Friday, November 30, 2007

Chess Amateurism

"Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the groundrules of society. The amateur can afford to lose."
-- 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 Judith [Susan] Polgar, always on the cutting edge, has an academic appointment. And while you can argue that chess scholarships, like athletic scholarships, are a form of "pay for play," I think that having chess in the schools has only reinforced its amateur status. But schools are only one institution.

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....

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

French Defense Lectures 3 and 4

The Chess Coroner has posted notes on FM Steve Stoyko's lectures 3 (java and pgn) and 4 (java and pgn) online. Notes on lectures 1 and 2 were featured previously. Steve will be lecturing again on December 6 at 8 p.m.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

East Brunswick Public Library Chess Club

A burgeoning chess club meets about twice a month on alternate Saturdays and Sundays from 1:30-3:00 p.m. at the East Brunswick Public Library in East Brunswick, NJ. Over 30 kids and their parents and a few adult players were in attendance when I visited recently. Kids ranged in age from 5- to 12-years-old, so I was amazed by the general order and quiet of the scene. But it was the library, after all, and this was chess! Future meetings are as follows:
  • Sunday, December 9
  • Saturday, January 12
  • Sunday, January 20
  • Saturday, February 2
  • Sunday, February 17

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Boston vs. Dallas in USCL Championship Final

boston vs dallas
Dallas beat Miami on Monday night and Boston beat New York last week to set up the widely predicted Boston Blitz vs. Dallas Destiny US Chess League Championship final on Wednesday, November 28, at 8:00 p.m. on ICC. Dallas will have White on Boards 1 and 3. Lineups will be posted soon at the USCL website.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sloan vs. Truong, et al.

Sam Sloan's lawsuit (mentioned here last month) has received its first reply with the preliminary to a motion to dismiss filed by Proskauer Rose LLP on behalf of Truong et al. Other than the failure in parallel construction at the end of the first paragraph, it looks like a pretty solid argument from the defense.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Philidor Clamp

"The Philidor Clamp" after 1.e4 e5
2.Nf3 d6 3.Bc4 f5 4.d3 c6 5.O-O f4!

NM James R. West posted his win over FM Steve Stoyko at the 4-County Open in Mt. Arlington this past weekend, and I liked it enough that I've annotated it.
I have been playing the Philidor myself of late, generally seeking the Antoshin Variation by 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 (4.Qxd4 is similar) 4...Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 and Black has good chances, as Christian Seel demonstrates in his excellent little book The Philidor: A Secret Weapon (Chessgate 2007). Often, however, I have opponents averse to theory playing 3.Bc4!? when I usually respond 3...Be7, hoping to transpose back to Antoshin lines. But I also sometimes play 3...f5! hoping for what I like to call "The Philidor Clamp" that follows 4.d3?! (typical of the theory fearing) 4...c6! 5.O-O?! (practically a blunder) 5...f4! and Black has a winning bind, even though he has only moved pawns. Watch how James West, the Philidor Counter Gambit expert, demonstrates the utter hopelessness of White's position....
You can find the game on West's blog without notes. West also posted some great links today to analysis in Kaissiber #27 (see pages 32, 33, and 34) which offers an even stronger version of the PCG "refutation" that I suggest in my notes, beginning 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4! f5!? 4.exf5!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Paul Hoffman's Attack on Lies in Chess

On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. --Emanuel Lasker

When people have asked me what I like most about chess, I have said that chess is one of the few areas of human knowledge where you can actually arrive at the truth. You may never get to the truth, but at least you know you could. Paul Hoffman, whose book King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game has been drawing well-deserved rave reviews, seems to have a similar interest in the game. But he approaches it from the opposite side of the coin: rather than seeking truth in chess, he seems obsessed with chasing out lies. That is the central theme of his book, which traces his own interest in the game and his obsession with the overly competitive liars who have played it (including his father) with a win-at-all-costs attitude. Hoffman's opinion piece in this weekend's Washington Post, "Winning by Rook or by Crook," gives you some sense of his concerns.

I recommend King's Gambit highly -- one of the best books I've read this year -- and if I had more time I would write a long and glowing review, complete with annotated games (for there are many referenced and described in the book), a lengthy discussion of Claude Bloodgood's 1.g4, and reflections on Hoffman's adventures in Tripoli. Not having the time, though, I thought I'd just post a little webliography devoted to Hoffman, which should give you some idea of his chess qualifications and access to fascinating figures. I also recommend that you check out his excellent website and chess blog, The PH Test ( where you can read an excerpt from the book.

