Why do people play chess again?

According to Donner: “The whole point of the game [is] to prevent an artistic performance.” The former world champion Garry Kasparov makes the same point. “The highest art of the chess player,” he says, “lies in not allowing your opponent to show you what he can do.” Always the other player is there trying to wreck your masterpiece. Chess, Donner insists, is a struggle, a fight to the death. “When one of the two players has imposed his will on the other and can at last begin to be freely creative, the game is over. That is the moment when, among masters, the opponent resigns. That is why chess is not art. No, chess cannot be compared with anything. Many things can be compared with chess, but chess is only chess.”

That is Stephen Moss at The Guardian.  Along related lines, I very much enjoyed Daniel Gormally’s Insanity, Passion, and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World.  It’s one of my favorite books of the year so far, but it’s so miserable I can’t recommend it to anyone.  It’s a book about chess, and it doesn’t even focus on the great players.  It’s about the players who are good enough to make a living — ever so barely — but not do any better.  It serves up sentences such as:

Surely the money in chess is so bad that this can’t be all you do for a living?  But in fact in my experience, the majority of chess players rated over 2400 tend to just do chess.  If not playing, then something related to it, like coaching or DVDs.  That’s because we’re lazy, so making the monumental effort of a complete change in career is just too frightening a prospect.  So we stick with chess, even though the pay tends to be lousy, because most of our friends and contacts are chess players.  Our life is chess.  As a rough estimate, I would say there are as many 2600 players making less than £20,000 a year.


Stability. I had this conversation with German number one Arkadij Naidisch at a blitz tournament in Scotland about a year ago. (there I go, name-dropping again.)  He suggested that a lot of people don’t achieve their goals because they just aren’t stable enough.  They’ll have a fantastic result somewhere, but then that’ll be let down by a terrible tournament somewhere else.

…The problem is it’s hard to break out of the habits of a lifetime.  Many times at home I’ve said to myself while sitting around depressed about my future and where my chess is going, “tomorrow will be different.  I’ll get up and study six-eight hours studying chess.”  But it never happens.

Overall biography and autobiography are far too specialized in the lives of the famous and successful.


The same could be said of many sports, including those where the top players are millionaires. Consider someone in the third league of football/soccer in Europe, or those tennis players who get eliminated in the first round of major tournaments every time.

Sure, biography focuses on the famous and successful. But that is just saying what readers do, what people do.

Here's a question I have for Tyler or others who know about the world of professional chess. Wikipedia says, and the studies cited look solid to me, that nootropics, cognitive enhancers, undisputedly improve performance. But they don't seem to be used very often in chess, nothing like the way performance enhancing drugs are used in athletics. Is it merely that the relative advantage is less? Or are they being used frequently but we don't know about it?

Nootropics on Wikipedia states they are of unproven merit, though caffeine is classified as a nootropic, and chess players do like to drink coffee during matches. The world #1, GM Magnus Carlsen, drinks orange juice while he plays (a sugary drink that's not that healthy btw). There was a scandal with a junior GM Kata Kamsky and orange juice, his pugilist combative father claimed his opponent --see more here on OJ: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2013/02/not-so-simply-orange-juice.html#comments - was trying to poison his son's OJ. Kamsky later became a medical doctor, but then--proving chess is addictive--when back to playing in pro chess matches after his MD degree (I'm pretty sure he practices medicine however, and is not a pro chess player). Kamsky is still in the top 100, and even made a few years ago the top 50. GM https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Sadler is another who dropped out of chess to become a more lucrative IT professional, but when he reentered chess years later, just for fun, found he was still in the top 100 in strength.

There have been precious few independent, solid studies of the vast majority of purported nootropics. It appears to me that most of theperceived effects are placebo. Most of the people raving about nootropics are true believers, and most of the 'evidence' of efficacy is anecdotal.

I'm glad TC enjoyed the book, as I recommended to him, hehe.

Gormally is (in)famous for getting into a scrape with the top five player in the world over at least a decade now, Armenian superstar (and treated as such in Armenia, which, like Azerbaijan, treats chess like a state sponsored sport) over a beautiful model and female chess master named Arianne Caoili, who I think is now Aronian's wife, and is of mixed race (which makes her so hot, I think her dad is Australian and her mom Filipino), no kids yet, and the fight was broken up by none other than Syrian?-American chess media superstar GM Yasser Seirawan who has a belt in karate. At the time I think Gormally was living with his mother (a common trend in expensive London). Gormally expressed remorse over the incident, which was fueled by jealousy and probably I imagine some alcohol.

