It was the Golden Age of Chess, fleeting as it was, and Fischer’s face appeared on the cover of all the major magazines and was a highly sought after guest on the talk shows.

Chess had taken the country by storm and there was not a chess book to be had in the libraries. Doctors, lawyers and celebrities were paying top dollar for chess lessons. Chess, as one national master had explained, had been essentially sexless. Now chess groupies were studying the chess ratings and going to tournaments seducing the most ascetic grandmasters. They all wanted Fischer, he wryly remarked.

But Fischer was no good will ambassador. His marked idiosyncrasies soon turned frighteningly malevolent. Gripped by paranoia and seething hatred he became a recluse denouncing America, a rabid Holocaust denier who, despite being Jewish himself, believed Jews were plotting to take over the world and proudly proclaimed Adolph Hitler a great man. It was disturbing to see someone so brilliant (180 IQ) turn into a brain-dead creep. With Fischer’s fall from grace, professional chess crawled back into the subculture from which it emerged.

Since then, whenever I attend the U.S. Chess championships, I feel sadness for some of the top players. Many of them are intellectually gifted, but have menial jobs and even live impoverished existences. They have given up careers, friends and families to play this ancient game. In Russia, a great chess player has status, fame and even wealth. They are supported and subsidized by the state that sees proficiency in chess as part of their lofty cultural heritage. Meanwhile, chess players of substantial skill in America often drive cabs, tutor players with little talent and sometimes become bookies to support their avocation. Prize money in chess tournaments is hardly worth talking about especially after factoring in carfare and lodgings.

After the Cold War, great players from the Soviet Union came here under the naïve notion that America showers her wealth among chess players. But like immigrants of old, Soviet chess players fell for the illusion that the streets were paved in gold. About 20 years ago, I encountered Roman Dzindzachasvili sitting at a chessboard during a tournament at the Holiday Inn in Rockville Centre. With his bear-like physique and shock of unruly black hair, the unshaven, middle-aged Russian looked more like a wrestler than a chess player. But his prowess on the chessboard was as formidable as his name and was once one of the 10 best chess players in the world

Yet, he had to scrap together some change hustling chess games to commute from his present residence, Washington Square Park in Manhattan, where he slept on a green bench using the morning’s coffee-stained newspaper as a blanket to come to the tournament. It was depressing. There is an addictive quality about the inscrutable mysteries of this fascinating game, and while I could never have played at such a high level, I had to force myself to give it up so I could turn my attention to more productive pursuits.

Can studying chess, however, translate into academic aptitude? To a degree, perhaps, although students who become too absorbed may find it as much a distraction as it is an aid. In the 1990s, there was something called the Mozart effect that maintained that if a child listened to music by the great composer it raised their intelligence. The Governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, was so convinced of the Mozart effect that he proposed a budget to provide every child with a CD of classical music. I doubt if most educators would put much credence in the theory today although beautiful music can certainly elevate the human spirit.

There exists a foolish obsession among parents about turning their progeny into geniuses as evidenced by special, super-charged nurseries to which ambitious and affluent parents are enrolling their children. Childhood is a time to be children, not laboratory experiments. Rather than manufacturing regimens to create a colony of geniuses, parents should be more concerned about raising children and not superstars.

You know the old story about geniuses - they can do everything but make a living. So let us remember that the intellect is but one element of a human being. Children also have hearts and souls that serve as the most humanizing aspects of our nature. There is a time for study, yes, but we also need to make time to love, laugh and live if we are to escape the aridity of the world and find the joy that exists about us and that which lives within us.