A Selected Paul Hoffman Webliography

Profiles, Reviews and Interviews

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

School Corruption Hurts D.C. Chess Program

In "A Most Wicked Chess Game: The D.C. Schools" (also here), Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher describes how $70,000 raised for a chess program to help struggling kids at the Moten Elementary school in Southeast Washington was stolen by an embezzling business manager. This is a very troubling case of school corruption, which Fisher uses to indict the whole system. Related coverage here:

Sunday, November 11, 2007

"The Center Square" Returns

No, not Paul Lynde--but Glen Hart, whose chess blog "The Center Square" at the Kenilworth Chess Club website had one post in July 2006 before Glen suddenly became an itinerant engineer, working on a number of projects in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Palo Alto that kept him away from New Jersey for an entire year. Now he's back, and back to blogging too (though we had to do some re-engineering to get him up and running again). His first post is about chess in LA, though he claims he was too busy at work to play much out there.... Welcome back, Glen!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Daniel Johnson's "White King and Red Queen"

Daniel Johnson's White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War was Fought on the Chessboard, reviewed quite favorably today by David Edmonds at the Times Online (with an extract) and recently by Sally Feldman ("Check Republics") at New Humanist, is the latest in a long line of culturally and historically informed books on chess, which includes David Shenk's The Immortal Game (reviewed here last year), Paul Hoffman's King's Gambit (which is great and I've been meaning to review it forever), Michael Weinreb's The Kings of New York (also great, with a review half-written), J. C. Hallman's The Chess Artist, and Edmonds and John Eidinow's Bobby Fischer Goes to War. I imagine Johnson's will be a very fine addition to this mushrooming literature, and better (in my view) than Edmonds's own book focused on the Fischer-Spassky match, which seemed satified merely to retell (albeit in excellent detail) the story of the 1972 World Chess Championship, with little in the way of cultural context.
I've referenced Johnson's work here before, and likely some of the current book derives from his excellent essay "Cold War Chess" (also in PDF) in Prospect, which was mentioned here in connection with NM Scott Massey's 2005 lecture on Moscow 1925. He also had one of the earliest reviews of Kasparov's How Life Imitates Chess (see "Garry Kasparov's Deadly Game"), which--like Josh Waitzkin's The Art of Learning, Bruce Pandolfini's Every Move Must Have a Purpose, and Peter Kurzdorfer's The Tao of Chess--analyzes the meanings of the game for the PowerPoint crowd. Though these books are also interesting in their way, I generally prefer my chess analysis to go a little deeper than that, and Johnson's writings show that he has an impressive ability to do just that. I look forward to getting my copy for Holiday reading.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Reviews of "How Life Imitates Chess"

Carl Schreck's "Game Theory" (online today at Moscow Times website) presents a balanced but ultimately very critical review of Kasparov's How Life Imitates Chess, even calling the former champion a "bad businessman," in apparent reference to the failure of "Kasparov Chess Online" (for which Kasparov himself was hardly to blame). I have read reviews both positive (The Wall Street Journal's "It's Your Move") and negative (The Observer's "He was more fun when he was in the pawn squad"). For those seeking to judge for themselves, BusinessWeek features two excerpts from the book: Garry Kasparov's Endgame and Kasparov's Crisis in Seville. I welcome comments from anyone who has read the book.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

FM Steve Stoyko on the French Defense

The Chess Coroner has been doing an excellent job of covering FM Steve Stoyko's lecture series on the French Defense, which continues tonight at the club. Part One dealt with early White deviations, including the Exchange and Advance Variations. Part Two focused on lines where Black plays an early ...dxe4 exchange (as recommended in Andy Soltis's The Fighting French). This seems to make a great companion to Steve's Lasker Defense Repertoire, not to mention his other lectures on the French in the past, as documented in Anti-Tarrasch, French Defense Repertoire: Winawer with 6...Ne7 and 7...O-O, and French Defense, Part Two: Winawer - Petrosian Variation.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Najdorf - Szapiro, Lodz 1928

Robson - Vigorito, Chicago 2007 Najdorf - Szapiro, Lodz 1928
White to play.