"Stability. I had this conversation with German number one Arkadij Naidisch at a blitz tournament in Scotland about a year ago. (there I go, name-dropping again.) " - GM Naidisch was Germany's #1 for a while, but, like Italian-American and world #2 or #3 GM Fabiano Caruana, he switched allegiance, for money, to Azerbaijan, since German corporate sponsors were lacking (sad but true, I have tried and failed to get leading Philippine companies to sponsor chess, even when they claim to be a 'smart company' in their adverts; only Senator and boxing champion Manny Pacquiano sponsors chess in PH, though he favors --ugh!--Fischer Random Chess (Chess 960).

So now you know the inside story. I could tell you more but I'd have to drop even more obscure names.

GM Lev Aronian (http://2700chess.com/players/aronian) was WGM Arianne Caoili's admirer and/or boyfriend when GM Gormally fought with him.

Another GM who switched country allegiance is Philippine superstar GM Wesley So (http://2700chess.com/players/so) who now plays for the USA due to the largess of mega-chess sponsor Rex Sinquefield, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rex_Sinquefield) who made his 100s of millions in finance and now runs the St. Louis Chess Club. So is a Chinese name, so So's a Chinese-Filipino, very common, even my hot 20-something gf has Chinese roots. I recommend So find a white gf so he can have mixed-race kids, which would be very awesome and likely they would be exceptional (variance increases with mixed race offspring: they either become master criminals or master good-people, no in-between). Too Much Information? I don't think so, I could go on.

Are you on acid?
Serious question.

The smart money says meth. Serious answer.

I really enjoy this 'miserable' kind of book - there are so many sports and hobbies and competitive endeavours where a great mass of people struggle to eke out a living doing what they love. Does anyone have any further recommendations for reading of this kind other than the book TC recommended? For my own part, I can vouch that the strength sports community (Powerlifting, Bodybuilding, Strongman, Highland Games etc.) are full of this kind of thing. I wonder if they aren't happier than the average person though, given that they get to spend the majority of their time doing what they love.

There are numerous chess biographies, just go to Amazon.com and search "chess biography" Some are quite obscure, pricey, and self-published. A 'feel-good' mainstream book might be Waitzkin's "Searching for Bobby Fischer", or "The Queen of Katwe" by T. Crothers, and a darker book might be John Healy's "The Grass Arena". But I think TC's recommendation is probably the best.

For my own part, I can vouch that the strength sports community (Powerlifting, Bodybuilding, Strongman, Highland Games etc.) are full of this kind of thing. I wonder if they aren’t happier than the average person though, given that they get to spend the majority of their time doing what they love.

You ain't kidding. If you're not thinking of Sam Fussell's Muscle, well, you should be. And if you are, check out this 2014 interview with him: http://www.drmichaeljoyner.com/sam-fussell-an-interview-with-the-author-of-muscle/
(he's not competing anymore, but it's a tremendously interesting interview.).

Anyway, You Might Also Like:
Assault on Lake Casitas, about rowing. (Not exactly "miserable" throughout, but certainly in parts.).
Fightville, an MMA documentary.
North Dallas Forty--I haven't seen the movie, but the book is a pretty good entry in this genre.
Thom Jones' lightly-fictionalized boxing short stories (really, most of the rest are worth a read too, but they're not about journeyman athletes, etc.).

MR is "blessed" with its own non-stop chess biography thanks to the pitiable lonliness of Ray Lopez. From the two or three of his posts I read accidentally each month it seems to be a sport that has less to recommend it than meth as a hobby. Similar amount of hallucinations though.

@SH - wait, aren't you the bigot and Trump supporter? So I win. Check and mate, mate.

People play chess because they are not sociable enough to play bridge?

My grandmother was a sociable woman, THE chess player in her social circle, and far too competitive about it. An outlier in every way, I think.

The Guardian article was lame, a Class B player about 1738 Elo = 136 BCF muses: "After winning the Felce I felt wonderful, but there was still part of me that asked why I was doing this. Was chess really a pursuit worth wasting your life for? Was it a boon or a curse? ...Chess was supposed to change all that – to make me a more driven, purposeful individual, and teach me the life lessons espoused by Kasparov. Some hope! " which is clearly written for the non-chess playing audience, then concludes hopefully with "As the end of my journey approached, I had come to believe that chess, whatever Franklin and his followers might have thought, was not a moral good or a guide to living. Like much of art, which it resembled without being able to embody, it was an assault on bourgeois convention, promoting play above “real” life and engaging in conflicts that mimic the world beyond the board, while at the same time mocking it. Why shouldn’t grown men and women play for a living, or, in the case of many hopelessly impoverished chess professionals, a pseudo-living? Chess might not make you a better person, but it could make you a freer one." Writing for an audience, giving them what they expect.

