-- Marshall McLuhan's "The Medium is the Message"
I recently discovered an excellent essay by Federico Garcia that has gotten me thinking about the history of chess amateurism and its implications for today. In his paper “Steinitz and the Inception of Modern Chess” (2003/2005), Garcia argues that the break between romantic and modern chess should be understood as marking the difference between amateur and professional play. He begins with a very interesting question: why is it that the Romantics so rarely defended (accepting every offered sacrifice, for instance), most evidently in games like the Evergreen or the Immortal? To this Garcia responds:
To find an answer we must turn back to the social conditions that influenced chess at the time—in fact, the answer is closely related to what has been said about professionalism. The ethics of the amateurism, that ethics which finds so offensive any material, ‘mundane,’ interest, is also the ethics of ‘what matters is competing, not winning.’ A passive defence, or a passive attack for that matter, would be seen as cowardice. If you are attacked, anything other than a counterattack is an offense to chess and to your opponent. It is a matter of fair play not to escape your opponent’s bright combination with fastidious stubbornness (should the occasion arise, look for an even brighter combination!) In Romantic times, “you either won gloriously, or you succumbed to a counterattack and lost gloriously.” At stake, amateur decorum required, was honor—fairly independent from victory or defeat. Now, what is decidedly not independent from the victory or defeat is the accorded prize for the winner. The establishment of chess as a profession, one of whose consequences is an upheaval in priorities (for, no matter what, money, when needed, will always be a higher priority than honor), is probably the major factor at play for the appearance of defensive play and technique. Again, the fact that Steinitz was the first to assume his professionalism helps explain why it should be he the first to develop the defence. For even if Zukertort and the rest were professionals (in the sense that they earned a living through chess), they were—tied to the received scale of values—still ashamed of it, and they would not pursue the ignoble business of not fighting with knightly disinterest.To look back at chess history through the lens of amateurism vs. professionalism is very compelling. Was it his amateurism that made Paul Morphy indulge in a sometimes unsound and tactical mode of play that causes some to devalue many of his games today? Was Mikhail Botvinnik's completely scientific approach to the game simply a natural expression of Soviet-era professionalism, and practically an extension of his work as an engineer? Was Frank Marshall's well-deserved reputation as a tactical swindler due to his occupying a liminal position, having absorbed the romantic ideals of the past but needing to make a living as a professional?
I am less interested in the answers to these historical questions than I am in thinking about the meaning of amateurism today, especially since I think we are entering a new era of chess amateurism, not just among players (since it seems very few U.S. players live as full time chess professionals) but most importantly among those who are promoting, writing about, and generally contributing to the game. This new form of chess amateurism, encouraged by the transformations of the internet, can only have a positive long-term effect on chess. After all, the word "amateur" (Latin root amat = "to love") is related to "amoré," and an amateur is one who participates for the love of it.
I am not sure I can say what effects it has had on the type of game played by the top players. In fact, I'm not even sure that's so important any more. This is the new age of the amateur, and the professionals are not necessarily setting the audience's agenda. For instance, very few try to keep up on "main line" theory anymore -- how could they? The amateur game is getting more interesting for amateurs (certainly more worth looking at and commenting on), and amateur participation in the game more important to its continued evolution.
Chess in the schools (though it certainly provides some professional opportunities for coaches) is one institutional mechanism that feeds the growing tide of amateurism by creating more educated chessplayers. Ann Hulbert develops this point in her essay "Chess Goes to School: How, and why, the game caught on among young Americans" (Slate, May 2, 2007), arguing that "chess has held onto a certain purity, along with its penury" and that's a good thing:
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....Chess is not only entering grade school, it is now becoming important at the college level as well, as described by recent articles: "Rah! Rah! Block That Rook!" in The American (regarding the recruiting practices at UTD and UMBC) and Dylan Loeb McClain's "Good Opening Can Be a Scholarship" (focused on academic chess scholarships at Texas Tech). Even
Chess is increasingly being sustained by amateur involvement on the internet, where Web 2.0 and user paticipation has made it possible for amateurs to play extensively, produce knowledge (chess blogs have proliferated beyond measure, and amateurs even produce quality videos), join online discussion forums, and generally help to sustain chess culture. Some suggest that "the cult of the amateur," by producing lots of free content, is making it more difficult for the professionals to sustain themselves. But personally I think the rise of amateurism simply means that the professionals will have to raise the bar for what they do if they want to distinguish themselves from the rest.
In the short term, more voices online will mean more noise. But in the long term, more voices mean more varied and original ideas. As Sir William Haley argued in an essay on "Amateurism" (American Scholar 1976), in defense of amateur writers:
Mankind has benefited immeasurably from the cross-fertilization of ideas. It is from amateurs, and these include specialists straying out of their own domain, that cross-fertilization comes. Cross-fertilization is a desirable end.As John Watson has argued, cross-fertilization is certainly a desirable end in chess theory. And while amateurs may not always unearth forgotten chess analysis or ideas, they will always enrich our cultural understanding of the game. You no longer have to be a professional chessplayer, after all, to write about chess, and amateur players have contributed a great deal
to cross-fertilizing and reframing our understanding chess in history and politics. Witness the work of Daniel Johnson, Paul Hoffman, and David Shenk, to name just a few amateur players who have nonetheless made very important contributions.
It's a mistake to think that the decline of professional chess in the U.S. suggests that the game itself is in decline. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps the possibility of a lucrative professional U.S. chess circuit built from the top down basically "jumped the shark" in 2005 with the $500,000 HB Global Chess Challenge. There may be more top-down developments (such as the US Chess League's promise to pay top players) that make life a little easier for some professionals. But America's titled players make more from poker these days than they do from chess and that "Tournament for the Rest of Us," the US Amateur Team, will always be much bigger than all of them and more important to the longterm health of chess...and of professionals. It seems to me that to focus on professional players of the game in the U.S. is a mistake until we have built up the amateur base significantly. The places to focus our attention, then, are the amateur institutions: amateur tournaments, the schools, the web, and literature. If you focus on the amateur institutions, you will be very hopeful about the future....