Someone sent me the score to the little known gem Najdorf - Szapiro, Lodz 1928, which I will have to add to my collection of Bishop and Rook mates:

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Labate Grand Prix Draws 12 Titled Players

The Chess Coroner reports that GM Sergey Kudrin won the Labate Grand Prix held Sunday at the Westfield Chess Club. There were 38 participants, 12 of whom were titled players.

Monday, November 05, 2007

13-Year-Old Ray Robson Makes IM Norm

Robson - Vigorito, Chicago 2007 Robson - Vigorito, Chicago 2007
White to play.

The first-place finish and first IM norm of 13-year-old Ray Robson at the 6th North American FIDE Invitational in Chicago has led to widespread recognition of the youngster's Fischer-like talent. That recognition is well deserved. Robson played some great games, but none more impressive than his victory over closest tournament rival, IM David Vigorito, which I have annotated. This was probably Robson's most flawless performance in the event and an important contribution to opening theory--suggesting that Black has a bit more work ahead of him in this critical line of the Loewenthal Sicilian.

Those interested in finding out more about the tournament should check out the following articles (though there will likely be more news coverage in the coming week):

Sunday, November 04, 2007

IM David Levy's Robot Fetish

PC World has an article online today titled "A Robot Bride by 2050? Humans will love and marry robots by the mid-21st century, an AI researcher forecasts," reviewing IM David Levy's recent book, Love and Sex with Robots. My first reaction was, "When chess players are also computer geeks, they inevitably play into every stereotype..." My second: "Not that there's anything wrong with that..." My third: "I wonder if Republicans will raise this issue in the next election cycle..." The ad copy for the book includes the following:

Shocking but utterly convincing, Love and Sex with Robots provides insights that are surprisingly relevant to our everyday interactions with technology. This is science brought to life, and Levy makes a compelling and titillating case that the entities we once deemed cold and mechanical will soon become the objects of real companionship and human desire. Anyone reading the book with an open mind will find a wealth of fascinating material on this important new direction of intimate relationships, a direction that, before long, will be regarded as perfectly normal.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Blogshares Chess

Blogshares ChessCheck it out, since it is not likely to last beyond this weekend: The Kenilworthian is ranked #6 among chess blogs at Blogshares: The Fantasy Blog Stock Market. Of course, just as with the regular stock market, these rankings have little connection to real value. Quite a few prominent chess blogs (including The New York Times's Gambit blog) don't even get listed, and the rankings have no relation to the number of visitors each receives (otherwise The Daily Dirt could knock everyone else off the list). But it's nice to see that people are reading, referencing, and linking to my blog sufficiently to gain some standing in my "industry."

Friday, November 02, 2007

Season Ends for NJ Knockouts with Loss to NY

Bonin - Molner, USCL 2007
White to play.

In Round 10 of US Chess League action, the New Jersey Knockouts fell to the New York Knights, putting an end to their season. New York will take the final playoff spot and New Jersey will have to wait until next year. As usual, I have annotated the games online.

Wins by Irina Krush and Jay Bonin on Boards 2 and 3 put New York in the driver's seat early, and despite Joel Benjamin's win on Board 1 there was not much realistic hope of a tied match, though Evan Ju played until the 50 move rule to test his opponent as much as possible in a drawn position. The game of the night was definitely Bonin's stunning victory over Mackenzie Molner with some flashy attacking play (see diagram above).

I guess we will have to root for New York to go all the way...

Other coverage of the final round of the season can be found online:
Though they did not make the playoffs, New Jersey made a good showing for their first season in the league, which predicts good things for the future, especially considering that many of their lower boards are very young.

You can play through the games from the entire season, now concluded, with annotations at our website:
  • Round 1, Tie with Queens Pioneers, 2-2
  • Round 2, Tie with Tennessee Tempo, 2-2
  • Round 3, Tie with Baltimore Kingfishers, 2-2
  • Round 4, Loss to Queens Pioneers, 1.5-2.5
  • Round 5, Win over New York Knights, 2.5-1.5

  • Round 6, Win over Carolina Cobras, 2.5-1.5

  • Round 7, Loss to Philadelphia Inventors, 1.5-2.5

  • Round 8, Tie with Boston Blitz, 2-2

  • Round 9, Tie with Baltimore Kingfishers, 2-2

  • Round 10, Loss to New York Knights, 1.5-2.5