Actually chess is like computer programming or video gaming, addictive, and, like in coding, not necessarily having any societal benefits (yes, you read that right, most coders are redundant these days, as uber-computer programmers do the bulk of the interesting work and the rest just dot the i's and cross the ti's, and lots of coding is repetitive code maintenance or porting from one system to another that's not that satisfying, I can easily see a day when bots do this routine work).

Sounds like the postdoc lifestyle. Miserable indeed.

It's remarkable that anyone volunteers for the postdoc lifestyle, or even the postgrad. I suppose it's for people who can't get a decent job with just a first degree. Or the odd obsessive.

I suspect it's in the line "making the monumental effort of a complete change in career is just too frightening a prospect", for postgrads and chess players alike.

"'The highest art of the chess player,' he says, 'lies in not allowing your opponent to show you what he can do.'"
So does a goalkeeper. Make no mistake, chess, like soccer, is war by other means.

"No, chess cannot be compared with anything." Pretentious goof.

My senior year in college, our living arrangements fell through at the last minute, and I had to scramble, ending up sharing a dump with two grad students above a Chinese place across from Harold's Chicken on 53rd Street.

One guy was 35 years old, worked at the computer lab, still fiddling with his dissertation, chess aficionado. Depressing combination. Not sure if the dates add up, but maybe it was Ray Lopez.

Nobody reads books, but they do watch Disney movies:


My hobbies fall into two groups.

Group 1 is hobbies where I know I will never be particularly good. I am able to enjoy these hobbies just for the fun of the activity and the fun of hanging out with other people who are in the hobby with me. Outcome doesn't matter.

Group 2 is hobbies where I know I am good enough to compete at an elite level. Ultimately I enjoy these hobbies only when I win: otherwise, I am mostly upset that I didn't win even though I could have won had I done something different or put more work into it.

The reason for any game not involving gambling/money is first to see if you can acquire skills enough to master it and then to see if you can beat others and prop up your ego.

Have you ever had a friend. I don't ask sarcastically I just don't know how anyone who has had a friend they enjoy hanging out with could think this way. I generally always get beat in golf by my friends and I won't ever master the game and yet it's enjoyable every time I play.

Very curious. My father managed to be both gragarious and competitive at the same time. Not too unusual among the men in his social circle. Different generation, perhaps.

"That is why chess is not art. No, chess cannot be compared with anything. Many things can be compared with chess, but chess is only chess.”

Chess is art. It is an adversarial traversal of a unfathomably large N-tree, a game-theoretic dance, interactive dialectic, finessed application of weaponized heuristics. But then I think almost everything is art so maybe I've diluted my personal definition beyond all sensible meaning.

No, chess cannot be compared with anything. Many things can be compared with chess, but chess is only chess.

Does this even mean anything? I thought comparing A to B automatically implied comparing B to A. Why is "comparing" not reflexive?

Ayn Rand's quote about chess ("intellectual effort devoid of purpose") seems to get it about right.

Mormons have a very broad and democratic collection of biographies of their 19th Century predecessors. This is due to two causes. The first is our belief that family bonds have eternal significance which leads us to seek familiarity with our dead and to leave records that will allow our descendants to know us. The second is that the first Latter-day Saints felt they were eyewitnesses of something important and wanted to leave a testimony of it. Thanks to these factors, it is easy to find research on hundreds of second-tier associates of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and tens of thousands of multi-page biographical essays on nobodies written either first-hand by the nobodies themselves or by their children. These are of most interest to direct descendants of these people, so today most of those 19th Century Mormons are each known in detail to a few percent of present-day Mormons, but we like hearing the stories of others’ kin too.

A few of my favorites:

Noah Rogers and Eda Hollister: He was sent on a mission to Tahiti, learned of Joseph Smith’s murder, returned to find his family fleeing Illinois, and died a month later half-way across Iowa. She carried on leading the family to Utah.

Helena Ericksson and Carl Roseberry: She converted in Malmo, Sweden in 1853, and he did four years later. He died working on a railroad tunnel in Utah, and she lived as a poor widow for two decades in southern Utah and Arizona full of hope in the gospel.

Sarah Alydia Terry: She became a telegraph operator at 15, sent to man a remote station on a ranch in Arizona. The telegraph girls were the original texters. Most of their traffic was just the girls chatting with one another via Morse code up and down the line.

I could rattle off a dozen such, and if you asked another dozen Mormons to chew your ear off doing the same, chances are you would end up hearing about at least 80 distinct individuals. A very good blog that specializes on histories of obscure Mormons of no great importance is www.keepapitchinin.org.

Although there are lots of reasons behind playing chess by people yet, this blog contains the right information about it. This is an informative blog for chess players.

Comments for this post are closed